All the letter must do is:
- Give a very brief 1-sentence summary of the book and your purpose in writing it
- A somewhat longer, 1-2 paragraph, introduction to the book. (Not a full-scale plot summary, that’s for the synopsis).
- A brief introduction to you.
- Not be badly written.
The 1 sentence summary
- You need to say why you’re writing. (You’re seeking representation, right? So say so.)
- You need to give the title of your book, either underlined or (better) in italics, please.
- You need to give the word count of your book, rounded to the nearest 5,000 words.
- You need to give the approximate genre or territory of your book.
If you do those things, the agent can instantly understand what you want and what you’re offering. You will also, by the way, prove yourself to be a swift, professional writer.
The 1-2 paragraph introduction to the book
First, it’s important to say what this is not.
You are not writing a back-of-book blurb. But nor are you writing a detailed outline of your story. (That’ll come in the form of your synopsis .)
What you are doing is explaining what your book is and why a reader will feel compelled to read it.
That ‘what’ element will typically be a matter of presenting some facts. You need to give some more information about your settings, your premise, your characters and so on. You don’t need to be as salesy as a cover blurb, and you don’t need to be as dry as a synopsis. It’s almost as though you were chatting to your best friend and telling her about the book you’ve just been reading.
The ‘why’ element is equally crucial. Here, you are conveying something about emotions. What is a reader going to feel as they read the book? What kind of atmosphere will they inhabit? What kind of emotional payoff or challenge is likely?
A brief introduction to you, the author
Luckily, agents or publishers don’t care too much about you. Nor should they. They should care about the book, and only the book. That’s a fine, honest, meritocratic approach. May the best book win!
That said, agents are obviously curious about the person behind the manuscript. So tell them something about yourself. It’s fine to be human here, rather than resume-style formal. It’s also OK to be quite brief. For example:
“I am a 41-year-old mother, with three children, two dogs, one husband, and the finest vegetable garden in the southwest.”
Why you wrote the book
If there is a real connection between who you are (a shrimp fisher, let’s say) and the book you’ve written (something to do with the sea and fishing) then it’s worth another sentence or two to tease that out a bit.
But don’t feel compelled to do that. In my case, I wrote a crime novel, just because I wanted to write one. I’m not a cop or ex-cop. I have no forensics expertise. I have no legal expertise. Or anything else relevant. And that doesn’t matter, of course – what matters is the quality of the book.
So if you have something good to say, say it. If you have nothing to say, then say nothing and don’t worry about it.
Your previous writing history
If you have some real background as a writer, then do say so. For example, you might have written a textbook or similar on a topic relevant to your own professional area. Or you might have won or been shortlisted for a major short story prize. Or perhaps you work as a journalist or copywriter. Or something similar.
If anything like that is the case, then do say so.
But if it’s not – don’t worry! We’ve seen a lot of agent query letters that say things like “I haven’t had much writing experience, but my English teacher always used to say that I would be a writer one day . . .” And, you know what? It just sounds feeble. So don’t say it.
Agents know that most slushpile submissions will be by complete newbie authors. And that’s fine. JK Rowling was a newbie once . . .
Writing a series?
If you are writing a series, then you should say so, much as I did in that sample letter above. Agents will like the fact that you recognise the series potential of your work and that you are committed to taking the steps needed to develop it.
What you don’t want to do, is sound overly rigid or arrogant. (“I have completed the first four novels in my Lords of the Silver Sword series, and have got complete chapter outlines for the next 11 titles. I am looking for a publisher who will commit fully to the series.” — if you write something like that, agents are likely to reject you out of hand.)
How long should your query letter be?
Your overall letter should not run to more than a page. (Except that non-fiction and literary authors can give themselves maybe a page and a half). And that’s it.