How to Build a Good Query Letter

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Cover letters and query letters have more in common than you think.

As any writer seeking traditional publication knows, query letters can be a tricky thing. They are just as personal—and just as difficult—to write as a cover letter when applying for a job, but this time you’re doing it to get your work in front of a much larger audience, and with that comes more scrutiny. While query letters should certainly be tailored toward your audience (you wouldn’t write the same way about a mystery/thriller as you would about a historical nonfiction, for example), there are certain principles you should follow to help build the strength of your query.

Do Your Research

What made you want to submit your book to this press? There should always be a reason: you liked a previous book they published, and your book is similar in theme; they’re looking for a specific genre, and your book fits that; or they’ve been making strong statements on social media, and you think your book fits in with that persona. Whatever it is, you should have a reason, and you should make that clear in your query letter. You have to give the publisher a reason to care about your book, and showing them why you care about them helps establish that connection.

Position Your Book

Where does your book fit within the market, within the publisher, or within existing narratives? All of these can be solved by using comparative titles (frequently shortened to “comp titles”). Positioning your book as a “Title X meets Title Y”—for example, the post-apocalyptic society of The Walking Dead told with the comedic voice of Terry Pratchett—can very quickly convey what kind of readers will be looking for your book and also what the main themes or overarching elements are; the important part is how they intersect.

As an addendum to that, make sure that your comp titles are realistic. Using Harry Potter or The Hunger Games is not helpful, even if it is the closest related title. While it may convey what type of characters you have or the environment your book is set in, those books are cultural phenomena, which makes it unrealistic to expect the same kind of results—and thus difficult for publishers to picture a real marketing strategy for.

Get to the Heart of Your Story

Don’t include just a summary of the book’s big plot points. Pick the most important theme or storyline and focus your pitch on that, even if it ignores some of your other major characters. You want to convey three things during your pitch: the setup or background of the story, the conflict, and what the conflict inspires in the main character. If you are trying to include too many storylines, it can start to blur that focus.

In the end, a query letter should make as many arguments as possible to show why your book is a good fit for a publisher. Each paragraph should support that clearly and succinctly, and while there is no one “right” way to present your argument, following these three suggestions will give that support a solid foundation to build upon.

―Alyssa Schaffer

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About Ex Libris Editing

Editorial services catering to the diverse creative communities of the West Coast and beyond.
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