The path to publishing your novel: a step-by-step guide to the publication process for first-time authors
Step 4: How to craft a winning query letter
The world of publishing can seem confusing and exclusive to emerging authors. It’s filled with bewildering terminology and an overwhelming set of rules that you’re just expected to know, on pain of instant rejection.
But it doesn’t have to be intimidating. In this article series, I’m going through some of the key steps involved in navigating the publishing process and discussing tips and know-how to help you give yourself the best chance of success. In the previous couple of posts, we looked at the pros and cons of traditional publishing versus self-publishing, how to make sure your manuscript is looking its very best before sending it out into the world, and how to build a submission list of agents and publishers to send it out to.
Now it’s time to start putting that submission together. And the first step is your query letter.
Don't fear the cover letter (but don't ignore it either)
There’s no real way to know the order that an agent or publisher will go through your submission. I’ve spoken to agents who swear they don’t even read the query letter (they were quickly shouted down by about half a dozen other agents in the vicinity, though, so take that with a pinch of salt). While it’s true that no emerging novelist is going to get an agent on the strength of their cover letter alone, it’s absolutely true that your cover letter can make or break your chances.
A compelling query letter is your chance to make a memorable first impression
This letter is your calling card. It’s (likely) the first encounter the agent or publisher will have with the words you write, so these words matter. A well-crafted query letter is your opportunity to showcase your writing skills, pitch your story idea, and convince agents and publishers that your novel deserves their attention. With so much at stake, this is not something you want to rush.
The bottom line is that agents and publishers receive countless submissions every day, and they simply don't have the time to read every manuscript that comes their way. This is where a well-written query letter becomes invaluable: it serves as a sales pitch for your novel. A compelling query letter doesn’t just showcase your ability to form coherent, well-punctuated and compelling sentences — it also demonstrates your professionalism and market awareness. This is your chance to make a memorable first impression and stand out from the thousands of other writers vying for attention.
Don’t panic, though. An effective query letter breaks down into several key elements, and once you know what they are — with a bit of research, planning and wordsmithing — you can make each of them work for you.
A note on tone…
When it comes to approaching a literary agent, don’t let the creative aspect of the industry close your eyes to the fact that what you’re proposing is a professional relationship between an author and the person you’re entrusting to find a publisher for your book. The operative word here is “professional.”
Agents are industry professionals. They appreciate writers who respect their time, follow submission guidelines, and understand that this is a business arrangement first and foremost. Your query doesn’t have to be dry, but it should demonstrate your professionalism. With that in mind, there are a couple of guidelines to remember.
Before submitting your query letter, carefully review the agent's website or submission guidelines to ensure you are following their preferred method of contact. Some agents prefer email submissions, while others may have an online submission form. Pay attention to any specific instructions or requirements they may have, such as including a synopsis or sample chapters. This varies from agency to agency and sometimes even varies between agents in the same firm. Generally speaking, you’re probably looking at a cover letter, first three chapters and a one-page synopsis but — and I can’t stress this enough — it’s never safe to assume this. Always check and double check before submitting.
Take the time to research each agent's background and interests, and tailor your letter accordingly.
When addressing the agent, be sure to use their preferred name and follow a formal tone. Avoid being overly familiar or casual in your communication. Remember, you are presenting yourself as a professional writer, and your query letter should reflect that.
It's also important to personalise your query letter for each agent you approach. Generic, one-size-fits-all letters are absolutely not going to make any headway with agents who receive numerous submissions daily — you’re going to end up on the REJECT pile before you can say “Dear Sir or Madam…” Take the time to research each agent's background and interests, and tailor your letter accordingly. This personal touch shows that you have done your homework and that you genuinely believe the agent is a good fit for your novel.
Essential components of a query letter
A well-crafted query letter consists of several essential components that work together to effectively pitch your novel. These include:
The introduction of your query letter should be concise and engaging. Start by addressing the agent directly and briefly introduce yourself and your novel. Just as your novel needs to get the reader’s attention from the get-go, so your cover letter should give the agent a reason to read on. There’s no one way to do this, and we’ll look at some possibilities a bit later in the post.
2. Comparable titles
This often fits most logically in the opening paragraph, but it doesn’t have to go there: you’re ultimately looking for maximum readability with your structure. Comp titles are basically the novels that would sit on the shelf beside yours on the bookshelves. Don’t be afraid to go big here: you’re not going to look vain or conceited by comparing yourself to, say, Kate Atkinson or Steven King if those are the authors that your target demographic is likely to read. Don’t go too far back in time unless it’s an absolute, certified classic that continues to make big sales (say: Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy levels of cultural cache if your comp title was published more than around 5 years ago), and even then, you’d be safest including a more recent title or two as well. Many, many bonus points if you can reference an author that the agent currently represents or who appears on their wishlist (if they have one). This is where you demonstrate your market awareness, so you’ll want to spend some time on this bit.
Different markets have different conventions about where the synopsis goes in the cover letter, but unless it’s specifically outlined in the submission guidelines, you’re not going to lose points by being guided by where it has the most impact in your letter’s overall flow.
This synopsis is different from the one-page synopsis that you’ll likely include in your submission package (more on that in the next post). This is more along the lines of a blurb: you want to make your novel sound as compelling as possible in two or three sentences maximum. Keep it concise and focus on the main story arc and key characters. Avoid getting into too much detail or revealing major plot twists. The goal of the synopsis is to give the agent an understanding of the kind of story you’re pitching — and to pique their interest to request more.
Comp titles are basically the novels that would sit on the shelf beside yours on the bookshelves
4. Author bio
Don’t panic about this bit. Honestly, don’t. This isn’t a CV and you won’t be rejected on the grounds that you don’t have enough (or any) prior publications. This is about introducing you as an author: the author of this novel. If you have any writing credentials, publishing credits, or awards, definitely mention them here (though make sure they’re relevant: if you’re a writer of more advanced years, winning third prize in your high school poetry competition isn’t recent enough for the purposes of this letter, and, if anything, may make you look like you’re scrambling).
In the absence of a publication history, focus on your writing journey, education, any writing-related memberships or workshops you have attended, or interesting anecdotes about you (bonus points if they relate to the topic of your novel, but not necessarily essential). Keep this brief and professional: two lines is good, three is an absolute maximum.
In the closing paragraph, thank the agent for their time and consideration. Don’t offer to send them any additional materials: if they want them, they’ll ask for them. Keep things positive and professional and sign off on a high note.
How to personalise your query letter for each agent
Not going to sugar-coat it: this bit takes time and effort, and you need to do it for every single letter you send out. Yep, it’s essential. Agents receive many, many generic query letters every day, and they can quickly spot a one-size-fits-all approach. You’ve no chance of hooking their interest unless you do your homework here.
For starters, take the time to research each agent's background, literary preferences, and recent sales. This is important information to help you tailor your query letter and increase your chances of standing out.
Next, make sure you address the agent by name in your salutation. Using "Dear Agent" or "To Whom It May Concern" is an absolute no-no. Addressing the agent directly not only shows respect but also indicates that you have taken the time to research and find the right agent for your novel — especially important if you’re approaching a multi-agent firm.
Taking the time to personalise your letter will significantly increase your chances of getting noticed
If you can, reference specific books or authors the agent represents or has recently sold. This shows you’re familiar with their work and believe your novel would be a good fit for their list. Avoid generic statements like "I think my novel would appeal to your readers." Instead, be specific and explain why your novel aligns with the agent's interests and expertise: “I was struck by the thematic similarities between my novel and that of your client X, whose work Y also features a strong female lead and sweeping socio-political commentary…”
If you have any personal connections or relevant experiences that may make you stand out — definitely mention this. For example, if you attended a writing workshop where the agent was a speaker, say so. Compliment something that stood out to you (without overegging it). This personal touch helps create a connection and makes your query letter that much more memorable.
Yes, this takes time and effort, but taking the time to personalise your letter will significantly increase your chances of getting noticed. It shows agents that you’re serious about your writing career and that you’ve taken the time to find the right match for your novel. Remember: this is a business arrangement. You want to show them that you’re someone they can do business with.
What sets your story apart from others in its genre? A unique setting? An unusual protagonist? Maybe a fresh twist on a familiar trope?
How to write an engaging synopsis that captures the agent's attention
You don’t have a lot of words available for this bit, so less is more. I find it helpful to think of it as Elevator Pitch Plus — the same urgency, the same stripped back messaging, the same intrigue and tantalising hints of conflict and questions… only with a few extra words.
1. Hook the reader from the start
Try to open with a strong, attention-grabbing sentence that introduces the main character or central conflict of your story. A helpful way to get started is to complete the following sentence: “There once was a character called [___]. They wanted [___]. They couldn’t have it because [___].” You’ll obviously want to do quite a bit of polishing to really make it pop, but this is a handy way to distil your novel down to its barest basics.
2. Clearly convey the central conflict
All narrative flows from conflict: what your MC wants (or thinks they want), and the obstacles in their way. Raise the stakes as high as you can here (while remaining true to your genre, of course): you want to give the agent a reason to be intrigued.
3. Highlight the unique elements of your story
What sets your story apart from others in its genre? A unique setting? An unusual protagonist? Maybe a fresh twist on a familiar trope? This can be a great way of formulating your elevator pitch, by the way, and a very effective way of making your novel stand out. Try mashing two different texts, authors or titles together [“Dostoyevsky meets Douglas Adams in this epic historical space opera…”] or skew a sentence off in an unexpected direction halfway through [“Tina’s dream of running her own little coffee shop is about to come true — too bad the local werewolf clan have already decided to sabotage the grand opening.”].
4. Don’t skimp on the emotional resonance
Why should we care about these characters? What part of their journey is going to spark recognition, identification, or sympathy in your reader? Is Tina a struggling single mum who’s poured her life savings into this project? Is the local werewolf clan on the verge of extinction and deathly allergic to coffee grinds? Is handsome Wolfgang, the hotshot barista that Tina secretly fancies, hiding a terrible secret? We’ve all fallen for the wrong person at some point in our life — if Tina’s about to make a bad decision on the strength of Wolfgang’s cheeky smile, we’ll invest in her journey because it resonates.
5. Edit ruthlessly
And then edit some more. Keep your synopsis concise and focused, trimming unnecessary details to ensure every word is pulling its weight.
Crafting a compelling query letter - dos and don'ts
Don't apologise for being a new author
Check out this fascinating series from Writer’s Digest, in which literary agents share successful query letters and discuss what it was about them that stood out. It’s a great way to reassure yourself that there’s no one way to craft a winning cover letter. Your writing voice is unique. Your cover letter can reflect that, as long as it’s hitting the key elements in some shape or form.
If you’d like an objective eye, I offer feedback on cover letters and synopses. Do I think you need it? No, I think you probably don’t. But sometimes it’s reassuring to get another set of eyes on the thing, so that’s an option.
And now you’ve got the cover letter in order, it’s time to get started on nobody’s favourite part of the submission package: your one-page synopsis. We’ll look at that in next month’s instalment.
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