So you've written your masterpiece: the great novel you know everyone should read. What now? Well, the answer is to try to get it published, of course. Whether you are trying to get an agent or you are contacting an editor at a publishing house directly, you will need to write up a query letter. Unfortunately, many great books may be rejected out of hand simply because the query letter isn't as good as the writing in your novel.
How can you make your query letter perfect? How can you increase your chances of getting accepted, or at the very least not getting the "Dear Author" or "Dear Writer" form rejection letters? Here are five tips to writing the perfect query letter.
1. Personalize the letter
This is probably one of the most important aspects of selling your novel. Personalize your query letter. You don't like to receive generic form letters, and neither do they. Personalizing the letter is more than just writing the name of who you're addressing, however. While that does help, it's also about showing you've done the research. Mention other books by that publisher that were successful, and why you believe your story would fit in among them. Is it a perfect genre fit? Does it address similar themes? All of these are important in showing the agent that you are not only smart enough do know what you're talking about, but it also shows the agent you care just as much about their job as well. Let them know with a sentence like "With your interest in <Genre> and the themes of <list a few>, I wondered if you might enjoy <name of the novel>."
2. Beware the Oversell
Many authors get caught in the trap of overselling their novel. Chances are what you've submitted isn't going to be the next bestseller, and it probably isn't ready to be an oscar-winning novel either. You want to sell your manuscript and make it sound exciting, sure, but when you start throwing around promises you can't keep, it is likely a signal to agents that you're overcompensating for your writing. Let the agents know what the story is and let them figure out how successful it will be.
3. Start off With a Strong Hook
"Hello, my name is <Author> and I think you would be interested in my novel, 'Butch, Cassidy, and the Sundance Film Festival'." If your query letter starts off this way, then you may have already chased away the agent. Much like any good novel, start off your query letter with something interesting that shows what you're writing is what the agent wants to read. Start off strong and cut to the chase. Don't waste any time with introductions. Save information about you for the end. This actually brings us to the next point.
4. Don't Make the Query Letter About You
Query letter should only be about two things: your book, and why the book is a good fit. By telling the author you value their time, you're making the letter about their values, and using up more of their time than if you had just left that sentence out. Don't mention your age, or any writing credits that are small time or aren't relevant to your story. If you won an award with the novel, mention that, but don't mention writing in a local newspaper. What you can also include is anything that makes you an authority on what you've written, especially if you're writing nonfiction. Being a journalist for 10 years give you and the book gravitas if you've written about journalism. The same cannot be said, however, if you are a journalist writing a fictional story about dragons.
5. Follow Submission Guidelines
This is probably one of the simplest tips, but one that far too many ignore. The submission pages often have guidelines, and those absolutely must be followed! You aren't doing yourself any favors by showing you haven't researched them enough, or that you don't care about their time/job enough to follow simple rules. This easy step will set you ahead of the pack and ensure the agent will spend at least a little more time on your query.
For more useful tips, check out Agent Query Connect.
To see what bad query letters look like, check out Slush Pile Hell.