Most authors don’t need to ever worry about query letters.
There are two major models for publishing: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Self-publishing is the better option for most Authors.
There are many reasons: Big book deals are rare. You won’t own the rights to the book. Your marketing options are more limited, etc. (If you want to know more, we go deeper on this topic here.)
Some Authors are exceptions to the rule. They can get a big book deal, or they have other good reasons for pursuing traditional publishing.
If you’re one of those Authors, this post is for you.
To get your book published by a traditional publisher, you need a literary agent to represent you. And to get an agent, you need a query letter.
Fiction query letters have a very clear-cut set of rules, and they often follow a template. We won’t go into those here, as at Scribe we focus exclusively on non-fiction.
This post is about nonfiction query letters, which don’t have a formula. They vary based on Author, topic, and audience.
That doesn’t mean anything goes, though.
Successful query letters follow a set of core principles, and if you focus on those building blocks, it will be much easier to get an agent’s attention.
In this blog post I will detail the best practices and principles to use in a nonfiction query letter.
What Is A Query Letter?
The query letter is a one-page letter you send to an agent to convince them that your book is worth selling.
It’s basically a sales pitch. And it will probably be very similar to the sales pitch the agent uses to sell the book to publishers.
You might wonder: If you’re writing the pitch, why do you need an agent?
Because publishers won’t talk to Authors. They only talk to agents. They want the agents to sort through all the people looking for traditional publishing deals and bring the ones to them that they want.
That’s an agent’s only job: to connect publishers with the potential Authors that fit their needs.
So that begs the question: What do nonfiction publishers want?
Nonfiction books are bought almost exclusively on platform. “Platform” is shorthand for an Author’s reach.
How many followers does an Author have on social media? How many lectures do they give a year? How much press have they gotten?
A big platform translates into sales. It tells the publisher that they can expect to sell books without putting in extra marketing effort.
Therefore, the query letter does two things:
- It explains to an agent why publishers will want your book.
- It shows why your platform will create book sales without the publisher’s help.
Remember, the query letter goes on top of a finished nonfiction proposal.
A good query letter is a condensed version of the proposal. So if you wrote a strong proposal, this should be easy.
How To Write A Query Letter
Step 1: Start Strong
Most people start their query letter by introducing themselves or including other niceties.
Don’t do that. You are wasting time, and that only annoys agents.
There is nothing memorable about, “Hi, my name is… Thank you for taking the time to read my proposal.”
Instead, open with something that gets their attention.
When you wrote the introduction to your book, you captured readers’ attention. The same rules apply here.
You only have a few seconds to make a good impression, so jump right in.
Remember, this is a sales document.
Your job is to hook their interest and get them to read the whole letter.
Step 2: Summarize Your Book & Audience
Quickly summarize the following points:
- What your book’s about
- Who it’s for
- Why they’ll care
Notice that I said “quickly.” Many Authors want to spend a ton of time here. Don’t.
An agent wants to sell your book, not read the whole thing in a query letter.
When you come up with your brief summary, think about the description that might appear on the book jacket. Or the “cocktail party pitch” you give when someone asks about your book.
Of course, it should be tight, interesting, and well written. That should go without saying. This means short.
Get to the point and move to the next section, which is what the agent is really looking for: platform.
Step 3: Summarize Your Platform
This is a BIG consideration for nonfiction.
Who is waiting to buy your book, and how will you reach them?
Platform is not the same as your audience. Your audience is a theory. That’s who you want the book to appeal to. Your audience might be “millennials who want to learn about investing.”
Your platform consists of the people you know you can reach and who you know will buy the book. It’s more specific: “32,000 subscribers to my YouTube channel,” or “500+ unique attendees at each of my weekly seminars.”
Agents focus on your platform because publishers focus on it.
Many Authors think that once they sell a book, the publisher will take care of the marketing and promotion.
The truth is, publishers don’t know how to sell books. At this point, they rely almost 100% on Authors to do that work.
A big platform can mean lots of different things:
- Being a celebrity that gets coverage in the media
- Having a huge social media following
- Having a massive email list
- Being part of a big organization that wants to buy your book
- Having prior writing experience and book sales (with numbers to back this up)
- Writing a book that meets a clear and present need for a large audience, plus having a method to get the book in front of that audience.
Basically, your platform is anything that a publisher believes will sell books without any effort on their part.
Step 4: Summarize Your Credentials
This is less important than your platform, but it’s still important.
What matters here are the credentials that are related to the book or to your platform.
If you are a financial analyst who also won baking competitions, that’s great. But unless your book is on puff pastry, don’t include it in your list of achievements.
This isn’t an autobiography. You aren’t listing everything you’ve done in your life.
You’re trying to prove to an agent that you have the expertise to satisfy your target readership and sell books.
Step 5: Personalize Where Possible
You should always use the agent’s name at the beginning of the query letter.
Generic openings like “to whom it may concern” tell an agent that you haven’t done your research.
Agents specialize in different fields, styles, and topics. If you don’t even know the agent’s name, it signals you probably don’t know anything about the clients, sales, or specialties of that specific agent.
Personalization shows that you have done your due diligence.
It also shows that you understand the agent’s job. They can successfully sell certain kinds of books, and your book falls squarely within that certain kind.
Here are other ways to use your query letter to get an agent’s attention:
- Refer to other books they’ve published that might indicate they’d be interested in yours.
- Show that you understand the fields they specialize in.
- Indicate if you know anyone in common or have something else in common.
- Most importantly, tell them specifically why you think they are the right agent for you.
You should also read the agent’s submission guidelines and follow them precisely.
If an agent prefers email, send an email. If an agent wants documents formatted a certain way, do it. If they want snail mail with a SASE, send it. If they don’t, don’t.
Yes, this might mean that you’re formatting your query letter differently for every agent.
Do it anyway.
This may seem petty, but think of it from an agent’s perspective. They get hundreds of letters each year, but they only take a handful of clients.
If you can’t even follow basic directions, what kind of client would you be?
Step 6: Make it Short (400 Words Max)
This is a sales letter, not a comprehensive document.
The point of a query letter is to get an agent interested, not to fully convince them. You will have a chance to do that later, on the phone.
A good query letter should have a maximum word count of 400.
The shorter the better.
Get to the point.
Step 7: Proof, Proof, Proof
This is critical:
Proofread your letter many times.
When you are querying an agent, the last thing you want is a typo.
Agents want to work with competent, detail-oriented writers. If you can’t nail a 400-word letter, how can they expect you to nail a whole book?
A spelling or grammar error says you are careless with your work. Typos are a red flag.
Also, double check that your query letter includes the following basic elements: your book’s title, genre, and word count. Unless your letter is written on letterhead, make sure you included your contact information at the bottom. A phone number and email address will suffice.
What Not To Do in Your Query Letter
1. Do Not Be Long-Winded
Brevity is key.
If you find that you are having to write a lot, it’s because you’re trying to cover up the fact that something else is missing.
Agents won’t read long query letters. They assume the writer is bullshitting.
The same goes with your bio. Shorter is better.
Unnecessary padding doesn’t come across as competence. It comes across as fluff.
2. Do Not Oversell
I told you that the query letter is a sales document. But selling isn’t the same thing as overselling.
Don’t editorialize on what you think about your own book. Don’t say it’s the best. Don’t call it “life-changing.” Or revolutionary. Or epic.
You wrote the book, so agents know that you like it. Your opinion doesn’t really matter.
What matters is convincing them that other people will like it, specifically the publishing companies they sell to.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the old saying, “Show, don’t tell.” Presenting your book in a confident and straightforward manner is the best way to show how good it is.
3. Do Not Lie
This should be obvious.
Surprisingly though, people still do it.
If you lie, you will eventually be found out. At best, you’ll be ignored. At worst, you’ll be black-balled and embarrassed.
Talk up your book, credentials, and platform, but don’t stretch the truth. Be honest.
4. Do Not Try to Convince Them of Something That Isn’t True
Don’t spend time trying to convince an agent it’s okay that you don’t have a platform.
Agents don’t make the rules of the game. They just play by them.
It’s a waste of time to try to convince them that the rules don’t exist or that they should be different.
Also, don’t act like you know the rules better than they do. Violating an agent’s submission guidelines is a perfect example of this. Agents know how to get their job done. They know what they need to see, when they need to see it, and how they want to receive it.
You rely on an agent for insider knowledge. By definition, they know the business better than you do.
5. Do Not Send the Manuscript
If you’ve written a novel, agents want to see a complete manuscript attached to your query letter.
That isn’t the case with a nonfiction book.
I know, it’s weird. But this is the book business. Weird is normal.
For nonfiction books, agents only want to read the query letter and book proposal.
If they want to see more, they will ask.
What To Do When The Query Letter Is Done
Once your query letter is done, send it, along with the proposal, to an agent that seems right for your project. You can find more details on that process here.
Remember, every agent’s submission process is different. Read their website and follow their instructions. A great query intrigues an agent; it doesn’t annoy them.