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Erin Steeley : Writing The Query Letter

The Query Letter

Elements & Format of an Author's Query Letter

By Erin Steeley

When authors want to introduce their book to a potential publisher, they use the query letter as a sort of "handshake." This letter normally ends up in what is called a "slush pile" on an editor's desk, and has to really have bite to get attention. An author has to have determination and spunk to keep sending these despite a flood of rejection letters, but this eventually pays off when your query ends up on the right editor's desk at the right time. Writing one is not that hard to do, but here I will provide a basic format that I use when sending out letters.

Before I send one out, I research the type of books that a publisher puts out to make sure that my work will match their list. I also have someone else read the letter so I can get their reaction and if they find any mistakes that I need to correct.

Below is a sample of an actual letter that I am sending out for my manuscript, "From Shoes to Signals:"

[1] Stephanie Newman, editor
c/o Publish it Now Press
P.O. Box 89798
Anyplace, USA 57584-098

[2] To Acquisitions Editor:

[3] Thick, strong knuckles grasp the bat, holding it just above the shoulder and poised for the pitch. The white cylinder rolls and twists towards home, then drops suddenly. The bat swings in a graceful arc and meets directly with the sweet spot, sending it careening for center field. The compact batter drops the bat to the side, and his cleats dig in to the dirt as he zooms for first. Panting, he focuses his eyes on the baseman, watching out of the corner for where the ball will be coming from. Second base has it from center, he sees, and knows he'll have to slide for it. At the right moment, he drops, letting his legs stretch out as he rides the dust. A cloud appears over the scene, and the umpires rush in. The batter stands, wipes his pants and peers through the clearing mist to see two arms sweep apart in a sign of, "Safe!" He grins, and turns his grimy face to the stands, seeing the applause of a hundred hats and hands waving in the air.

[4] I would like to introduce you to William Ellsworth Hoy, also known as "Dummy" Hoy, one of the great folk heroes of the Deaf culture. In my picture book, "From Shoes to Signals," Hoy walks off the pages of history and shows how determination, strong character, and the ability to believe brought him to the majors in the birth of baseball in the nineteenth century. From making his own cleats using the teeth of a saw, he took his talent for stealing bases and strong throwing arm to several leagues, influencing the current major league hand signals and those around him to show that being deaf was not an obstacle, but a beautiful part of his personality.

[5] After working around the Deaf community for many years, I was intrigued by this man and want to bring his story to people in an entertaining in a unique way. My first book, "The Soldier and the Storyteller," is currently published with Publish America, and I would like to offer my current book for your publication. I will be glad to provide a bibliography of my research for this book at your request, and have enclosed per your guidelines an SASE for your convenience. Thank you very much for your consideration of my manuscript.

Sincerely,

[6] Erin Steeley
P.O. Box 2482
Anywhere, ST 89302
my@email.com
555-555-0000

Now, let's take this apart one step piece at a time for clarity. I have put a number next to each section so that it will make it easier for you to follow through the letter.

1: First Address Line

The first address line is where I place the name, title and address of the editor and/or publisher. If I have an editor's name, I make sure that it is spelled correctly; I have his or her job title right, and then the address. This is how a formal business letter is set-up, so it is important to show a respectful tone from the beginning. I get this information from the publisher's website and from books that list publishers and their guidelines. If I have a book listing the editor's name, I call the number during business hours and make sure that the person listed is still there. This way, my query will get to the right person. I list some of these in the resource section at the end of this article.

2: Salutation

For the salutation, I either put the editor's name with their title after a comma, or simply put "To Acquisitions Editor," "To Children's Acquisitions Editor," or other general title as outlined from the publisher's guidelines. This helps to set the tone for the letter, and shows that I have done my research on who to submit the letter to. This helps to mark me as a professional.

3: The Hook

This is my favorite part, the hook, where I create an imaginative and creative introduction to really catch the editor's attention and show them inside my story. Now, this is only one method for beginning the letter, but I prefer this as it allows me to show not only my tale, but my writing ability as well. This part can take some time to write, as I want it to be just right. A hook catches a fish, so I want to "hook" the editor in the first paragraph. When you write a letter this way, make sure that you use action, good word choice, and make your character real.

4: The Book

Now, I introduce the title of my book and the overall plot. This is a "big picture" paragraph that tells the editor what and/or who the book is about. This is important as the editor will need to see if the book matches their list and the type of books that they normally publish. I can also add in if my book is a picture book, young readers, historical fiction, fiction or similar category for the editor's information. This helps them know what genre my book falls into and whether or not it will match their list.

5: About Me and Goodbye

The last paragraph tells a little about me as a writer, my past experience, and any other pertinent information that might interest the editor. Here, I have added that I will send a list of references if requested to the editor. "From Shoes to Signals" is a historical fiction book, so I had to do research in order to write it. To show the publisher that I have gotten to know the person I wrote about in-depth, I have my references ready for their information. You also see the letters "SASE," which stands for a self-addressed stamped envelope. If I send a query, I put my address on an envelope and postage, neatly fold it, and include it with the letter. This way the editor can send back a response to me, and this is a general requirement of most publishers.

6: Second Address Line

The last part is the closing salutation, "Sincerely" and my name a few spaces below. In the space I leave, I hand sign my signature. Below that, I put in my address, email address, phone number and any other pertinent contact information. This offers the editor a number of choices to get in touch with me if they choose to.

This is only one way to set up a query letter, and there are many others. I use this one because it matches my style, and other authors use their own unique touches to make their query stand out from the rest. The keys to a great query letter are:

  • having the right editor's name and title
  • setting up the hook to get the editor's attention and introduce your story
  • being creative
  • editing the letter
  • being neat and clean
  • use a business format
  • sending an SASE

Keeping the query letter brief and to one page is essential, as the editor will not have time to read multiple pages. If you are creative, neat, and edit well, your letter will hopefully introduce your story to an interested publisher. •

© 2009 Erin Steeley. All rights reserved.

Erin SteeleyErin Steeley is the author off "The Soldier and the Storyteller." She work in children's books and anything that happens to catch her imagination. More »

Updated 1/5/14