Preparing an Effective Query Letter
Writing a query letter can be a terrible, horrible, awful, stinkingly stressful experience. But it’s something you must do if you want to be taken seriously by anyone who publishes books. If you can’t get us excited about your book, how much luck will you have with readers?
Here are a few things for any author to keep in mind when writing a query.
Make sure your work is polished before you submit it. Refine your book or your book proposal as much far as you can on your own; then give copies to ten people whose opinions you trust to give you objective feedback. Hint: most mothers are not good candidates for this task. Hint number two: give your book or book proposal to people who buy books and ask them "would you buy this? how much would you pay?"
This is a match-making process. Every publisher is not right for every book, so make sure that you know why you want Maui Media to work with your manuscript. What about us as a company makes you think we’re a good match? Make sure to include this in your query letter or book proposal.
What makes you the ideal author for your book (fiction or non-fiction)? Readers want to know your background and expertise, and they are more discerning than ever. Make sure you include a bio in your query letter.
Please, be professional. Unprofessional submissions are more likely to be rejected than those presented in the best possible light.
If you're pitching a nonfiction book, answer the following questions and include the answers in your query letter:
Who’s going to buy your book? Who’s your audience? How old are they, where do they live, how many are there, and what else do they read? Why would they be interested in your book? Why do they need it?
What is your book’s competition? What other books are there on your subject, and how well do they sell (if you know)? How is your book better and/or different? (If there are a lot of books on your subject, you’ll really need a unique angle.)
Why do you think now is the right time to publish your book?
Take a look at the bestseller lists and see what’s really selling right now. Do you see a trend that’s part of your pitch? Explore forums on amazon.com and see what readers want to read next in your subject. What do you find?
What’s your expertise? If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you are just as important as your subject or what you have to say. You’ll need to blog and pound the pavement – can you convince others that you are worth listening to? We’ll have to “sell” you when we market the book ... what makes you worth buying?
The answers to these questions should all be incorporated into a short pitch for your book. Pitches should be just a few sentences. Here’s one for How to Meditate with Your Dog:
In the past decade, the thousands-year-old practice of meditation has charged into the Western mainstream. Everyone from rock stars to medical professionals rave about meditation and its health promoting benefits. The biggest question people have is, "how do I start?" Forty-five million Americans already have a built-in meditation guru just panting to teach them: their dogs. In "How to Meditate with Your Dog: An Introduction to Meditation for Dog Lovers," James Jacobson and his dog, Maui, show dog lovers everywhere the meditation technique that Jacobson has used and taught for over a decade.
If you're pitching a novel or narrative nonfiction, here are some tips:
Your query letter should give us the breakdown of your story in just a few sentences. (If you can’t do this, then you do not really know what your book is about.) The opening line should be something that catches our interest. The second sentence should set up the plot. The third should present the central problem in the novel, and the fourth should give the resolution.
If you look at the back jackets of novels, you’ll see plenty examples of how to do this. For example, the breakdown – or pitch – for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows might read:
Grab your tissues and steel your nerves before opening this book. The brilliant, breath-takingly imaginative conclusion to J. K. Rowling’s endlessly popular series finds Harry making a painful journey to manhood. The stakes have never been so high nor the challenges this terrible; his deep loss and profound grief tear at the reader’s heart. Magic is not only fun and useful, as faithful readers know by now – it’s also dark and terrible and glorious – much like Harry’s own dazzling, surprising fate.
The popular novel The Help features this on its back jacket:
Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, who's always taken orders quietly, but lately she's unable to hold her bitterness back. Her friend Minny has never held her tongue but now must somehow keep secrets about her employer that leave her speechless. White socialite Skeeter just graduated college. She's full of ambition, but without a husband, she's considered a failure. Together, these seemingly different women join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South, that could forever alter their destinies and the life of a small town...
Another way to pitch your book is to compare it to something else:
The Hunger Games is “Survivor” played by children - and the elimination is real.
Have people read your novel, and pay attention to what they say about it. “This is just like ...” “This is so very ...” The old trope is true – there is nothing new under the sun, so don’t take offense. What makes your story unique is the way your characters interact with the story. When people tell you “this is like Harry Potter,” rejoice, because Harry Potter has made J.K. Rowling a very wealthy woman!
A Sample Query Letter
Date: January 15, 2025 [We need the date for our files, don’t forget it!]
Subject: Manuscript Submission Request
Status: Simultaneous submission (or proprietary submission). A completed project (or manuscript near completion). [Tell us if you are submitting this query letter to other agents and/or publishers. We prefer that you submit your manuscript as a proprietary submission, by the way. Also, tell us whether the project is finished or not (for nonfiction proposals, you might not want to write the book before you submit a query letter!).]
Represented by: Author (or XXX Literary Agency), XXX-XXX-XXXX, firstname.lastname@example.org [Tell us whether you have an agent or not, and include agent’s phone number or email address.]
Dear Maui Media,
I am requesting permission to submit my manuscript for your evaluation. The manuscript is 204 double-spaced pages, and the working title “Ten Ways to Make Yourself Feel Fantastic, Even After Your Husband Cheated on You and Left with His Pretty Young Thing.”
Anyone who’s been divorced – 60% of Americans, for example – knows that the pain of separation after the dissolution of a marriage is profound. Psychologists tell us it can be worse than the pain felt after a spouse dies. So how does a Woman of a Certain Age pick up the pieces and put herself back together? It turns out there are ten things any woman can do to put the past behind her and forge a new and better life. Even those who find their identity broken and scattered to the wind like ashes will be inspired to go on living, and loving, after reading this book. This manuscript has been professionally edited and is ready to be published.
[That’s the pitch. It’s short and sweet, and it doesn’t bore us with the details. The title may have to be revised and punched up, but the overall pitch is good. Also, make sure to include the number of pages in so we know how long the book is. If you haven’t already hired an editor, consider one – it’s easier to publish a book that requires less work. If it has not been edited, make sure you tell us that.]
The market for this book will be recent divorcees, and that’s a big market. Studies have shown that women spend thousands of dollars on themselves in the first eighteen months after a divorce, and this book helps them decide what to do and how. While this book is certainly designed to help women, it’s not ooey gooey or sentimental. Its straightforward style and practical advice empower the reader to go out and feel good about herself without wallowing in the muck of emotional heartbreak.
An S.A.S.E. is enclosed for your response. There is no need to return the manuscript.
[Let us know you have enclosed the SASE needed for the response (a #10 envelope) and, if you would like the manuscript returned, a larger envelope for the manuscript.]
I look forward to hearing from you.
[If you beg, plead, or cut deals, we’ll be a lot less likely to see you as a good partner. Just invite us to respond. We will.]
Jane Doe [Your real name, not your email]
123 Broad Street
Anytown, State, Zip [Include your entire mailing address, or we will not be able to respond to you. If you leave this out, we will likely not respond at all.]
Phone: XXX-XXX-XXXX [Include your phone number.]
email: email@example.com [Include your email address.]
Be professional. No hearts and rainbows on your query letter, please – keep the stationary simple. If you’re sending it via email, do not think that means you need less information in your query letter. Treat this as a job – because it is.
We will look at simultaneous submissions, but we are less likely to publish a manuscript that has been submitted to other publishers at the same time.
Check your spelling and grammar! One is enough to get you rejected out of hand. If you can’t take the time to proof your letter, why should we take the time to read your proposal?
Sometimes writers who have previously been rejected start to lose their cool as they continue to pound the pavement. Don’t. Keep in mind that we are meeting you for the first time in your query letter, and we don’t have any idea who you are.