Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 14, 2012

Effective Query Letters


by Susan Brody

The most important thing to remember in writing a query letter is to make a great first impression.  The tone should be polite, friendly, and humble, but not self-deprecating.  Whether or not you have been published, you must think of yourself as already being a professional; when you present yourself that way, it becomes who you are.  Believe that your work is worthy of you, and worthy of an audience.  “A good manuscript has a home.”

Be honest.  Strike a balance between gushing (“I love everything you’ve ever done”) and distancing (“To Whom It May Concern”).   Both are equally off-putting.

The purpose of a query letter is to whet the reader’s appetite, not to reveal all.  The letter should not exceed one page.  It must succinctly give a sense of what the book is about.  Begin with identifying the intended audience (age range) and format (PB? YA?).  Follow with a one-sentence distillation of the “essence” of the book.  If you can’t boil it down to one sentence, that might be a sign of a problem.  If you can, you’re helping the marketing department to figure out how to position it.  Try to describe the book by putting it into context, preferably with reference to other books that are household names (e.g., a classic; a blockbuster).  And try to include something “startlingly fresh” – a phrase that will stick in someone’s mind, or a very catchy title.

If you’ve been published before, list books and/or magazine articles, publishers, and dates, to give s sense of where you are in your career.  If not previously published, no need to mention that fact, and certainly no need to apologize for it.  Of course, include your contact information.  And PROOFREAD.  Some agents simply discard letters with typos.

All this being said, “Agents and editors don’t want a great query letter.  They want a great book.”  The role of the letter is to draw attention to the book.  “I can’t remember a single query letter I’ve read.” 

Don’t scare people with “this is a 15-book series.”  Most series start out as just one book.  But if you do envision a series, you need not have completed it, but you do need to have a sense of where it’s going.  If you have a single book, finish it before sending out queries.

Specifics about Stephen:  he reads query letter with the assumption that you are doing multiple submissions.  He answers every query he receives; if you’ve submitted to him and have not heard anything after a month, follow up.  “You deserve an answer.”  Put “NJSCBWI” in subject line (This is for people who attened the conference).  Stephen describes himself as “my own kind of agent.”   Having spent years in publishing, he “knows everyone everywhere.”   In his view, he may not be the most aggressive agent around, but he has good taste, and is persistent and optimistic.  He describes agenting as the best job he’s ever had.

Thank you Susan for writing this recap.  With eight different workshops going on during the eight session times over the weekend, it is easy to feel like you wish you had a clone.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Hey, great article. We are always discussing this topic in our critique group. I mean just about every session. A writer can spend a lot of time writing a query letter and really publishers want a great book. Yet, the letter has to be well written. I haven’t written a query in a while, but when I do, this article will help.


  2. Stephen is SO nice. I had a great pitch session with him at the conference 🙂


  3. I went to his workshop at SCBWI NJ and it was really helpful. Stephen did a great job!


  4. Thanks for a great interview, Kathy! And thank you, Stephen, for sharing…I love your words, ‘a good manuscript has a home’.:)


Leave a Reply to :Donna Marie Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: