For those WNFIN participants writing books, once you have at least 25 or 30 pages completed and you know what content will comprise the rest of your manuscript, you can think about composing a query letter. This precursory to a book proposal gets sent out to agents or publishers to see if they have interest in reading your proposal. However, be sure to have your proposal ready and waiting.
Two years ago agent Michael Larsen, author of How to Write a Book Proposal, told WNFIN participants how to write a nonfiction book proposal (read the post here ). This year, I asked him to offer advice on writing a query letter. After all, without a good query letter no agent or acquisition editor will ever ask to read a proposal. Here’s what he had to say.
Query Letters: The Hook, the Book & the Cook
By Michael Larsen
A query letter should be like a skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to keep it interesting.
Agent Katharine Sands believes that the writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself. A query is a one-page letter, single-spaced, with a space between three or four indented paragraphs, and—without sounding self-serving–it describes the why, what, and who of your book: the hook, the book, and the cook.
The hook: whatever will best justify publishing your book
- (Optional) a selling quote about your book (or a previous book) from someone whose name will give it credibility and/or salability. The quote could also be about you.
- (Optional) the reason you’re writing the agent:
- the name of someone who suggested you contact the agent
- the book in which the author thanked the agent for selling that inspired you to write the letter
- where you heard the agent speak
- where you will hear the agent speak and hope to have the chance to discuss your book
- Whatever will most excite agents about your book:
- the opening paragraph
- the most compelling fact or idea about your subject
- a statistic about the interest of people or the media in the subject or the number of potential readers
The book: the essence of your book:
- A sentence with the title and the selling handle for the book, up to fifteen words that will convince booksellers to stock it. The models for it: one or two books, movies, or authors. “It’s Harry Potter meets Twilight.”
- A one-sentence overview of your book, and if appropriate, what it will do for your readers
- The book’s biggest market(s)
- Its actual or estimated length
- The length of your proposal and how many more pages of manuscript you have ready to send
- (Optional) The names of people who have agreed to give a forward and cover quotes, if they’re impressive
- (Optional) A link to illustrations, if they’re important
- (Optional) Include the subjects or titles of the next two books, if you’re proposing a series
- (Optional) Information about a self-published edition that will help sell it
The cook: Why you’re the right person to write the book
- Your promotion plan: the four or five most effective things you will do to promote your book online and off, with numbers if they’re impressive
- Your platform: the most important things you have done and are doing to give yourself continuing visibility with potential readers, with numbers if they’re impressive; your online activities, published work with links to it, and media and speaking experience with links to audio and video
- (Optional) Your credentials; experience in your field; or years of research; prizes, contests, and awards in your field
Include anything else that will convince agents to ask to see your proposal.
A fothcoming post will tell you how to speed up the query process.
About the Author
Michael Larsen is a literary agent and consultant to nonfiction writers. He and his partner Elizabeth Pomada are co-directors of the San Francisco Writers Conference and the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference. He is the author of the third editions of How to Write a Book Proposal and How to Get a Literary Agent, and coauthor of the second edition of Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work.
The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)