The all-important query

May 6, 2009

A query is a pitch to a literary agent, asking him or her to look at your book proposal and hopefully represent your work.

There are lots of resources on the Web that explain how to write the perfect query letter. The one-page letter should give a summary of the book’s plot and theme, as well as why readers would buy it. It should include information about the author and why she’s qualified to write the book. And it’s gotta be catchy — this is the writer’s one chance to catch the eye of an agent.

I’ve already written my query. As soon as I finish my sample chapters and add them to my book proposal, I’ll start sending the letter to literary agents.

I’ve personalized my query for every agent I plan to send it to, explaining why I chose them. But the meat of the letter is the same. It includes my working title (which may change as I write), selling handle and comparison to another published book, three components I’ve already addressed on this blog.

Wanna have a look?

Dear [agent name here],

I hope you'll be the right agent to take on my travel memoir, Madame or Mademoiselle? A woman’s solo journey through Africa.

The story of a journalist who leaves a stable Houston life to backpack through an undeveloped continent in search of adventure, this poignant narrative will inspire readers to take leaps in their own lives. Think Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari on estrogen, with a dash of optimism and a few dozen wannabe-suitors thrown in.

While this is my first book, I've been published for years in newspapers and magazines. I turned stories for three years at the Houston Chronicle, and I hold a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. I thrive on deadlines and enjoy the editing process. I’m 28: full of potential and worth your investment.

Madame or Mademoiselle? will bring readers by boat to Timbuktu, to Cameroon to deliver a gift to a grieving polygamous family and to a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight, when even an independent woman admits she's vulnerable. I tested the saleability of these stories through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months, an impressive figure for an independent start-up.

Please let me know whether you're interested in looking over my 29-page proposal, plus two sample chapters. I've provided a self-addressed, stamped postcard for your response.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant

After hearing on Twitter that agent Jessica Faust would critique several queries on an Editor Unleashed forum, I jumped at the opportunity to submit mine. Faust is on my list of agents I plan to approach, so having her feedback would be useful. She’ll critique my query and four others during a live online discussion on Editor Unleashed on May 13 at 11 a.m. I’ll let you know what she suggests!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear YOUR suggestions. Is this short and sweet enough? Does it get my point across? What can I do better?

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    0 Replies to “The all-important query”

    • Karen Walker says:

      Hi Alexis,
      In my humble opinion, this is a fantstic query letter. It covers all the bases, gets the reader’s attention immediately, and hits the hot buttons (why the reader would want to read the book, your expertise and experience, etc.). I especially liked the fact you included about the 50,000 hits your travel blog received. That demonstrates reader interest quite well. Looking forward to hearing how this process goes for you. Wishing you the best of luck.


    • Destineers says:

      Hi Alexis,
      I see you read agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. He has a lot of good advice regarding queries bookmarked on his front page. I agree with Karen that your query looks good – one of the things you want to make sure you do though is read and follow the submission guidelines for each individual query you send. Like publishers, their guidelines may differ slightly, so make sure you read them carefully before submitting. Missing something in their guidelines can get your query tossed without being looked at.

      Good luck! Keep us posted!

      NA Sharpe

    • J.M. Reep says:

      I think it looks just fine. Don’t get caught in the trap that many would-be authors fall in to: obsessing over their query letters. As Destineers, above, points out, different agents may have slightly different guidelines, but the essential, core letter that you’ve written looks good. You describe what the book’s about and demonstrate that you have an audience for the book already in place. Now it’s just a matter of finding an agent who is able and willing to take it on.

    • Hi Alexis,
      I loved the Paul Theroux sentence. Very clever and catchy. I also like the way you’ve clearly stated your qualifications and credentials…impressive by the way.

      I’m wondering about the sentence that begins, “Madame or Mademoiselle? will bring readers by boat to Timbuktu, to Cameroon….” A couple of things. It’s kinda long, but that’s basically okay. Long is not necessarily a sin. Where would Faulkner or John Milton be without long.

      However, I stumbled over its content and had to do a re-read, couple of them actually. When I stumble on my writing, I’ve learned it’s a signal that I’ve discovered an opportunity to edit a bit. No stumbling is good. I’m not being critical, it’s just a thought.


      • Alexis Grant says:

        You’re allowed to be critical! I’ve got a thick skin 🙂 Thanks for the thoughts… I’ll take them into consideration when I do a next draft.

        And I’m glad to hear you like the Theroux sentence. I’m not sure myself whether it works.

        • And with this comment, we have a “threaded discussion!” How cool.

          Well, a thick skin is a good thing…not that you’ll need it, but, it’s nice to have in reserve.

          Okay, gotta go pull some weeds…Hey, that could be a Tweet!

          Best Regards, Galen.

    • foodpreserver1 says:

      Writing the query letter is an art form in itself. Nice post.

    • Hi Alexis,

      Great job with your query. I think it’s cool that Jessica at Bookends is going to critique it for you…she’ll do a much better job than I could.

      Thought it was great that you had pertinent background experience (always nice when you’re submitting a first book).

      Sometimes I’ve started out a query with “I hope your consider my query; i see that you also represent______ , a travel author I really respect.” Nothing wrong with your intro, though!

      Best of luck and let us know how the critique goes!


    • Jina Bacarr says:


      You’re definitely on the right track with good, solid info and info re: your blog hits. Length is good, too.

      Your subject matter is terrific!! Also, having 2 chapters and a proposal is right on target. Have you thought about marketing ideas besides your blog?

      Including a marketing strategy as part of your proposal (books out there like yours, who your target market is, media ideas, media contacts, media experience) can also be helpful.


    • Ami says:

      Alexis – I really like your query. As one reader said, there were a couple of especially long sentences that I stumbled over a bit, so you might want to reconsider the wording for those longer sentences. I love that your voice comes through in every paragraph, even when you’re describing your work experience. You provide a clear sense of who you are and how you write. Things I believe an agent/editor really wants to know. I’d love to hear what comments you get from Jessica Faust.

    • alan chin says:

      Looks good, Alexis.

      I believe the key thing is to personalize it to show the agent, or publisher, that you’ve done your research on them and you picked them for a reason. Do that right up front in para 1.

      One thing that I try to do is add a few sentences of how my books differ from the others that are similar. Why would a reader pick mine over another.

      That’s the best feedback I can give because that’s what worked for me.

      alan chin
      author of Island Song

    • Excellent query letter!

      Regarding other comments about awkward or long sentences — they can be easily identified if you read your query letter out loud.

      And I once read that we should not use certain adjectives to describe our own work as we should leave those judgments to the reader/agent/editor. I’m wondering if “poignant” might fall into this category. I’m not sure, but it’s something to consider.


    • Dr.Mani says:

      Nice query letter. One suggestion – I’d change “50,000 hits” to either “page views” or “visitors/readers”, as many tech savvy folks know ‘hits’ isn’t a relevant figure.

      All success
      ‘Think, Write & Retire’

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