Despite some popular beliefs, the only purpose of the query letter is to convey information. Query letters are not writing samples (even though any typos of errors in the query letter can speak volumes against you). They are not a place to be witty, or tell your life story and your world views. They are designed for only one purpose, to tell the publisher the following important things:
(1) the basic information about your novel (name, genre/subgenre, and word count), as well as, hopefully, the assurance that it has been completed and available.
(2) a concise summary of the plot, or enough information to give a basic idea on what this book is about. One paragraph is better than two, “concise” is the key word.
(3) your publishing credentials, if any.
(4) the reason you are querying this particular publisher, if any.
(5) the assurance that this submission is exclusive to this publisher — or, if the guidelines permit it, the information that it may be simultaneously considered by someone else.
Within these parameters, the shorter you can make it, the better. Literally.
Clearly, a good query letter will not sell your novel. But it will gain you the benefit of the doubt and will probably make the editor approach your submission much more favorably than they would otherwise.
Here are the five most common elements of the query letter that were definitely held against the authors during our consideration process:
1. “As a child, I have always wondered if…” — Yawn. We don’t have time to learn anyone’s childhood story, not unless we are publishing the book and this information is highly relevant to our marketing plan. At this point the submissions editor will skim to the end of the letter to look for credentials, and then to the sample chapter, briefly, with the expectation that the writing will be bad.
2. “My book is not about…” –yes, seriously. Some people do start their query this way. Usually this is followed by a rant that could be several paragraphs long. The query letter is the place where one should focus on the specifics of the book, ignoring the temptation of making the letter long just because there are no visible page breaks in the e-mail window.
3. “Have you ever thought of…” — No. Well, maybe we have thought of that, but we don’t want to think about it while reading query letters.
4. “The reason I am not published is…” — Being unpublished is nothing to be ashamed of. There could be many reasons, and in case of very good authors out there all these reasons are heart-breaking. The truth is, this has nothing to do with our consideration of this particular novel and thus has no place in the query letter.
5. “Imagine yourself on a spaceship/in a jungle/on a boat, etc.” — We do, usually when we read something we enjoy that is relevant to any of these places. Query letters don’t fall into this category.
Well, this list can go on, really. But each of these examples invariably has to do with information that has no place in the query letter, simply because it is not directly relevant to your submission. If you are not sure what to write, stick to the bare basics and let your novel speak for itself.
Chances are, these basic rules apply to querying most publishers, even if some individual submissions editors may have preferences not covered in our list of bare essentials. Chances are, if they do have such preferences, these preferences will be covered in their submission guidelines. Barring that, we suggest you stick to the basics and avoid the temptation to elaborate.