6 Smart Steps For Writing a Query Letter
Query letters can be an important step in finding an agent or reaching out to a small press. Simply put, the succinct and formal query letter (typically a single page) has one key purpose: enticing an agent or publisher to read your work, perhaps opening a path to publication. There are many approaches and strategies for accomplishing this lofty goal, but these six stand out as some of the most commonly recommended.
1. Clearly read the agent or press’s guidelines.
Each agent or press has different projects they’re interested in, as well as varying rules for submissions. Some presses will only accept agented query letters, while others insist on working directly with authors. Some will ask you not to attach a manuscript until they’ve requested it, while others ask those querying to attach 15 or 20 pages. Make sure to know what each contact is asking for and how to meet those standards.
2. Don’t just attach your manuscript—contextualize it.
The query letter should be like a journey that prepares the agent or publisher to receive your manuscript by exciting them and putting them in the right emotional mindset. In other words, the query letter should serve as both an introduction and a framing device. Don’t reference that you’ve attached your manuscript in paragraph one, and avoid simply attaching the project without a letter.
3. Rather than simply summarizing, focus on central themes and metaphors.
While plot and storyline are important—yes, even to poetry—themes, metaphors, and connecting threads throughout the text could be even more valuable to an agent or publisher. Resist summaries that feel like book reviews, and instead dive into the project’s central meaning.
Does your book strive to de-stigmatize mental health struggles? Maybe it’s an in-depth look at chronic illness, a feminist exploration of reproductive rights, or a celebration of queer identity? Descriptions like these get to the heart of a project and show an agent or publisher why it’s relevant.
4. Incorporate a specific reference near the beginning of the letter.
It’s important to both agents and publishers that a potential client has done their research. In particular, what made you want to reach out to this contact? Did they publish or represent one of your favorite poetry collections? Have you been impressed by the way they promote their writers? These specific references can go a long way toward indicating you’re knowledgeable about the industry.
5. Include past publications and prizes.
It’s generally best to publish poems in several journals and magazines before aiming to publish a chapbook or full-length collection. These past credits help establish you as a writer, as well as show agents and publishers that you already have an audience, making it easier to sell your work. Nod to these accolades early on in your query letter.
6. Decide on which agents to contact.
The query letter process involves more than just writing. Poets have to know where to send their query. One approach is to create a tiered list of agents and publishers. In tier one, list the publishers and agents who you would absolutely love to represent you—even if it feels unattainable. For tier two and tier three, get a little more realistic. Email tier-one contacts first, and wait a few weeks to see if they respond. Then, work your way through the rest of the list.
Keep in mind that nearly everyone in the literary world faces rejection. Even if you hear a lot of “no’s,” keep persevering toward that one “yes.”
For a deeper look at query letters, read these successful examples. Good luck, and congratulations on putting your work out there!