After your novel is finished, you’ll need to contact potential agents with a query letter. This letter should be honed to showcase your writing skills, highlight your story, and entice an agent to ask to see your manuscript.
Check the agency guidelines before submitting your query. You’ll often find specific instructions on what the agent wants, and you’ll increase your chance of having your work looked at if you follow those guidelines.
If there are no guidelines given, send your query with a self-addressed, stamped, #10 envelope for the agent’s reply. Don’t send the full manuscript or even a few chapters unless requested. Some sources say it’s ok to include the first few pages of your novel with your query, but limit it to no more than 5 pages. (If there is a prologue, it counts as the first page.)
A query letter is formatted like a standard business letter, and should be just as professional. Use plain white stationery or good quality paper (20-24 pound stock), and only use black ink. Either Courier or Times New Roman 12 point font is acceptable. Fancy fonts might look prettier, but they are not appropriate for a business letter.
There are a couple of acceptable formats for business letters, but to keep it simple, you’ll be fine if you use 1 inch margins all around, with block paragraphs starting flush with the left margin. Don’t indent, just put an extra space between paragraphs.
Your contact information, including your name, address, phone number, and email, should be flush against the left margin as the first section of your letter. Skip a line, then type the date.
Skip a line after the date, and type the name of the person you are querying, followed by the name of the agency, and the address.
Skip a line, then put your formal greeting, which should include the name of the specific person you are writing to. Use Mr. or Ms., last name, followed by a colon as this is a business letter. (Example, Dear Mr. Benedict: or Dear Ms. Benedict: )
After the greeting you’ll have 3 or 4 paragraphs introducing your book, giving your pitch, telling a little about the story, and summarizing your credentials. Don’t forget to thank the agent, and tell them you look forward to hearing from them.
In closing, simply use Sincerely, followed by a comma. Leave 3 or 4 spaces for your actual signature, then type your name.
Skip a line, and type Enclosure: (1) SASE (to show you’ve included an envelope for their reply). If you’re including additional material, indicate that also.
When you mail your query, you can fold it to fit in a #10 envelope, and you’ll also fold the SASE you’re enclosing. If this seems too awkward for you, use a 9½ X 12½ envelope instead of the #10. That will keep your query flat, and the SASE won’t have to be folded. It costs a little more to mail, but if you have extra pages included it might be advisable to use the bigger envelope.
Send your query through the regular first-class mail, and if you’re worried about whether or not they’ll get it, just purchase delivery confirmation from the post office. Never make an agent sign for your letter.
Agents follow different time frames for replying, so once your query is sent out it could be days or months before you hear from them. Be sure to keep a record of when and where you sent each query so you’ll know when to follow up, and so you avoid sending the same query to the same agent again.
See my related post dated October 20, 2009 for information on querying via email.
Edit September 8, 2010: Agent Nathan Bransford has some great advice on his blog today about how to deal with conflicting advice regarding query letters.
Do you have any tips about query letters to pass on? What’s the longest you’ve waited for a reply after you sent out a query?