Discover more from Swordfights & Spaceflights
Most query letters have a 6% positive reply rate. Mine got over 45%. Here's why.
Critically acclaimed author Greta Kelly breaks down the query letter and shows you the letter that helped her get an agent.
Let’s all agree on something upfront: querying sucks. But if you want to be traditionally published, it’s the hill we all have to climb in order to find a literary agent. Did I say hill?
I meant mountain.
According to Query Tracker an average of 6.2% of queries receive positive replies. Math and I are not on speaking terms but even I know that’s bad. Luckily, there is a formula that you can use to increase your odds. Don’t believe me? The query letter I wrote for my newest project received a positive reply rate of 45.5%.
The method works. But it’s up to you to execute.
Alright, pep talk over. Let’s get down to business. There are three basic parts of an effective query letter: Summary Paragraphs, Book Stats and lastly Personal Bio and Publishing Credits. How you order this information is up to you.
For instance, if you have previously published works, or are being referred to this agent, then you might want to put your personal information in the first paragraph. But for most people, start with the book summary paragraphs.
And all good summaries, start with a great hook.
You will generally have one or two short paragraphs in which to summarize you story. And by short, I mean short. Your query cannot be more than ½ to ¾ of a page, because if it is I can almost guarantee that it will be deleted.
So where do you start? With your hook.
Your hook needs to be short and snappy. This is where you introduce your character in a dynamic way and sets up the conflict of the story—generally in the form of your inciting incident.
And pro tip: Do your best to infuse as much voice as possible into these opening lines.
This more than anything else, is what made my query letter so successful. With just one line, I showed the agents exactly who my main character was and what the tone of the book was going to be. Remember, you don’t have a lot of space so choose every word with care and make sure they accomplish as much as possible.
After the hook, comes conflict and stakes.
Notice that I didn’t say plot? That’s for a very good reason. You do not have time in your query to summarize your whole plot. Focus instead on the conflict driving your plot. What does your main character want and most importantly what will happen if they fail.
You need to be really careful with these paragraphs because there are a lot of ways that they can go off the rails. For instance, this isn’t the time to go into all of your subplots, because again there won’t be space.
Related to this, you don’t need to name everyone in your query—and realistically, you probably shouldn’t. Keep it to two or three people tops—meaning: main character, antagonist, and perhaps a love interest.
Also, toss out any made-up names. I’m looking at you fellow SFF writers! The query letter isn’t the place for in-depth worldbuilding. If you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, simply saying so in the book stats will be enough for the purpose of the letter. Gesture toward your world in your letter if you have space, let your pages linger there.
Your final paragraph will be for your book stats, and by that, I mean genre, age category, word count and comp titles.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by overthinking your genre! A lot of books straddle genre conventions, and that’s okay, but for your query letter keep it simple. Pick the primary genre (i.e. fantasy, romance ect.) and stick with that.
The same can be true of age category especially with how muddy the waters can be between YA and Adult these days. If you wrote a book that could appeal to both audiences, then the verbiage you want to use is this: “My book is a young adult fantasy complete at [word count] with crossover potential.”
Hopefully by the time you’re querying, you’ve already checked your word count against industry standards. If you haven’t, get thee to Google. If you book falls far out of conventional standards, you may be in trouble… but that’s probably its own post.
A note on Comp Titles
I won’t lie to you, comp titles used to really scare me. I was laboring under the misconception that I was somehow supposed to find books that totally matched mine. That’s not the case.
Most often, agents are asking for these because they want a sense of where your book will fit in the market, who the audience will be, and that you actually—you know—read books. (You’d be surprised by how many ‘writers’ don’t actually read.)
What you do need to find are popular titles published in the last five years that have similar elements to your book. That can mean novels whose main characters share the kind of swagger as yours. Or it could be that your book and theirs have a similar flavor in their worldbuilding. Find those elements and work them into your letter. And yes, you can use a tv show—as you’ll see in my query letter, that’s what I did. But make sure that you also choose a book.
Personal Bio & Publishing Stats
Like I mentioned up top, if you have a referral from another agent or got a like on a social media pitch contest, then you need to put it in the first paragraph. Also, if you are someone who has previous publishing credits to your name with a major house put that in the beginning too.
You can see from my query that this applied to me, because I had books published by Harper Voyager. My previous agent left the business (an unfortunate thing that happens more often than you’d think) and so I was querying again. And, yes, I am 100% sure this combined with a referral from my former agency, helped my request rate.
But what if this situation doesn’t apply to you?
Don’t be discouraged. When I first started, I had zero experience in the industry, and I still found a literary agent. Just put a line (two tops) about who you are, where you’re from, that kind of thing.
Then wrap it up and sign off! Simply say a quick ‘thank you for your time and consideration’ and get the hell out of there.
Alright, you got all this way to see the query letter I wrote with a crazy high acceptance rate-- and got me an agent-- so let’s get to it!
Due to my previous agent, Stephanie Kim (New Leaf Literary), leaving the publishing industry, I am seeking representation for my stand-alone YA fantasy, THE TEN THOUSAND DEATHS OF LIBERTY BANE. LIBERTY BANE is complete at 90,000 words and will appeal to readers who loved the pluck and wit of Enola Holmes and the magic and spectacle of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval series.
Just because Liberty Bane can’t truly die, doesn’t mean she appreciates being murdered. And all for stealing some old key. In and out. Should count as a success. Too bad she caught a bullet to the head before she could make the handoff.
Good thing she still has the key; it’s her only bargaining chip against the opposing forces that have taken her two best friends hostage. It’s a cat-and-mouse game through the coal-scented streets of the Triumvirate, and with the annoyingly honorable Inspector Justice Tenpenny at her side, Liberty needs to unravel the mysteries of the key and the Uncanny magic it contains. For the key may just unlock the secrets of Liberty’s forgotten past and push two nations to the brink of war. Now, how to trade one key for two friends… It’s all in a day’s work for Liberty Bane.
I am the author of the critically acclaimed adult fantasies THE FROZEN CROWN and THE SEVENTH QUEEN as well as the forthcoming QUEEN OF DAYS (2023). I currently live in Wisconsin with my husband and two daughters who are doing their level-best to take over the world.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Is it a perfect query letter? Nope! But it did what it was supposed to do. It got the attention of many agents which eventually led to me signing with the lovely Jennifer Chevais of The Rights Factory.
Notice how I said eventually… that’s not without reason. Every aspect of publishing is a marathon, especially querying. Expect that it will take time, prepare yourself for a long haul and find something new to work on while you wait.