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What is a Query Letter and other publishing basics

8 Years Ago

The following is a summary of notes I took at a 2-day lecture by Cynthia Good, the former president of Penguin Publishing's Canadian division.

There is a general belief among those who have yet to start the publishing process, that publishing is a foregone conclusion.  You write a book, you show it to a publisher, and they publish it as easily as you would go into Staples and get a print made.

Unfortunately this is not the case.

Publishing has much more in common to an actor getting discovered.  You must audition for publishers.  Your book competes with thousands of other books vying for the publisher’s attention.  You spend sleepless nights refining your craft, writing your letters, and getting the word out.  In some cases you get lucky and just the right person at just the right publisher takes a chance on you.  More often than not, you languish in a pile of form letters that read “Dear .  We thank you for your interest in us, but we just feel your work isn’t right for our firm.  Sincerely, .” After enough of these, you may get discouraged and wonder what’s wrong with your writing.  Other times you get mad and decide “they just don’t get it,” or “my writing just isn’t commercial.”

No matter how you react to this, the unfortunate truth is that publishing is a business.  Publishers are only human; they have a limited staff with limited hours and limited budgets.  One of the ways they see as many works as humanly possible, is by requiring a query letter along with your submission.  The query letter is their "trailer" of your writing.  In most cases you must grab their attention with the query letter for them to even look at your actual book.  So why is it then that we spend hours upon hours fine tuning our story, only to hide it behind a query letter that took us all of 10 minutes to write?

What is a Query Letter? 

A query letter is a window into what your book is about.  It's generally a page long and has information on your plot, characters, themes and goals, as well as some personal information about yourself.  It should also evoke the writing style of your book.

What a Query Letter is not.

A query letter is not a plot synopsis of everything that happens in your book, nor is it a character synopsis.  Despite how much you may love the intricate details of your characters and story, that is not what publishers are interested in.  They want the meat of your book, the "why should this exist" material.  A query letter is also not a plea.  You must be confident that you've written something worth telling, and explain to the publishers why that is.  Finally, a query letter is not a bribe.  Sure you can try throwing a few dollars or an apple pie in there... but it probably won't get you much.  = p

Basic Anatomy of a Query Letter

While there is no set format for a query letter, there are a few generally accepted guidelines among publishers. 

- A query letter should have one paragraph dedicated to the story itself.  This is where you try to suck the reader in with your characters and story.  Leave a little bit of mystery to make them want to read the first chapter.

- There should also be a paragraph about the theme or style or reason for creating your work.  This is basically the "real life" reason for your work to exist.  How will a reader relate to your piece?  Is there a reason you are particularly passionate about the subject matter?  What makes you an expert on it?

- There should also be a short paragraph about yourself.  Who are you?  Do you have an education that makes you an authority on what you've written about?  Are you an enthusiast in that specific area?

- And finally it needs to have a great conclusion.  A truism in almost all writing is that you have to suck the reader in at the beginning, and finish strong in the conclusion, because those are the parts that will stay the longest with the reader.

Publishers vs Self-Publishing

With all the rejections, scrutiny, and judgement that comes with finding a publisher, it's very tempting these days to go the self-publishing route.  This is completely fine, if you are doing it for the right reasons.

If just seeing your work in a printed form is enough to put a smile on your face, then self-publishing is a completely valid way to reach that goal.  However, if you want to reach a wide audience then I regret to inform you that almost NO best-sellers are ever done via self-publishing.  If you think about this, it makes sense.  Self-publishers have no marketing.  The responsibility to market falls directly on the author, and all I can say is good luck trying to sell 300 copies of your book to Chapters/Indigo when they have no idea who you are.

Another bad reason to go into self-publishing is because a publisher asks you to make sweeping changes to your work.  Maybe they want you to reduce your word count from 140,000 to just 100,000.  Maybe they think a character or two aren't necessary, so they ask you to completely remove them.  There are those of us as authors who feel this is stifling our creative freedom.  Maybe we think "to hell with them, this is my book and I'm not going to compromise my integrity for anyone."  So we walk away with our head held high, proud to know we stood up for ourselves.

Except then we don't get anywhere.

The fact is, publishers know what they’re doing - they've been through the trenches before.  They have an army of professional editors with more years of experience than a fish has scales.  As upsetting as it can be to be brushed off by them, or embarrassed by them, getting depressed or angry is not a useful response.  You can build a world of lies around yourself to protect your ego, or you can let your ego go and use that energy to improve your work.  Maybe you don't always change it in the exact way that they tell you to, but you should at least consider changing it at all.  Writing is a craft and to know you are doing it right you should face some hard decisions.  If you really truly want your work to be the best it can be, then you need an experienced critical eye looking at it and making suggestions.


Publishing is not an easy path.  It is often upsetting and discouraging and rife with unfairness.  However, it is always informative as long as you decide upfront that you are going to learn from it.  Be critical of your own work, and always look for ways you can make it better.  Spend a long time on your query letter - remember, it's basically our "representative" to the publisher.  If you can get it right, then great things will follow.