Query letters. Those two, simple words send most authors into hiding, or drive them to heavy drinking. Query letters, a requirement for most publishers, tend to be a mysterious monster to be avoided at all costs except for those authors who are seasoned professionals. So what is a query letter? To start with, let’s break down the term.

1. Query: a question; an inquiry. 2. Letter: a written or printed communication addressed to a person or organization and usually transmitted by mail.

So in its basic form, a query letter is nothing more than a short missive that asks someone a question. Seems simple, right? Ah, but how do you write that question so it works? That’s the thing that scares most people who have to write one.

Query letters are actually not something you’re unfamiliar with. We write them all the time. If we want people to come to our house for a party, we might send out invites that say “I’m having a party on X date at X time, will you come?” Or if we want a specific book, we might submit a form to our library and say “I’m looking for X book, do you have a copy?” Query letters to prospective publishers are the same. It’s a short letter that says “I have a story (or book) about xxx. Are you interested?” There is one important difference, however. Unlike a request for someone to come to a party, or the library about a book, query letters to publishers are business letters and should follow proper business format.

What should the query contain?

1. Your name and contact information 2. 1 to 2 concise paragraphs about your story or book 3. Nothing else.

Too many authors feel that if they load down their query letters with their publication credits, it’ll get them in the door. It won’t. It might even make the prospective publisher not want to read your story.

The reason? If you’re a big name author, a publisher won’t need your credits to know who you are, and if you’re not they don’t care about your credits, they care about your writing. A laundry list of publication credits fairly screams “I’m full of myself!” and publishers shy away from people that are too egotistical. They tend to be hard to work with.

Here’s an example of a good query letter:

John Doe 1234 mystreet mycity, mystate 123456 myemailaddress

Dear Sir,

I have a 3500 word story that concerns a small dog chasing a cat. The story starts when the dog sees the cat eating out of its dish, progresses through several events while the dog chases the cat around the neighborhood, causes confusion, and ends with the cat and dog eating together out of the same dish as the sun goes down. I would like to submit my story to your publication if you feel it is something you would like to look at. Thank you for your time, John Doe

Notice that in the above example, the description is the core storyline only. No hints of subplots, or fun surprises. None of the things that you, as the author, find cool or giggle about when you read the story yourself. “Just the facts, mam.” But make sure you phrase those facts so that the person reading your short description will want to know more.

The most important thing to remember: The query letter is more important than your synopsis or your manuscript. The publisher you send it to is going to read it and decide whether your story is interesting or not, whether it fits their publication or not, whether they want to do business with you or not. So be professional, polite, and concise. Remember, you never get more than one chance to make a first impression with anyone.