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Ask the Publisher: Writing a Winning Query Letter

Ask the Publisher

What gets a query letter into the hands of the decision maker? Better yet, what makes the acquisitions editor say, "Yes!"?

There are a number of key elements that we look for at Common Deer Press, whether from an agent or an unsolicited submission (yes, Common Deer Press still looks at unsolicited submissions) and they tend to a) follow a concise logical order and b) be succinct (under 400 words).

After the professional greeting (Hiya!’ is usually not the best start ☺), the letter should include the following information.

1. Title Information

This includes the title of the work, the age group, the genre, and the word count.

For example: My Book Title is middle grade science fiction and stands at 42,000 words complete.

With this information, the reader at the publishing house knows immediately if it is something that the publisher is currently seeking.

Comfort thought: Query letters are often passed over simply because the publisher is not presently looking for that sort of book.

2. A One Paragraph "Hook"

A great hook can show how your book has an awesome concept or demonstrate the central character’s dilemma. Think of it as the tag line for your book (or imagine what the movie ad would say). This is the most critical part of your query letter. If this doesn’t get the reader wanting more a (hopefully) gentle rejection letter will result ⎯or worse, no response at all. Therefore, it is worth spending however long it takes to perfect this.

3. A One Paragraph Synopsis

Assuming you’ve cleared the "hook" hurdle, now is the point you slip in a tantalizing, one-paragraph synopsis that encapsulates the plot, the main characters and the central conflict that drives the story. This paragraph closely resembles the copy on the back cover of a finished book. Pro Tip: Go to the bookstore and look at some back jackets in your category to get some ideas for really making your copy pop.

4. Marketing information

Here’s where you can win some real bonus points and make an Acquisitions Editor sit up and take notice. Demonstrating that you know some key sales points for your book makes it much easier to the editor to get to ‘Yes!’ It can be a simple one-liner that indicates you’ve done your market research and are prepared to share it with the publisher. A real-life example from a query letter we received that resulted in a publishing agreement: “There are numerous curricular links, for JK-3, which will be of interest to parents, teachers, and librarians (market review available upon request)”.

Note: Please have this market review complete before saying you have one! There will be a blog post soon on how to write a market review for fiction.

5. All About You

This is where you sell yourself and your previous writing accomplishments. It’s just fine if you don’t have any. Just a brief one-line bio, that it’s your debut novel, and a bit about what inspired you to write the book.

Personalize the letter⎯it goes without saying that it should be addressed to the right person. But if you can add some additional info to build a connection (we recently met at the event for…, or I have enjoyed the following books on your list, or one of your authors has said how great you are to work with…). Don’t lay it on too thick, it has to sound sincere.


Proofread your letter! Get a friend or family member to go over it too. Sometimes we look at a document so much we fail to see typos and awkward syntax.

Sign off quickly and gracefully. “Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you" works just fine.

There has been a lot of information in this post. Please feel free to leave questions or comments below or email me directly if you are interested in a query letter review. Until next week!

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