You’ve written your memoir, you’ve produced your book proposal. Now it’s time to reach out to your chosen literary agents and/or editors. To do that, you need a query letter. Sounds simple? Some writers find this one of the hardest elements of this process.
The query letter is a one-page distillation of your book proposal. It is most often sent as an email, and it is the very first written approach you will make to an agent or editor.
Your book proposal and query letter go hand in hand. If you write your book proposal first, you’re going to have a lot of content to draw from. So, even though the query letter is the first piece you send to an agent, I recommend that you write it last.
Think of it like this. The book proposal comes from the manuscript, and then the query letter comes from the book proposal. It's like a distillation process. When you get to the point of writing the query letter, it could be that you’ve found a better way of saying something. And if that happens, you’d better put that new phrasing into the book proposal, or possibly even into the manuscript!
Don’t think of it as a chore, but as an incredibly helpful chance to refine your concept and language.
Components of a query letter
Your query letter has got to lead with a great hook. Next, include a paragraph that summarizes the book, and a paragraph about who you are—and remember, a lot of this may crossover with the content in your book proposal. In fact, your hook might be the first line of your Overview. If it’s powerful, it doesn't need to be any different.
A query letter can start with the usual business: “I wish to present to you my proposal for my memoir Idling Through Tennessee.” Or maybe you prefer to plunge them into the middle: “At midnight on the first day of summer, I buried my aunt beneath the willow tree.”
Explain why you’re sending this query to that particular literary agent. It might be along the lines of “I would love to present my memoir to you for consideration, because I see it being aligned with books that you represent such as Cheerleader Blues or My After Life…”
Never forget that publishing is a relationship business. If you've got an “in” with an agent, start in a humble way, reminding them where you met or connected previously, or mentioning the author who referred you to them.
Be professional, polite, courteous—all of the good things. Be warm and friendly, and never use the “please respond within 14 days” line, or give any other ultimatum. That will not help your cause.
You don’t need to mention if you are querying other agents, because that's assumed. Having said that, do your research—some agents insist on exclusive submissions. Every agent and every publishing house will have different requirements. Most agencies make their submission requirements crystal clear on their websites.
Remember these four general rules:
Never just send in your manuscript, or even your proposal—always start with a query letter
Do your research and ask yourself, What is this agent/publisher looking for? Does my memoir fit their brief?
Keep in mind the distillation process: the manuscript is distilled in the book proposal, and the book proposal is distilled in the query letter
Always be professional and polite
It's important to remember that your query letter will, at some point, be separated from your book proposal. Repetition is absolutely fine: indeed, make sure you don't include some cracking line in your query letter that isn't in your proposal. If it’s amazing, it's got to be in the proposal as well!
Good luck with your submissions, book proposals, query letters, and manuscripts! I hope this series of articles helps you to get your memoir book proposal into fighting form, and sets you on the path to publication.
If you want to learn more and get practical guidance, click here to access an on-demand webinar How to Write a Book Proposal for Your Memoir. This is an in-depth conversation with memoir expert Joanne Spataro, in which Joanne and I discuss the details, the whys and wherefores, as well as the pitfalls of writing a book proposal for your memoir. You’ll be guided through the entire process with useful pointers, tips, and expert advice.