Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life Part II: How to Write a Query Letter

Once you have compiled your list of agents and their contact information, it’s time to pitch your book project to them in the form of a query letter. The examples and questions below assume this is a non-fiction history book project, but the general structure is adaptable for pitching trade books in other fields as well.

The query letter is an epistolary genre all its own. It has several components:


The salutation

Here’s where you use your connection if you have one – mention this person right out of the gate.

And then – boom! – get right into a concise description of the project. A friend once told me to think of this initial description as the movie preview tagline (“in a world of war, one man …”). You don’t have to get quite that dramatic, but thinking of the description in this way could be helpful in formulating a zippy hook.

  • Dear [ ], I hope this email finds you well. [So-and-so] suggested that I contact you regarding my new book project, which tells the little-known story of […].
The book description, part 1
  • 2-3 sentences, one paragraph.

Situate your book in its context, and give a sense of its broad sweep: when and where does it begin and end? Which communities does it track, what major events does it describe?

The book description, part 2
  • 2-3 sentences, one paragraph

Here’s where you get a bit more granular. How do the chapters progress? What is unusual or particularly innovative about the book in terms of argument, sources, or structure? Will it be the first book to take on this particular historical moment or group of actors? If so, say it.

The book description, part 3
  • 1-2 sentences, one paragraph

The big picture: what does this book tell us about the larger questions or issues in this period or place? Does it lead readers to rethink a time, community, or set of events they think they know well? Does it identify a “turning point” or two in a people’s or nation’s history?

The author bio
  • 2-3 sentences, one paragraph

Describe your status and your area of expertise in one sentence.

Then highlight your experience writing books, and other pieces that have introduced large numbers of readers to your work. This is not a condensed CV; the agent will likely not care about your teaching or your service, so no need to mention it here.

The grand finale

Hopefully, in the preceding sections of the query letter you have intrigued the agent, and she/he will want to know more. So offer her/him the opportunity:

  • If you are interested in reading more about [title], I would love to send you a copy of my book proposal. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Now, before you finalize your query letter and hit <send>, be sure you can make good on the grand finale. You never know how quickly agents will get back to you – a friend of mine heard back from one agent in a matter of minutes – so you should have a polished book proposal ready to send immediately.

What does a good trade book proposal look like? This will be the subject of the next post.

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