A query letter is different from a cover letter. A cover letter covers the poem, story, article that you’re submitting at that time. A query letter is sent before the piece is submitted and is most common for book publishers and many nonfiction magazines. In either case you’re asking the publisher, or an agent if they would be interested in seeing your work.
Because it’s cost prohibitive to send full book manuscripts to every publisher under the sun (and there are many) it is best to ask them first if they’re even publishing the stuff you write. For editors it is also time prohibitive. Some publishing houses get a hundred manuscripts a day and they will know in the first chapter, and in many cases the first page or paragraph, whether they want to buy the book.
Publishers have different rules as to what they’ll accept. Some will not look at an ungented manuscript, meaning you’re going to be sending your query letter to an agent who will then contact the publisher should that agent decide to take you on. Some publishers will say send a query first and others will ask for a query letter with synopsis, or the first three chapters. Of course if each of your chapters is a hundred pages long you’ll want to limit the pages. I’d say that no more than 50 and probably more around 30 is average.
Editors are a temperamental lot, and should you get through the first tasks you don’t want them irritated at you. Which means, don’t send them weird stuff, and under weird is the following: colored paper, odd or hard to read fonts (standard is Courier, Times New Roman, or similar), pictures and other memorabilia of your life, stapled or bound manuscripts, toys, CDs, candy or other bribes).
And of course most of all you want to be clear and concise in your query letter. You absolutely do not want to tell an editor what they will think or feel. “You will find this an extremely exciting story which you will love.” You can’t possibly know what an editor will like or feel and telling them so also indicates that your writing might follow suit in telling the reader what the character is feeling as opposed to showing. (There are instances where telling works but it means knowing how to write first.)
So your letter should say something like:
Dear Tom Jones,
I have written a mystery novel about Angel McCracken, a detective too much a party animal for her own good. Cabana Boy in the Trunk is 110,000 words and the first of five books. Book two is completed and I’m currently working on the third novel.
I have been published in X, Y, Z… After three years working at Club Med, the behind the scenes lifestyle has added a steamy layer to the mysteries that I place in various resorts.
Now I’m no expert on query letters and I recommend everyone go and look at a few different ones. Readers Digest has good pointers and I believe a book on writing query letters. If a publisher asks for an outline or a synopsis with the query letter, then that is where you outline the story. If not, you put it into the query letter but make it briefer.
The first paragraph should say why you’re writing: you have a book or books, it fits into X genre, runs at this many words and who the protagonist is. Mentioning that there are other books, whether written or just plotted also helps because publishers always like to sell a series. Subsequent paragraphs will describe the basic gist of the plot. A summary paragraph on your credentials also lets the editor know your background. If it’s nonfiction, say a book on physics, mentioning that you work at NASA or are a physicist is important. Saying you’re a mother of two is not unless it’s pertinent to the book. However, it is good to put a personal note about who you are, and if you can relate it to the topic of your book, all the better.
In all, a query letter should be one page, and no more than two max, but one is preferred. Like an ad, you want to draw the reader into it and have them say, “Yes, that sounds interesting. Send me more.” Professional is the best way to go, and suit the tone of your letter to the type of publisher you’re talking to. And again, never ever tell an agent or an editor what they will feel or think about the manuscript.You can say, “I hope you will find this a tension grabbing and entertain reading. I look forward to hearing from you.”
And most of all, research query letters because you don’t want to have your story rejected on the basis of a letter.