Query Letters for Non-Fiction
A Nuts and Bolts Post
As promised last week (if you’re a subscriber, you saw the Q&A Thursday about this) we’re going back to basics and talking about query letters specifically for non-fiction projects. If you’re new here, you can go back in the archives and read the 4-part series I did on query letters in general starting here.
But since we’re all busy, I’ll summarize it and add in what we need to know about non-fiction. My take on query letters (and it’s only MY take, this is not gospel) is that there are 4 main parts:
Salutation: this is were you say Dear Kate McKean instead of Dear Agent or To Whom it May Concern. Please use my name, please spell it correctly, please do not assume anyone’s marital status or gender if you are unsure. I think it’s kinda silly that this even counts as a real part of the query, but people seem to muck it up so much. No one is going to reject you outright if you misspell an agent’s name, but getting it right show you are paying attention to detail. Nothing is different here between fiction and non-fiction queries.
Intro: I think query letters should start with the title, genre, and word count. Is this the only way to start? No, but I like it. Yes, you should have a title. Give it a good think and come up with the best one you can. Note: it could change before publiction, but that’s ok.
Then, put your genre. If you’re unsure what genre your book is, read this, and then imagine what shelf your book would go on in a physical bookstore. (Remember those?) That’s the broadest expression of your genre so start there. You can add up to TWO adjectives to that, but that’s it. Adding a thousand adjectives to your genre (a non-fiction memoir family saga political expose´) acutally narrows your audience instead of expanding it.
For non-fiction, your genre is likely to be fairly straightforward. If it has recipes in it, it’s likely a cookbook. If you are talking about things from the past that happend to other people, it’s likely history. If you’re teaching the reader something, it could be self-help, or how-to, or the like. Yes, yes I know you want to put your grandma’s muffin recipe in your memoir, but that does not make it a cookbook, but come on—you know what a memoir looks like and what a cookbook looks like. Use common sense.
I will tell you right now, though, there is no such thing as a fictional memoir, or a non-fiction novel. I get that real life events might have inspirired your novel, or that you invented some dialog for your memoir. Both of these things happen every day in things labled Novels and Memoirs. No one remembers conversations verbatim 20 years later, so the reader expects that those things will be approximated by the author. Readers also always assume that what happens to characters also happened to the author of matter he genre, so there’s no need to say your novel is also “non-fiction.” I mean, that’s kinda contratdictory. So don’t do that.
With word count, you might be saying Kate, I haven’t finished my book yet and only wrote one sample chapter. I don’t know what my word count will be. Don’t worry, everyone in publishing knows about this probelm. It’s OK. Estimate best you can. Take the word count of your sample chapter and multiply it by the number of chapters. If that first chapter is a little short, add 10% more. If you don’t have chapters, make your best guestimate. It is very unlikely you will be so far off that it will affect the publication of your book. I promise this is ok. Remember, this is word count NOT page count.
Summary: In the next paragraph or two, if you were writing a novel, you’d tell the reader what happens in your book, the plot, and yes, even the ending. When you’re writing non-fiction, I like to flip this to say you need to tell the reader your thesis. Don’t get freaked out if you hated writing papers in high school. I mean, it’s kinda like that but less fraught, imho. Your book has to have a point. In the middle 2-3 (MAX) paragraphs in your query letter, tell the reader what your point is. What will your book show or prove or illuminate? If you’re writing a history or memoir, it’s likely your summary will read like a novel. Things happend to people, so tell me what happened to them. If you’re writing something more prescriptive, you need to tell the reader what they’re going to be able to do by the end of the book and how you’re going to get them there. In these 10 easy steps, you’ll be able to ask for a raise or confront your boss or nosy coworkers without breaking a sweat. If you’re proving a kind of point, your summary must indicate what your point is and how you’re going to prove it. Twitter is sowing the seeds of unrest in America and this is how and why. See? You need a thesis. If your thesis is hey look at all these things I noticed and want to tell you about then… you don’t have a thesis.
Bio and Platform: This is arguably the most important part of your query letter. And while many agents won’t outright reject you based on this section, it does go a long way in our overall evaluation. Read this post on platfrom if you’re writing non-fiction STAT. No really, go read it. It varies from subject to subject, i.e. you don’t necessarily need a platform for memoir if your story is just out of this world, but if you, say, want to be a diet book guru, you need a huge, huge, huge platform. Just think about how the reader shops for books. If you’re in a store (one day!) and you want a diet book, which one are you going to choose? The one by some person you’ve never heard of, or a person you’ve read articles by, seen reposted by your friends on social media, even caught the tail end of their segment on the Today Show. Does every author need to be on the Today Show to get published? No, but in some areas , like diet, exercise, health, cooking, a high profile platform is a MUST. I’m sorry, but it’s true. And it’s not an arbritrary rule made up by publishers and agents. It’s the reader who wants this.
(And listen, I know it is going to be tempting to get in the comments here or email me and say WELL this person I know had no platform and got published anyway so THERE. And yeah, I get it. This is not a LAW. This is an industry standard. Of course there are going to be exceptions. But, as I’ve said 100 times before, expections don’t mean you get to opt out of the hard work. )
After that, you’ll end your query with a closing, something like I look forward to hearing from you, Sincerely, Author Name. Simple is fine here. Don’t stress about it. Non-fiction writers can also take just about any and all other query advice pointed at fiction writers. Be direct. Proofread and proofread again. (Do as I say…..) Follow submission guidelines. Where fiction query letters depart from here fiction is the summary, aka thesis, and the bio. Otherwise, they’re very similar.
Good luck with your queries, your projects, just getting through the day. It’s so hard. I see you.
P.S. I am dyslexic and there are going to be typos in this newsletter. Please don’t tell me about them. It makes me feel bad.