12 Tips to Write an Effective Query Letter for Your Self-Help, How-To or Business Book

Nonfiction queries must focus on the writer’s platform and potential market for the book. Here are 12 tips for capturing the agent’s interest.

1. Create a catchy title and introduce it early in the query letter.
Succinct, memorable titles help sell books. Show the agent you know how to write and market by crafting an appealing title. 

2. Show why the book is timely.
Note any trends or media exposure that indicates a growing popularity in your subject. You do not need to find a current hot topic and craft your book idea around it, you just need to find a timely factor, such as a new study, a recent article, or a popular trend to help support your pitch.

3. Convince the agent that you have a target market.
Citing statistics of your potential readership shows that you understand your market niche. If you have an idea for a book about home schooling and you can quote a U.S. Department of Education report that forecasts the number of families who plan to home school their children in the next two to five years, that would be an effective statistic to include in your query and would indicate that you have a target market.

4. Include other possible sales potentials.
If the director of an annual festival or convention has agreed to purchase 4,000 copies of your book for next year’s event, or a university plans to make it a requirement for one of its ongoing classes, then be sure to convey that sales potential in your pitch. 

5. Narrow the idea for greatest impact.
A narrowly focused nonfiction book sells better than a broad-based one and agents are looking for narrowly defined ideas. For instance, there are hundreds of books available on the topic of home schooling. If you plan to write about home schooling, you will need to sharply focus the content of the book. Instead of Home Schooling for Everyone, you might write about Home Schooling Teenage Boys or Art Projects for Home Schooling or Home Schooling Assignments while Traveling in Europe.

6. List possible spin-offs or series ideas for the book.
If your book idea lends itself easily to additional books, then note that in the query letter. If your book idea is Home Schooling for Teenage Boys, possible spin-offs might be Home Schooling for Teenage Girls, and Home Schooling for First-Graders. A series of books might include Home Schooling for Teenage Boys: The Sciences; Home Schooling for Teenage Boys: Literature; and Home Schooling for Teenage Boys: History.

7. Differentiate your book.
Impress the agent by conducting thorough research and presenting information to show why your book is needed. Know what other books are available and outline why your book is different from others already on the market. Perhaps other books on the topic are out-of-date, or lack information you will provide, or present a different viewpoint. Or maybe the book is needed because no other books exist on the subject.

8. Be realistic.
Publishers expect certain types of nonfiction books to be written by experts. If you are not a psychologist, doctor, or attorney, it is not realistic that you will be selected to write a scholarly book about medicine, psychiatry or legal matters. Your query must present an idea that you can realistically write.

9. Include adequate details.
You want the agent to have a full picture of your book idea so he can effectively consider requesting your complete proposal. A book titled Home Schooling Teenage Boys needs to convey more information than that it is a book about schooling teenage boys at home. Will the book provide practical solutions or be exclusively theoretical? Will it include sample assignments? Will it be written for moms or for dads, or for both parents to read? Will it be written in a casual tone, a humorous style or in a straight academic manner? What material and subjects will it cover? A query letter does not include every detail about the book (that is what the book proposal is for), but it should provide enough details to arouse interest and allow the agent to make an informed decision regarding requesting additional material.

10. Drop names if you have them.
If you have an association or connection with a celebrity, an academic, a noted author or an authority on your subject who has agreed to write a book blurb, quote, or the foreword, it is a selling point and should be included in your query letter.

11. List three to five things you will do to promote the book.
Platform is key to securing a literary agent for a nonfiction book. Your promotional list should include substantial items, such as contacting your network of 50,000 followers, mentioning the book each week on your national podcast show, conducting a blog and social media book tour, and distributing a series of professional produced training videos (that are tied to your book) to online video outlets.

12. Mention self-published books only if they sold well.
Because anyone can publish a book using today’s technology, agents do not automatically view self-published books as proof of viability. They may believe that the book was self-published because the quality was poor, it was badly written, or it was just not good enough to garner a traditional publisher. It is best only to mention a self-published book if it sold at least 10,000 copies, received noted media attention, or won a prestigious award.