Fiction writers have it easy – all they have to do is type up a one-page query letter, a one-page synopsis and perhaps and four- or five-paragraph author biography and ship it off to the literary agent of their choice. Non-fiction writers, on the other hand, must compile a professional book proposal if they want to get it published.
The one thing that many non-fiction writers overlook is the query letter. They assume that the book proposal will speak for itself, and they don’t put much time into the query (or cover) letter. However, your book proposal should always be supplemented with a clear, concise and attention-getting query letter to capture the agent’s or publisher’s interest before he or she even starts perusing the book proposal.
Since most non-fiction books are not even written until after a book proposal is accepted, your query letter must do all three of these things:
(1)Demonstrate your skills as a writer. This means no grammatical mistakes and no spelling errors. Feel free to let your style and tone creep into your query letter.
(2)Generate interest in your material. The literary agent or publisher must want to know more about your proposed material. For example, if you’re going to write a book about horticulture, give interesting anecdotes and information that is not included in other horticulture books on the market.
(3)Establish confidence in your expertise. Non-fiction books are written by experts in particular industries, which means that you must show the agent or publisher that you are qualified to write a book about the proposed material.
Most non-fiction query letters are five or six paragraphs long, and should always fit on one single typed page with one-inch margins on all sides. It should also include your contact information, including your e-mail address, your physical address, your phone number and your fax number if applicable. If you own a website that is relevant to the material, include that, as well.
Following is an explanation of how your non-fiction query letter should progress based on a five-paragraph format.
Paragraph #1: Capture the Recipient’s Interest
Whether you’re writing to a literary agent or to a publisher, he or she will form an opinion of your work based on the very first paragraph. Even if you manage to salvage your credibility, in subsequent sentences, those first few lines can serve to ruin your chances of ever becoming published.
In the opening paragraph of your non-fiction query letter, you’ll want to introduce yourself and your manuscript in an interesting, creative way. You might want to include the proposed word count for your manuscript, a working title, and the main premise for your material.
Paragraph #2: Explain Why You Should Write the Book
The second paragraph of your non-fiction query letter should explain your reasons for wanting to write the book as well as reasons why you are the right person to write it. For example, if you have been a horticulture professor at a major university for the last twenty years, mention that. You could also say that you intend to use the book in your curriculum, which ensures at least a few sales.
You don’t want to “toot your own horn” too brashly in this paragraph, but you do want to establish yourself as an expert. Include mention of any other works that you have published in the past, including magazine articles or trade journal pieces that might be of interest to the recipient.
Paragraph #3: Tell the Recipient Why Your Book is Different
Just about every subject under the sun has been written about at one point or another, so you’ll need to tell the recipient of your non-fiction query letter why your book is different. What information are you able to give that can’t be found in other volumes? Is there a fresh slant you are proposing to take on the subject that would give it immediate attention?
You will go into a more detailed analysis of similar titles later on in your book proposal, but this should give a brief overview. Tell the recipient what you can provide that other books and articles lack.
Paragraph #4: Issue an Invitation
The four paragraph of your non-fiction query letter should be an invitation not only to explore your book proposal but also to represent (literary agent) or publish (publisher) your manuscript. Give an estimated timeline for composition (how long it will take you to write the manuscript).
Be sure to thank the recipient for perusing your proposal and for taking the time to consider your manuscript. Politeness will always win points, and you should let the recipient know that you will be easy to work with.
Paragraph #5: Enclosures
Your final paragraph shouldn’t be written in paragraph form, but should include the enclosures of your book proposal in bulleted format. Make sure you list the enclosures in the order they will be attached to your query letter.
Once you’ve written your non-fiction query letter, sign it with a professional closing (Best Regards, Sincerely, etc.), and skip two spaces in which to sign your name. Below that, type your full legal name, your physical address, your e-mail address, your web address (if applicable) and your preferred method of correspondence.
You will find varying advice about non-fiction query letters in different reference books, and for the most part, every editor and agent prefers a different format. Some literary professionals will include the accepted format in their submission guidelines, while others leave it up to you. The above guidelines have been taken from my experience with four publishing companies.