#14DayPBChallenge Day 12 – How to Write a Query Letter

I’ll be very honest in saying that because my debut picture book manuscript was picked up in a Twitter Pitch Event, I have not had much experience with writing query letters, but that is about to change. I scoured the internet looking for tips for writing query letters, and my primary take-away from that research is that a query letter for a picture book manuscript will not be the same as one for a novel. It will be shorter and possibly, sweeter, too.

Mary Kole offers some insight into writing query letters for picture book authors:

“Hello. This is Mary Kole with Good Story Company. I’m here today to talk about query letters for picture books. And this is a very enticing topic for a lot of people.

“A lot of people get very, very interesting query letters because this is your foot in the door. This is how you get in front of an agent or a publisher, this cover letter. I would say, of course, focus on the query but make sure that your book is as strong as you can get it because that is the number one thing that agents and publishers are going to be interested in once they read your query. If they feel enticed to buy the query, the picture book is what’s gonna make or break your submission. But that being said, I understand that query letters are very, very anxiety-provoking for a lot of writers.

“So how do we handle a query letter for a picture book? Your query will be short. Picture books, ideally, are short themselves and for the most part, they will follow the query letter in the same submission. They’ll [the picture books] be pasted after the query in an email. An agent will request them in one shape or another. You’ll always want to follow submission guidelines. And you will be presenting the manuscript at the same time as the query. So, your query doesn’t need to be as comprehensive as it would be for a novel or for a project where the whole manuscript isn’t gonna follow right along.

“People overthink query letters, but picture book query letters especially. I’ve read query letters that are twice as long as the actual manuscript itself in terms of word count. I wouldn’t recommend that. What I would do in a picture book query letter is add your personalization at the top, why you are querying that agent, why you are submitting to that publisher. Maybe it’s the book that the publisher has issued that you love, or that the agent has represented that really speaks to you, or is similar in tone or for another reason to the book that you have, you think it might be a good fit.

“Then you will want to present your picture book. Title is a picture book of XYZ words that is all about making friends and embracing differences, for example. So this is where your theme comes into play, the universal message that you are writing toward with your picture book. And you would put in a query so that they know… Because when we’re evaluating picture books, we always know what kind of picture books we’re looking for and what we may not be looking for. And so, if I’m a publisher and I have a ton of friendship books, or a ton of odd-couple friendships, or a ton of “I love being me” or embracing differences books, then I may bounce out right there. I would really clearly present what the picture book is about. We don’t want to have a message in the book that hits readers over the head. That’s a completely different discussion, but at the same time, I think it’s perfectly fine to pull out your theme and isolate it in the query letter. Then you may want to go ahead and just run through what happens in the plot, who the character is. Both of these things are very important in picture books because you don’t have a lot of words to work with. And so, your story needs to be right there in the query and right there in the picture book.

“I would reveal how the picture book ends. If I’m thinking about Oliver Jeffers’ “Lost and Found,” I wouldn’t say, “Does the boy ever find the penguin?” At the end, I would say, “The boy and the penguin are reunited in an unexpected way and their friendship grows,” for example, so that’s, spoiler alert, the ending to “Lost and Found” by Oliver Jeffers. But the agent or the publisher needs to know sort of where you’re going with the story, how the story wraps up, and how the theme works into it. That’s very important in picture books.

“So make sure to have any sales hooks, for example, it’s written in rhyme, it’s a great read-aloud, it has a teacher’s guide in the back that talks about penguins. Anything like that, you’ll also want to include in the query letter. The plot, the theme, the character, if the character has any interesting attributes, or the character goes on a specific journey, or a character arc in the picture book, you’ll want to include that. A little bio if you work in education, if you have other experience with writing for children or other teaching experience or other writing experience, even if it’s not for children, very good stuff to put in the bio paragraph. And then, just say, “Per your submission guidelines, the manuscript is included below.” You don’t want to say attached and you don’t want to attach anything because most agents and publishers do not accept attachments. But if they say in their submission guidelines that they want to consider the whole manuscript, in it goes with the query letter, usually via copy and paste. “Please let me know your thoughts. Thank you for your consideration.”

“If you’re sending to more than one agent or more than one publisher at a time, which I highly encourage you to do, you may also want to include some language about “Please note this is a simultaneous submission.” Say that 10 times fast because that indicates to them that you are going out widely on your submission, which is, again, totally fine, but you may want to have language in there just to, you know, dot your i’s and cross your t’s and then that’s it, 250 words, 300 words maximum for a picture book query letter. And remember, the thing that you are talking about is gonna fall right after so this just needs to be a summary, a cover letter. Isolate any sales hooks, that’s what agents and publishers will be looking for, and you’re good to go.

“This has been Mary Kole with Good Story Company, and here’s to a good story.” Mary Kole Good Story

On the Kid Lit site, I found the following additional info that Mary Kole said about a query for a picture book:

” Since most agents ask that the picture book manuscript be included in the submission, writing a really meaty query letter for picture book, especially for that short a manuscript seems a bit silly. When I see a picture book query done well — and when I write my own picture book pitches, in fact — it’s usually very simple.

“I’ve had a book by Katie Van Camp and illustrated by Lincoln Agnew called Harry and Horsie on my recommended reading list for a while. It’s an example of a great picture book with an outside-the-box friendship hook. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m sorry for you, because you’re missing out.

picture book query, query sample, picture book literary agent
The basis for my picture book query sample.

If I were writing a query for HARRY AND HORSIE, it would read something like this:

Harry and plush toy, Horsie, are the best of friends. One night, Harry is trying out his bubble-making machine when one of his bubbles swallows Horsie and hoists him into outer space! Harry has to rescue his best friend — and go on a wild space adventure — before returning safely home.

A quirky picture book with a great friendship hook, spare text and retro-style illustration, HARRY AND HORSIE is sure to blast your imagination into the stratosphere! This is a simultaneous submission. You will find the full manuscript of XXX words pasted below (or “enclosed”). I look forward to hearing from you and appreciate your consideration.

“Easy peasy. No need to write an elaborate picture book query letter. Just present the main characters, the main problem, and the resolution, then work in a hook (“great friendship hook,” above), and sign off like you normally would with a novel query. This is the perfect query letter for picture book formula.

How to Get A Picture Book Literary Agent

“The picture book query should be short and compelling. Then just paste the picture book manuscript. If you are an author/illustrator, include a link to an online portfolio where the agent or editor can browse your illustrations. Do not include attachments unless the agent requests to see more illustrations or to see a dummy. Be prepared to show additional picture book manuscripts, because agents will frequently want to see more than one.” KidLit

Writer’s Digest says the following about Query Letters:

“Learning how to write a must-read query letter is nearly as important as writing a must-read manuscript—after all, an enticing query letter is what will get an agent to say, “Love your story. Send me the full manuscript.” Writer’s Digest

Klems continues by adding the following Dos:

Address the agent by name. When sending query letters to an agent, you always want to use his or her name. Generic letters addressed to “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Literary Agent” are much less likely to connect with someone at an agency. By using an agent’s name, you not only personalize your message but also show you’ve done a little research—and agents take writers who do research a little more seriously than writers who do not. Just make sure you spell the agent’s name correctly.

Cut right to the chase. Don’t waste the opening paragraph of your query letter introducing yourself. Save that for later. Much like a book, you want to hook that agent with your first sentence. The best way to do that is to introduce the hook of your manuscript right away.

Sell your manuscript. The summary of your book will ultimately make or break your chances of landing the agent. Write this section the same way you would write the copy that would appear on the back of the book jacket—one or two paragraphs that sell the heart and soul of your book. Remember, this is the most important part of your query. Spend the most time on it. (Looking for a professional editor to tell you if your summary is strong enough? …

Explain why you’ve chosen to query this specific agent. When salespeople go out to make a sale, they attempt to learn everything they can about a client before making their pitch. The more you know, the more likely you are to target the right person and find success. When pitching to an agent, it’s important you know a little bit about that agent—namely, what other books they represent. In your query, be sure to mention one or two of these books and briefly explain why you think your book is a good fit in that group. (NOTE: If your book isn’t similar in genre or scope to others the agent represents, you’re likely pitching to the wrong agent.)

Mention your platform (if you have one). Have a blog that gets 20,000 pageviews a month? Mention it. Speak at writing conferences 10 or more times a year? Mention it. Have a Twitter following of more than 30,000 followers? Mention it. Basically, having a platform can only enhance your opportunity to reach an audience of readers—which enhances your opportunity to sell books. If an agent knows you have the resources to reach an audience on your own, it makes you a more attractive client. And if you don’t have a platform, don’t worry (and don’t mention it). But consider starting to build a platform now.

Study other successful query letters. Thousands of others have found success when querying agents. No need to reinvent the felt-tipped pen. Spend time studying actual query letter examples that other writers—many of whom had no previous writing credits or platform—have used to land their literary agents.

When Writing a Query Letter Don’t …

[Don’t] Be arrogant. Never say anything in your query like “my manuscript is a bestseller in the making” or “you’d be lucky to represent my book.” (You laugh, but some people do this.) Save all bragging until the end, and even then it should be focused on meaningful writing credits and authoritative credentials (the final “don’t” on the list covers this).

[Don’t] Include your age. There is no real upside to this. In fact, it often can create unintentional bias and make it more difficult for you to sell your book.

[Don’t] Tell agents that you value their time. I learned this from my agent, Tina Wexler. Many writers waste a sentence or two in their query explaining that they know how busy the agent is and that they value their time. There’s no need for this, as agents are well aware of how busy they are. More important, though, is that this is wasted space in your query that could be used to give more information about (and sell the idea of) your manuscript.

What Is A Query Letter?

“A query letter has one purpose and one purpose only: to cause the editor or agent to want to read your manuscript or book proposal.” page 11

Writing Is A Business.  Marketing Is Essential for Writers. Writing Query Letters Is Part of Marketing.

A Query Letter Should Have a Hook – A Summary – A Short Biography – A Closing 

A Query Letter Should Be No Longer than 1 Page

How to Write A Query Letter for a Picture Book Manuscript

  1. Remember that this is a business letter. Don’t try to be too chummy.
  2. The first line of your query letter should be a hook.
  3. If you have met the letter’s recipient before, you can mention it briefly.


“…summarize what your manuscript is about in three or four sentences. For novels, this does not mean the plot points of your novel. It means an overview that includes the setting, characters, conflict, and how the novel is different from other similar novels. For nonfiction, it means an overview of how the material will be handled, the availability of photos, access to experts, and facts or statistics that indicate how many potential readers may be interested in such a book. As in every section of the query letter, the summary details must be explained in an interesting, exciting way.” page 11


“In the hook and summary sections of a query letter, the writer’s goal is to convince the editor or agent to read the offered manuscript. In the biographical information section, the goal is to convince the successfully write the manuscript described. In this brief section, the writer must highlight the areas of their life that make them an expert on the topic.” pages 11 – 12

“The biographical section is also where publishing credits are listed— best-known ones first.” page 12