The Best Query Letter Ever Written

tolstoyRecently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out.   I taught a class  in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”

A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”

The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.

The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.

I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.

As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself  an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a  query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):


 I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work  of historical fiction.

 War and Peace is the  epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives or die in the course of the novel.  In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of  Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky,   I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are  real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov.  My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that  the reader can almost smell the gun powder.

The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.”   John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”

I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major   language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law.  I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.

The manuscript is complete and available at your request.

Count Leo Tolstoy




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14 Responses to “The Best Query Letter Ever Written”

  1. Charles Bane, Jr. Says:

    Dear Mr. Tolstoy,
    Thank you for your query. However, we are in the market for YA fiction heavily laden with vampires and/or dystopian themes. Your novel, although it sounds interesting, does not sound like the fast-paced vehicle we are searching for.
    You can take comfort that this is not a query for a poetry collection, in which we would not have answered.

  2. Charles Bane, Jr. Says:

    Would also still love to see contemp. MG or YA set at a summer camp, sports academy, boarding school, fat camp, etc. No paranormal.

  3. andyrossagency Says:

    Charles, that cracks me up. Thanks.

  4. Loan Le Says:

    Excellent advice! I’ve interned at a literacy agency and another thing I have to add is that you shouldn’t explain why you’re writing a book.

    We once got a query in which a woman explained that her mother, her best friend, her cousin, her co-workers, etc., have been telling her to write a book for years, and that she’d finally decided to write it. Like you said, get straight to the point.

    Thanks for this post and I look forward to your next one.


  5. authors promotion Says:

    Reblogged this on AuthorsPR Literary Lounge.

  6. andyrossagency Says:

    That’s right, Loan. Remember that agents are deluged with these query letters. You can leave off the superfluous pleasantries.

    • Charles Bane, Jr. Says:

      There are some serious issues being discussed here and I’d like to add that my experience of agents is problematic, at best. Publishing is increasingly corporate and tied to the media corporations that promote commercial fiction. These media outlets and publishing houses are often one. This is the terrain that literary agents ruthlessly search for formulaic books that fit within its boundaries. Many popular authors concede that they would not be successful today if they were only entering their works in today’s market.. There is no nurturing, no bringing along. It’s transactional only.
      I would urge young writers to consider the many, emerging small presses that work in the shadows of large scale publishing, and are beginning to capture the public’s attention.

  7. andyrossagency Says:

    Well, Charles, you have certainly turned my slightly whimsical but true post into something more serious. And what you say is very important. I think there is some truth in it. Maybe you are a little hyperbolic, though. My experience with fiction is that you have to be very good to get published. But that’s not enough. I have some very good books I represented and they didn’t get published for reasons that had more to do with marketing than aesthetics. I suppose that is to be expected. After all, publishers are businesses. And frankly, the same holds true of smaller independent presses. They need to make money as well. They have lower expectations for sales, but they also do many fewer books. Fortunately self publishing is there now, but in most cases it’s been oversold. It’s easy to publish your own book. It’s not easy at all to find readers.

  8. andyrossagency Says:

    Thanks Charles, and thanks for bringing this up.

  9. amy ferris Says:

    i love you Andy Ross. i love you to the moon & back. you are such a brilliant delight.

  10. andyrossagency Says:

    Hi Amy, It’s ok to send me mash notes on my blog. Love you too.

  11. heatheradams2013 Says:

    I love the War & Peace query!

  12. andyrossagency Says:

    Thanks Heather. It’s easier to write a query for War and Peace than to write the book, though.

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