The first and best place to go to find out what agents and publishers want in a query letter is on their webpage. All publishers will tell you their submission guidelines and many agents will augment that with what they want to see in a query.
Every email I send to an agent or a publisher starts with a query. (Thank you, Ms. Faust for the great advice.) Even after they have requested my manuscript, I always send them a query beginning with the sentence, “Thank you for requesting the full manuscript of blahdiblah.” And then I launch into my query. Yes, I cut and paste. Be careful as you can get you into trouble with the ol’ cut and paste.
The best responses I have gotten have been, besides the requests for a manuscript, of the type — wonderful idea, unique concept, intriguing concept, sounds interesting, — and end with “but not for me.” I always take the time to thank them for their reply. They don’t have to reply to you. Then, I move on and send those same people my next query for my next, already written novel, if I have one. (“Already written” is very important when paired with “novel”. It’s very different when writing nonfiction, like my soon to be written Cookbook.)
Remember when you had to write a resume and people would tell you, make it’s one page, and other people would tell you, make it as long as you need to detail your experience? Well, when writing a query, make it as short as possible. No one wants to read a long query letter. Your query is your one page resumé and the job you are interviewing for, auditioning for, is the job of a published author. Sell that novel. Get to the point and the point is business. The business of writers, especially now, as more writers take on the task of self-publishing, is business. In the relevant words of Mr. Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
Make your novel sound exciting! This should be obvious but it isn’t an easy thing to do in a one paragraph synopsis or even in two paragraphs.
If you have anything relevant to say about marketing your new novel, nonfiction book, or if you have two large newsletters that go out every quarter, include that. If you have a platform to sell from, a soap box, a newsletter, a twitter account, mention that. I have all those things including a retail store and thousands of students who will buy my book once it is published. Remember, it’s all about commerce.
Try and relate your book to something relevant that is happening in the world. Are you writing a novel about terrorists? Bombing at an embassy? An outbreak of the flu? A pandemic? If it’s in the news, people are interested in it. Timing is everything.
If you are selling fiction, don’t tell them about your nonfiction credentials. (I am guilty of this. I have written a lot of nonfiction, as well as some fiction, in my time and I can’t help but mention it. Plus I write for two blogs and was a featured contributor/publisher for Foodbuzz.com. See? I can’t help but mention it.)
I mention briefly who I think my novel will appeal to.
And polish all the prose, correct typos, spelling errors and crappy grammar. Do the best you can. When you feel that your query letter is perfect, and it wont be, send it out and then get back to writing. No sense sitting around wringing your hands waiting for a response. It might be weeks or months or never.
I really can’t pretend to much knowledge. I’ve only been sending out queries for 2-3 years. Rather, I think you should just click on the following links and learn the art of query writing from the horse’s mouth:
Jessica Faust’s A Submission Reminder
(One of my favorites. Read all the posts in her blog. It is well worth reading.)
And finally, here is a very nice, short and to the point set of directions. Ms. Gardner has this on her website.
I follow Ms. Faust and Ms. Gardner on Twitter and also follow Ms. Gardner on Facebook. I follow the people I query. You never know what you might learn from their posts and tweets. I also follow publishers. So, what are you waiting for? Do your homework and get writing! Good luck.