In a minute, you'll read a letter that actually did grab an agent, and then a publishing deal. It's also an example of an imperfect letter, and an illustration of the truth that if your idea and writing are good enough, your letter can be less than perfect! The letter is from Neil Ansell and this is what he told me:
"It is my initial query letter for a book of non-fiction which won me the first agent I approached almost overnight on the strength of one chapter. Three chapters and a proposal later it went to auction between five publishers. DEEP COUNTRY is memoir / nature writing." It is published in paperback by Penguin, after hardback release last year by Hamish Hamilton.
This was Neil's letter.
Dear XXXXX,In my view, he caught the agent's positive interest for two reasons: it's a good idea, with novelty and interest, also catching the zeitgeist. And he's a proven career writer. A non-fiction submission needs those things. Or, if you're not a proven writer you need to show qualification/platform in the subject-matter of your book falls.
I am seeking representation for a book I am currently working on concerning a period spent studying the natural history of a small area in mid-Wales. For 5 years I lived alone in a remote mountain cottage with no running water, gas or electricity, with no vehicle or phone.
There seems to be an abiding interest in subjective accounts of natural history, and I think that my story would have a unique selling-point in terms of the extremity of the lifestyle I adopted.
My background is as an award-winning journalist who has worked both in print and with 7 years experience with BBC Current Affairs. I am now working freelance, and am hoping to garner some interest in this project before it is complete. Let me know if you would like to see what I have so far.
I have not yet approached anyone else, I thought of you because of your portfolio.
To make the letter better - even though this turned out not to be necessary - I'd have liked more information about the book. Its structure, for a start. And Neil should have mentioned the title in the opening paragraph. The proposal (if not the letter itself) would need to talk a little bit about the market and competition, showing what sort of person it would be aimed at.
But it did the job, and that's the most important point! But it did the job more easily because the idea was a good one.
By the way, do you want to know the pitch that got me the contract for Write to be Published?
Dear Emma,And she emailed back five minutes later saying "YES!" However, that is NOT how to pitch a book in normal circumstances!
I was wondering - if I pitched you a book based on my blog, Help! I Need a Publisher!, would you be interested?
Any comments on Neil's letter, anyone? Neil said, "I'm sure there are all sorts of ways this could have been improved and I will be interested to hear what people have to say. I had not done any research, or ever seen a query letter in my life, so I was basically winging it, and feel very lucky that I got away with it."