This is advice I've heard all over the internet, aimed at querying writers--sometimes even from agents themselves!--and it's so misleading, it's just unfair to the authors and it makes my heart hurt. The advice? Write your query letter the same way you'd write the description on the back of a published book.
The problem? THAT'S NOT WHAT QUERY LETTERS ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE THESE DAYS.
In fact, there's not one difference, there are three:
Queries have more parts!
#3 is the most important, the hardest to describe, and the one I correct the most often when I am editing queries. Check out the video for my lightning-fast explanation of all these differences, as well as a peek at why I started editing queries with an eye toward agent psychology, not just describing the book well.
If you want examples of two queries and back-of-the-book descriptions side by side, scroll down! I used my own books, Unbreak Me and Breathe the Sky, since I had queries written for those (even though neither was ever queried because I already had my first agent by then) and I wanted to contrast that with the back cover copy as written by the publisher so you can have a peek at how the style changes. I also have an example from a friend's book, Oona Out of Order, because she had a great query that landed multiple agent offers, and her back cover copy differs significantly in style--but went on to help the book become a national bestseller!
Note on terminology: some people call the description on the back of the book a "blurb" and I try not to do that, since that term is also interchangeably used for the supportive endorsement on the front of a book from another author ("Brilliant!" -Emily Henry). Those terms are very confusingly used throughout the industry, so in this video, I stumble over the phrase back-of-the-book description multiple times instead.
Query Example #1
Oona lives one year at a time—in no particular order. New Year’s Eve, Brooklyn, 1982. Oona Lockhart is about to turn 19 and torn between two golden opportunities: a promising tour with the band she and her boyfriend play in or a year studying abroad at a prestigious business school. When the clock strikes midnight, she’s robbed of both choices. Instead, she’s transported to 2015, still in her own body—mentally 19, but physically 51. Oona comes to learn she has a time sickness: every year, she leaps into a different point on her adult timeline. Never knowing who she’ll end up being each year— philanthropist, club kid, world traveler, wife to a man she’s never met—she struggles to embrace her identity, live in the present, and find meaning in a chaotic life. At first, Oona makes the most of being chronologically challenged. But before long, she grows tired of feeling like an imposter who accepts the destiny laid out for her. She attempts to alter her future—and fails miserably. So she resigns herself to make peace with her ever-shifting present. Until she unearths a startling family secret that drives her to tempt fate once more so she can unite her family and solidify an identity for herself. Oona only has one chance at getting each year right, so she’ll need to decide how much to meddle with fate, knowing she’s gambling with the future happiness of everyone she loves. Oona Out of Order is standalone upmarket fiction with series potential, complete at 105,000 words.
I received a Creative Writing degree from Emerson College and have worked in both the agent and publisher side of the industry. I’ve blogged for Marvel, Google, Quirk Books, and XOJane. Currently, I’m an editor/book coach for Author Accelerator. In January, 2018, I published my debut novel, Asleep from Day, which the Midwest Book Review called “simply riveting from start to finish.” I also have an in-depth professional background in social media marketing and have developed a personal online platform with 9K+ followers.
Michelle's Notes: This is a fabulous query, and I'm not surprised it garnered four offers. It starts with a clear conflict and what the character wants, has a splashy inciting incident, includes enough colorful details you can get an idea of the personality of the book, and ends on the stakes. It's a strong hook, encapsulated well. Plus, it's a fantastic length: 243 words for the meat of the description and 342 words from start to finish. The bio paragraph gives you an idea of how to leverage specifics of your background that are pertinent to the publishing industry as well as when to include numbers about your social media reach. This query doesn't have comp titles or personalization, but the next example will give you demonstrations of those.
Back-of-the-Book-Cover Description Example #1
A remarkably inventive novel that explores what it means to live a life fully in the moment, even if those moments are out of order.
It’s New Year’s Eve 1982, and Oona Lockhart has her whole life before her. At the stroke of midnight she will turn nineteen, and the year ahead promises to be one of consequence. Should she go to London to study economics, or remain at home in Brooklyn to pursue her passion for music and be with her boyfriend? As the countdown to the New Year begins, Oona faints and awakens thirty-two years in the future in her fifty-one-year-old body. Greeted by a friendly stranger in a beautiful house she’s told is her own, Oona learns that with each passing year she will leap to another age at random. And so begins Oona Out of Order...
Hopping through decades, pop culture fads, and much-needed stock tips, Oona is still a young woman on the inside but ever changing on the outside. Who will she be next year? Philanthropist? Club Kid? World traveler? Wife to a man she’s never met? Surprising, magical, and heart-wrenching, Margarita Montimore has crafted an unforgettable story about the burdens of time, the endurance of love, and the power of family.
Michelle's Notes: Notice how right from the beginning, this is more summarized and leaves more to the imagination than the query. The query spelled out the character's desires and choices (agents love this!) whereas this description just captures the theme of that with "has her whole life before her." At the end, this description only hints at one of the conflicts of the book rather than laying them out.
Pay particular attention to the first, italicized line ("A remarkably inventive novel that...") and the last line ("Surprising, magical, and heart-wrenching, Margarita Montimore has crafted an unforgettable story..."). These are PRECISELY the kind of statements that work well on a published book but that you shouldn't waste space on in a query. The first reason is they're too vague. They make statements about the book's quality instead of telling us what the book IS. The second reason they don't work in a query is because, well...in a book description, it sounds like someone ELSE is giving accolades to your book. In a query, the agent knows you wrote it. So it sounds like you're making some pretty boasty claims about how great you are, and that can be a squirmy look in a business letter.
Query Example #2
Dear Very Specific Agent,
After the seventh of your #MSWL requests matched my current project, I decided to stop my vigorous nodding and send you a query letter. I think my 96,000 word Adult Contemporary Romance would be a good fit for you because of your interest in sexy romance with characters facing real problems. You can also see women in STEM with the field biologist heroine, which you mentioned was a favorite of yours.
Mari Tucker’s job is to scoop baby tortoises and bunnies out of the way of bulldozers. Being an endangered species biologist has her moving all around the Mohave Desert, which keeps her hidden from her abusive ex-husband. Unfortunately, her newest assignment sticks her with Jack Wyatt, a foul-mouthed construction foreman with a reputation for making his bios cry. But she’s determined not to take any crap off another man. At first, their clashes are loud enough to be legendary. After he helps her track and trap a few animals, and she bribes him with solar-oven-baked brownies, they settle into something of a truce.
Jack finds out the crew’s creepiest guy has moved into the seedy motel where Mari’s staying, so he moves in, too, to keep her safe. Over tailgate-cooked dinners and HGTV, the two battered souls form a tentative friendship. After Jack’s rocky childhood, they have more in common than he’d prefer.
Mari has to sort out whether she can trust her instincts about men, after her past mistakes. Jack has no idea how to behave around a lady, and doesn’t figure any woman would want to stick around long enough for him to learn. Together, they help each other heal a lifetime’s worth of wounds under the warmth of the desert sun.
But when Jack’s abusive brother comes back into his life, and Mari’s ex finds her, it will put everything they’ve learned to the test. Only time will tell if they are sucked back into old patterns, or if they can find the faith in themselves—and each other—to build a better future.
Beauty and the Beasts has the cozy, coming-home feel of a Debbie Macomber novel and themes of healing after trauma like Colleen Hoover. It was based on my real-life experiences as a truck-dwelling desert tortoise biologist, and yes, I really have rescued every animal in this book.
Michelle Notes: Since I already had my agent when I wrote this book, I mocked up a personalization, comp title, and bio paragraph to add to this query description, so you could see all the parts of the query. Note how I put a little extra energy to adding my own voice and personality to my mention of the agent's #Mswl requests, and into my bio sentence. I chose to put the genre and word count at the top and comp titles in the bottom, but however you break it up, try to include all of these. Notice how I added some contextualizing details for WHY I chose the comp titles I did. That can help your case.
The bulk of the book description is a touch long: 267 words instead of 150-250. But I make up for it with a very trim genre sentence and a bio sentence instead of a paragraph, highlighting that the book is written from my personal experience, and wrapping the whole up for a trim 385 words, which is right on target. Make sure and contrast the very specific conflict sentence at the end of this query with how it ended up on the final back-of-the-book description.
You'll notice the publisher very rightly changed my working title for a much more evocative one, though it did take us approximately 50 billion rounds to decide on this title.
Back-of-the-Book-Cover Description Example #2
Two strangers start out saving animals and end up rescuing each other in this heartwarming romance from the author of Unbreak Me.
Mari Tucker is a wildlife biologist who scoops bunnies and endangered tortoises out of harm’s way on construction sites. Still haunted by her past, she takes the most remote jobs in the Mojave Desert to avoid people and hide from her ex. It’s a simple, quiet life filled with sweet animals and solar-powered baking until she ends up assigned to Jack Wyatt’s crew.
Construction foreman Jack Wyatt’s loud, foul-mouthed temper keeps even the most rugged of men on his crew in line. No mistake is overlooked, because out in the desert it could mean life or death. In his opinion, the job site is no place for sensitive biologists, especially one as shy as Mari. But instead of wilting from the heat and hard work, Mari wins over Jack and his crew one homemade brownie at a time.
Jack and Mari find a comfortable rhythm, building a friendship that’s rare for both of them. After Jack’s rocky childhood, they have more in common than they’d imagined. But even the Mojave sun can’t chase away the shadows when the past is determined to track them down…
Michelle's Notes: Notice how much more vague that last paragraph is? It really tells you nothing, but the publisher didn't want to spoiler much of the plot, whereas in a query, you do NOT want to hide what the conflict is.
Query Example #3
Nineteen: hours Andra Lawler was held captive by her kidnapper.
Three: years she’s hidden away at her family’s ranch.
One: number of southern cowboys it will take to change everything.
LJ Delisle’s home is in the steamy heat and well-worn streets of New Orleans, but there’s no room in the city for the horses he loves. When he trades in his saxophone for a Stetson, he ends up in Montana, painfully outnumbered on a ranch full of white faces. His wide grin and kitten-soft heart charm most of the people he meets…but not all.
When he first sees Andra, he accidentally scares her into a panic attack. Hating to be the bad guy, LJ offers an apology in the form of cooking lessons. Somewhere between sun-drenched trail rides and Gumbo 101, he becomes the only person who makes Andra laugh. She announces their transition from friends to lovers with one wild post-rodeo kiss, and her courage astounds him as she tackles the panic attacks that block their every foray into intimacy.
Their courtship is cut short when family responsibilities call LJ back to New Orleans. Andra takes a chance on their brand-new relationship and comes with him, but struggles to fit in with his mostly-black neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward. For LJ, the Ninth is riddled with reminders of all the people he failed to save during Hurricane Katrina. Against the patchwork backdrop of flood-scarred foundations and half-repaired houses, LJ and Andra both fight to find a way to rebuild themselves stronger after the kind of crisis that destroys everything.
But with prejudice shadowing both their hometowns, and responsibilities anchoring them two thousand miles apart, LJ and Andra must decide if there’s any place on earth where their love can truly be at home.
Hell or High Water is an adult contemporary romance complete at 97,000 words. The swoony romance and searing look at important social issues are a good fit for fans of Emily Giffin and Helen Hoang.
I am the independent author of Becoming Katelyn and the #1 Kindle Worlds bestselling author of eight titles. Hell or High Water is currently a finalist in the 2017 Linda Howard Award of Excellence Contest. With other manuscripts, I’ve won the Great Expectations Contest and beat out 10,000 other entrants to become a Quarter-Finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. I’ve been a permanent traveler for several years now, and most of my books were written with solar power from remote corners of the wilderness.
Notes from Michelle: You may note that my book description is 295 words, rather than 250. Bad Michelle! However, the whole piece comes in at 420 words, which is right on target. I knew I was writing this query for my existing agent, so I didn't bother to trim it down. There's no personalization for the same reason. I did mock up a bio paragraph that would have been true for me at the time, so you can see what kind of info you might put in one of those. Also, the publisher who bought this book picked a much better title, Unbreak Me, as you'll see to the left.
Back-of-the-Book-Cover Description Example #3
What could two troubled souls from different walks of life have in common? Maybe everything.
Andra Lawler lives isolated at her family’s horse ranch, imprisoned by the memories of an assault in college. When she needs help training her foals, she hires a Haitian-Creole cowboy from New Orleans with a laugh as big as the Montana sky.
LJ Delisle can’t stand the idea that Andra might be lonely—or eating frozen TV dinners. He bakes his way into her kitchen with a lemon velvet cake, and offers her cooking lessons that set them on the road to romance. But even their love can’t escape the shadow of what they've been through. Despite their growing friendship and his gentle rapport with the horses, LJ is still an outsider facing small-town suspicions.
Before they can work through their issues, LJ is called home by a family emergency. In the centuries-old, raggedly rebuilt streets of New Orleans, he must confront memories of Hurricane Katrina and familiar discrimination. And Andra must decide if she’s brave enough to leave the shelter of the ranch for an uncertain future with LJ.
Notes from Michelle: This description is a touch longer than industry average: 3 paragraphs instead of 2, and 185 words instead of 100 or 150. Don't ask me why, I just work here. Also, the publisher was heavily involved with writing this. You can see how it's more vague than the query, and the conflict at the end isn't described in as much detail.
So to recap, when you're writing a query, it should describe a book just like the back-of-the-book description does. Only it should be a touch longer and much more specific, not include rhetorical questions, and also have a genre and word count sentence, comp titles, a bio paragraph, and maybe a personalization to tell the agent why you chose them. Now, go out there and hook yourself the perfect agent!