How to Write a Query Letter (part 1)

How to query an agent

How to Write a Query Letter (part 1)

Query letters are often regarded as the bane of a writer’s existence, a terrifying exposure of vulnerability, the highest of hoops to jump through, a high-pressure, high-stakes referendum on your story and you as a writer.

They are none of those things. Query letters are simply an opportunity to offer a product you strongly believe in to a potential business partner in the hopes that they too might believe strongly enough in it to dedicate their professional efforts—for free, until it sells—to getting it on the market.

This is a business, friends—remembering that will save you a lot of angst.

This post, the first in a series I’ll offer on querying and rejection letters, offers some practical “best practices” and debunks a lot of misconceptions I hear from authors about querying.

Next week we’ll look at the nuts and bolts: how to compose an agent query letter, from your intro to the thumbnail synopsis, the bio, and the signoff. And then the following week we’ll talk about rejections, just to keep the party going (fun!).

I’ll list additional helpful resources at the end of all these posts.

Some disclaimers: Obviously I am not now nor have I ever been an agent. Nor have I worked directly in acquisitions.

Query letters are simply an opportunity to offer a product you strongly believe in to a potential business partner in the hopes that they too might believe strongly enough in it to dedicate their professional efforts—for free, until it sells—to getting it on the market.

Furthermore there is no one-size-fits-all query letter advice. What one agent prefers may be different from another, and what catches one agent’s attention may also vary from person to person.

However, a big part of my job working with publishers is knowing what makes a book marketable, and a big part of my job working with authors is knowing what agents and editors are looking for.

One other thing to keep in mind is that there is no silver-bullet query letter, because this is an ever-shifting subjective market. A query that might work with a certain agent at a certain time when she is looking to fill a certain segment of her list in certain market conditions might succeed, whereas the same letter may fall to connect with the same agent if the market, her list, or even her mood is different at that time.

Think of it like dating. You’re trying to connect with someone who gets you at that particular stage of your life and when you both happen to be single and looking for a relationship. Someone who believes in you, supports you, and will help you be the best you can be. Here are some tips for finding a great agent match.

The Approach and Your Mindset

A few truths to keep in mind that may help you get in the right headspace when querying:

  • First off, agents are humans, and as such they like many of the same things humans like: genuineness, politeness, consideration, friendliness. Treat your letter not as a hard-sell sales pitch, but simply checking in with a fellow human to see if you have mutual interests that align. If you don’t it’s not a referendum on either of you. It just means what you’re both looking for may not be a fit at this time.
  • Agents are also businesspeople, however. Don’t think of querying an agent as looking for someone to grant you a favor or open the golden doors or take a leap of faith with you. Yes, this is your baby and your dream, but for an agent it’s a product for their business.

That doesn’t mean your agent may not believe as passionately in you and your long-term career as you do, and even for some of the same reasons. But ultimately, at least to some degree, you and your writing are a commodity. That’s not an insult or denigration—simply a reality of doing business in a creative field. Knowing that can help give you the objective distance you will need in this business.

  • Agents are almost to a one lovers of great stories and massive supporters of authors. More than anything they are hoping probably almost as hard as you are that when they open your query letter, you’re exactly what they’re looking for. Imagine each time you send one that you’re sending it to a friendly audience already in your corner, because you are. They’re not looking for reasons to say no. They are desperately hoping for a compelling reason to say yes.

You may indeed have written a brilliant story that’s a terrific fit for a particular agent, but if your query letter doesn’t showcase that, neither of you may ever get the chance to find out—I’ve seen great stories hamstrung by lackluster query letters. The letter is a marketing tool, your first and usually only chance to let an agent know what your product is, what makes it a good bet for them, and why they should take a chance on trying it out. It’s your Super Bowl ad spot.

That said, conversely don’t put too much on it. You are not a beggar at the table. You are an inventor, a creator, and an entrepreneur offering a product you strongly believe in to a potential investor/business partner. 

Some querying best practices:

Don’t query before you’re 100 percent ready—not just your submission materials, but your manuscript itself. An agent may ask for a full in a day—it happens—and if you’ve queried, you’d better be ready to hit “send” on the absolute best, completed version you are capable of.

My free downloadable “Self-editing Checklist” is a comprehensive questionnaire to help you determine whether your story is as good as you can get it.

That said, if you have already been in touch with an agent about a certain project—from a previous query where they offered feedback or suggestions you’ve now incorporated, or after they’ve expressed interest in a pitch session or conference conversation, etc.—there is no statute of limitations on contacting them again. Not ever. 

I’ve worked with several authors who hesitated to contact an agent who had sent encouraging signals in a previous exchange or encounter because “It’s been so long!” If an agent was interested in your work once you can assume they will be receptive to it again. You have already passed the first hurdle. Just like humans, agents understand that life often comes with unexpected delays.

I know it’s hard, but avoid doing a mass mailing. This is a business partnership, and your end of it is to make sure you’re carefully choosing the people you want to partner with. The right agent is instrumental in your career success; the wrong one is at best not an asset, and at worst a liability.

Make sure any agent not only represents your genre, but verify their recent sales (Publisher’s Marketplace) and check what type of deals—to hybrid or small presses only, or do they also play on a bigger stage? If you’re going the agent route, chances are your goals may include a trad/Big Five contract—make sure they have a track record with those houses.

Check on their website what other titles they’ve represented, the authors on their list, and what they are currently looking for (the #mswl tag on Twitter—manuscript wish list—can also be invaluable for this), or if they are even open to queries at the moment. Do a quick search on Writer Beware to make sure an agent is reputable.

Yes, all this takes much more time—but this is your business (and I’m betting your passion): Commit as much energy and care to the business side of things as you do the creative side, and do the research and due diligence that will give you the best chance of success.

Do:

  • Observe each agent’s submission preferences if they’ve given them—especially whether they prefer additional materials attached or pasted in the body of the email (many agents won’t open attachments for fear of viruses).
  • Let them know why you are querying them, specifically—not just hoping for any rando to offer representation. Just like you, they want to work with someone who is enthusiastic about their work too.
  • Obviously format correctly. Check for grammar and spelling. Keep it to one page.
  • Know who you are writing to and address it to them individually by name. Mr. or Ms. can be a safe bet—but absolutely check their pronouns if they offer them in their website or social media bios. Don’t use first name plus last name, because it’s weird and screams “Mail Merge blizzard.” Spell their name right (it’s sad this needs to be said, but stories abound).
  • Be professional but not stilted. You want to strike a tonal balance in the sweet spot between working-from-home-in-your-pajamas and executive-formal.
  • Let your personality and voice shine through. You’re not a robot and neither are they (almost 100 percent of the time). It’s okay to be “you” in the letter; just be the professional version of you.

Don’t:

  • Don’t play games or try to be overly creative or cutesy. This is a business proposal—be as straightforward and informative as you can. No arts-and-crafts, no fancy fonts, resist the pull of multiple emojis, and just step away from exclamation points.
  • Don’t be a suckup. Empty flattery is seen as just that.
  • Don’t believe that you have to query one agent at a time—you’ll be querying for the rest of your life if you do. Agents can often take weeks, months, and in a few memorable cases, more than a year to respond.
  • But don’t query multiple agents at the same agency at the same time. Bad form, like simultaneously asking out two people from the same group of friends.
  • Don’t quit. A crit partner kept me from quitting when I’d queried 100 agents with no offers of representation and was ready to give up; I found my fiction agent on query 113. I am by far not the only author with a story like that. If it’s not the right time for this story, put it away and work on another one you can then query when it’s ready. Come back to the first one later if you think things might be different—trends are constantly shifting in publishing, and the books in the drawer aren’t always dead (the first full-length story I ever started was finally published as a novel 15 years later). The only way to fail is to stop trying.

Things not to include:

  • What editor or coach or story consultant you hired (if you did) or what they said about your work. Telling the agent that you have had it professionally edited may be a plus, but it could equally be a yellow flag: Agents know there’s plenty of unskillful editing out there, and sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth—an overworked manuscript can lose whatever spark it once had.
  • That your crit partners or beta readers or workshop leader or mama loved it. However, the fact that you have honed it in any of these ways (minus ya mama) can be a plus.
  • Blurbs from anyone other than big shots—this isn’t the place for that.
  • Comparisons of yourself or your work to mega bestselling books and authors, or that you are the next one.
  • Hard sales pitches suggesting they should move on this because it’s sure to be a moneymaker, or before someone else snaps it up. 
  • Adding a pitch for any other manuscript. It’s fine to mention that you have other completed manuscripts, or that this is one of a planned or written series, but pitch one project at a time.
  • Your previous agent. If you were previously repped it’s okay to say that, but no need to name names at this point (they’ll ask in the interview, if you get to that point). I hope it goes without saying that it’s painfully bad form to query new agents before you have officially left your former agent. This is a small business, and you’d be surprised who knows whom. The only one who will look bad in that situation is you.
  • Any smack talk about anyone, whatsoever.

Finally, if you can after all of this…relax. Let your voice and personality shine through. Treat an agent like a fellow human being—that’s all they are—and be personable and natural. They are rooting for you.

Next week we’ll look at specifics of what to include and how.

Meanwhile, authors, what have you learned about querying, if you’ve done it? What do you struggle with? What questions do you have about the process? Got tips to share?

Resources:

  • More info and resources on how to research and query agents can be found on the Resources page of my website.
  • Agent Query and Query Tracker are terrific sites that offer a list of agents, along with what they represent, how they prefer to be contacted, and other info about them, and features some tools for tracking your queries. There is also a good article on this site about getting started in the process.

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Craig Lancaster
    August 12, 2022 3:26 am

    This is really good stuff. One thing I’d add (or amplify) from my personal experience: If an agent has previously urged you to submit again, make sure you remind him/her of that in the subsequent query. There’s been a lot of action in that in-box in the interim—a lot of names and a lot of stories—and you risk going to the purgatory of the unanswered query if you don’t flag yourself as having been invited back in.

    I almost missed out on my first agent because I failed to remind her that she’d asked to see more. We later made the hookup, but we might have done business earlier had I been savvier about that.

    Reply
    • Ugh. Queries. I’m relieved to be publishing with a small indie press and out of query hell. 😵‍💫 For now. (Shiver trickling down spine)

      Reply
    • Excellent point, Craig. Agents can’t remember one of the hundreds or thousands of queries/exchanges they’ve had, and it’s always okay–in fact desirable for both parties–to call out right up front a previous request or conversation or feedback the agent gave. I advocate actually using the same thread from previous conversations as well, so they can scroll back and see the details.

      Thank goodness you followed up with the agent again! No sense wasting valuable currency in this business like a previous request. 🙂 Thanks for the add.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

Previous Post
How Writers Revise: Joanna Penn and Measuring by What You Create
Next Post
How to Write a Query Letter (part 2)
Menu