QUERY LETTER DO’S AND DON’T’S

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At a certain point, after you’ve written a novel, edited it, maybe shared it with beta readers, there’s nothing left to do but to seek publication. These days there are two parallel but unequal publishing worlds: mainstream publishing  and self-publishing. My advice to aspiring novelists, explained in an earlier post, is to try for the big leagues first. Since most mainstream novels in the U.S. are sold through literary agents, your first task will be to find an agent to represent you.

Easier said than done, of course. It’s a tortuous process, and one that tests the writer’s reserves of perseverance and self-confidence.  When I was an agent, I took on two or three new clients a year at best, out of hundreds of submissions.  Nowadays, since the advent of e-queries, agents are even more swamped, to the point that many no longer respond even to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Writers who do receive written rejections rarely get a reason or explanation of where they fell short, so it’s not surprising that many writers feel their work is not even being read or considered.

But it is.

True, there are some agents who’ve closed their lists, and others who accept only referrals from established clients or other professionals, but they are the minority. Most agents are still doing what they’ve always done: searching for that needle in the haystack, a publishable book they’d feel proud to represent. Consider the recent experience of one former student, whose first novel was just published by Random House. When she started searching for an agent, she had no prior publications, no platform, nothing to tempt an agent but a first-rate  novel; and she received offers from four or five excellent agents, all of whom she queried cold. How does that happen, if they’re not reading?

So how do you get an agent? If you look only at the numbers, it’s a daunting task. Agents can only handle so many books, and their first obligation is to existing clients. They might add a new writer or two to their lists, maybe three or four in a good year. What are the odds they’ll  pick yours?

Luckily, it’s not a lottery. Leaving aside celebrities and politicians, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. Yes, agents get thousands of submissions a year…but the vast majority of those are complete non-starters. Unless you’ve read through an agents’ slush pile, you can’t imagine how depressingly bad most of them are. That’s why agents always warn their assistants, (who are the first to cull the slush pile)  to beware of Standards Creep. After reading reams of awful stuff, mediocre work looks great in comparison.

If you’re a good writer, a serious writer who cares about both craft and story, your writing’s going to shine in that haystack.

With a strong query letter and a well-written novel, you propel yourself into the much smaller pool of contenders. The query letter is key. With submissions flooding in, agents must be struck by that first letter or they will go no further. The goal of the query letter is to get agents interested enough to read pages; then it’s up to the work to speak for itself, which is all we can ask.

To that end, here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s based on the decade +  I spent as a literary agent.

DO:
BE BRIEF. A query letter should be one page long, single-spaced. If you have a lot of credentials, maybe a page and a half—no longer. Agents regard the query letter as the first test of the writer’s ability to write economically and effectively. And since they (or their assistants) read hundreds of these a month, they appreciate brevity

GIVE YOUR PUBLISHING CREDITS. Even if they’re far afield from the novel, having been published suggests that at the very least you’re literate, which not all applicants are. If you have none, not to worry: there’s nothing agents love more than discovering great unknown writers.

MENTION YOUR PROFESSION or other life experience only if it’s relevant to the book: if, for example, you’re a lawyer who’s written a courtroom drama, a cop who’s written a gritty crime novel, or a call girl who’s written about politicians she has known.

INCLUDE A SHORT SUMMARY of your story, just a paragraph or two, including genre. If you can write a good hook of one or two sentences, do that. Give readers a sense of where and when your story’s set, what makes your protagonist interesting and novel-worthy, and what great challenge or peril he faces.

GIVE A WORD COUNT. (“Complete at ——— words.”) If your novel’s not complete and edited, you shouldn’t be submitting. One of the most common mistakes of aspiring writers is submitting a draft or two too soon.

TELL WHY YOU’RE SUBMITTING to that particular agent. This is essential, and too few writers do it. The best possible reason, the one that will move you to the top of the pile, is that you’ve been referred to them by a client or publishing professional. If you’re not that lucky, there should be another reason you can cite, because there should be a reason for every agent on your list. (See WRITERS’ RESOURCES for links to help create that list.) . Giving a reason means you’ve done your homework and are unlikely to waste their time.

STRIKE THE RIGHT TONE:  respectful but not obsequious, confident but not boastful, businesslike in that it is short and to the point, but conveying a sense of the person who wrote it.

ENCLOSE AN SASE if querying by snail mail.

INCLUDE THE FIRST FEW PAGES. This is a bit controversial, because not all agents ask for pages and some get huffy if you don’t follow instructions.  But I advise it anyway, because when I was an agent, if a query letter intrigued me, I’d always read a few pages; and if I liked them, I’d ask for the whole manuscript. It’s a matter of striking while the iron’s hot.

 

DON’T:

DON’T PRAISE YOUR OWN WORK, and don’t play the huckster. I can’t tell you how many letters I received as an agent informing me that I’m going to love the enclosed because it’s thrilling, heartwarming, beautifully written, and more commercial than [insert name of bestselling author.] Those letters would be passed around the office for a laugh. I do understand how it happens. Writers are told they need to sell themselves, and many misunderstand that to mean they need to hype themselves and their novel like TV gadget salesmen. More experienced writers understand that the work must speak for itself. The only acceptable comparison to other writers is in terms of the market your novel seeks to address, as in “This book, with its strong female sleuth, will appeal to readers of Sara Paretsky.”

DON’T CALL YOUR NOVEL “LITERARY FICTION.” Its literary quality is for others to judge, and anyway, in publishing lingo, the term is a synonym for “Won’t sell above 5000 copies.” Call it mainstream.

DON’T STALK.  Some writers—not you, of course, but some writers—get obsessed with the hunt. Don’t send cupcakes or haunt the agent’s lobby or trap her in elevators. Don’t jump out at her from behind trees. Until you’re a client,  don’t call her office. Use mail or email.

DON’T ADDRESS YOUR LETTER “Dear Agent.” Anything that looks like a mass mailing will get tossed. (Likewise “Dear Jane” letters: if you don’t know the agent, don’t  call her by her first name until she calls you by yours.)

DON’T MAKE GRAMMATICAL OR SPELLING MISTAKES. If you can’t write a proper letter, agents will assume you can’t write a book, either.

DON’T SUMMARIZE THE WHOLE STORY. Summaries are inherently flat. Four or five sentences is the outermost limit of the average literary agent’s attention span.

DON’T MENTION SELF-PUBLISHED WORK as publishing credits unless you have large, verifiable sales numbers.

DON’T GET EMOTIONAL. Agents don’t need to hear that you’ve always wanted to be a writer or that you spent ten years writing this book and plan to shoot yourself if it doesn’t sell. They probably have enough neurotic clients already.

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It’s never pleasant to be turned down, but it comes with the territory. Writing is a tough business; if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll need to develop thick skin and fanatical perseverance. When you do get turned down, bear in mind that an agent’s decision is based on many factors that are totally beyond both his and your control, including the state of the market. The right fit is also a factor; just as you need an agent who genuinely loves your work, so do agents need writers they can feel passionate about.

There’s also, always, the possibility that your work is not yet where it needs to be. But don’t rush to that conclusion after just a handful of rejections, because that’s only to be expected. Not every book speaks to every reader. There are plenty of other agents out there, and it’s good to remember that they’re as eager to find terrific new writers as writers are to find them.

If, however, you’ve been turned down by dozens of agents, it’s appropriate to consider whether the novel might not need an overhaul. At that point you might benefit from a professional evaluation or a rigorous writing class. I’ve linked to services and courses I offer, but there are many other options open to serious students of writing. Scroll down this page for a list of criteria to consider in choosing an editor or writing teacher.

Please feel free to comment! I’d love to hear about your perspectives on querying and the whole agent search; I also welcome follow-up questions and will expand on these notes at the slightest provocation.

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Literary Agent Search, Query Letter, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to QUERY LETTER DO’S AND DON’T’S

  1. Iris says:

    I’d like to add that it’s probably not a good idea to send out more than one or two queries at a time. With all of the different query/submission formats each agent requires, it’s easy to make mistakes cutting and pasting to customize each letter. Especially when querying by email — when it’s so easy to hit “Send” — you need to be vigilant you haven’t overlooked anything.

  2. s.p.bowers says:

    Love this list, especially as I’m about to start querying. I’ve heard you should always mail it to yourself first in case the formatting goes wonky. If it comes through ok, then send (not forward) it on to the agent.

  3. Zan Marie says:

    Wonderful info, Barbara. While reading it, I realized I have a professional tie in to my current WIP.

  4. Jill McCaw says:

    This is a much more positive spin than other things I’ve seen/attended recently. Thank you.

  5. S.P.,thanks, that’s a great point for e-queries. Iris, do you mean one or two a day, or do you mean submit one or two and wait for responses before submitting additional queries? I hope not the latter, because at that rate, given how slow agents are, it could take forever to find an agent. I’d suggest sending out 5 to 10 queries at the start. As rejections come in (or silence ensues: the new rejection), you then respond to each negative response by sending a query to the next agent on your list. Having that sort of automatic response to bad news makes it easier to feel proactive instead of depressed.

    Jill, what have you been told lately that makes my list look good?

  6. Excellent post! Thanks for the pep talk and the wonderful tips. I will be referring to this post as I send out my queries.

  7. Sane and well-written advice, Barbara. I like the idea of “go for the big leagues first.” Self-publishing is a fine avenue but man, the work involved in marketing will keep a good writer from writing. And, I believe that self-publishing requires a lot of “product” because you have to build preference. That’s not great for writers because it asks you to churn out books, rather than writing and rewriting. Just subscribed because I like the quality of your information. Thanks.

    • BarbaraR says:

      Cynthia, I totally agree: self-publishing is a TON of work if you do it right. It’s not inexpensive, either, because “doing it right,” in my book, means getting it professionally edited and paying for a professional-looking cover. It also takes a lot of time that could otherwise be spent writing.

      Also agree about needing lots of “product.” That’s where Amanda Hocking was so smart. She kept the books coming as fast as her young audience could read; and she kept the prices low enough so that they could afford to click the “Buy” button without thinking twice. Some writers are blessed with speed. I try not to envy them too much.

  8. Great post! I was especially surprised that you should never call your novel “literary” in a query. I’m glad I read this before making that mistake.
    And I want to second Jill’s thank you for being so positive. I get pretty fed up with agent rants disguised as advice to aspiring authors. This was truly constructive and helpful, and I didn’t come away from it feeling bad about myself. So thanks!

  9. Kim says:

    What a great post!!! Thanks for sharing. It took me for-e-ver to learn to write a query letter. i finally figured it out and now my novel sits with a publisher who is mulling it over.

    I would also add be sure to read what does the agent/publisher want from you. I had posted info about a small startup publisher on my website and I’ll be dog-gone if a poster didn’t send their query to ME!! I’m not the publisher!! So please read the agent/publisher’s website, see what they want and how they want it written. And don’t send it to me!!! :))

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  11. Jim says:

    1. How long does it take for agents to respond (IF they are going to respond)?

    2. Also, someone pointed out the problem with forwarding! I sent some queries and re-forwarded some after changing the name of the agent–only to see the formatting problems after I sent them. Not disastrous but a couple of lines shifted. I know its not good but is it really *fatal*?

    3. Lastly, I went over one paragraph for a synopsis. If you are unpublished, does it makes sense to give a little more info? I understand being concise but I feel like I want to show that this book does have some depth, too.

    Thanks.

    • 1. How long does it take for agents to respond (IF they are going to respond)?

      Anywhere from a few hours (rare) to months (common). Worst yet, many don’t respond at all unless they’re interested. Just assume the answer’s no until you hear otherwise and keep submitting. The query is being looked at, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

      2. Also, someone pointed out the problem with forwarding! I sent some queries and re-forwarded some after changing the name of the agent–only to see the formatting problems after I sent them. Not disastrous but a couple of lines shifted. I know its not good but is it really *fatal*?

      Nothing’s fatal except ebola, and some people survive even that. But anything that smacks of a mass-mailing will be treated more dismissively than a query that has clearly been targeted to that particular agent for a reason. See my piece on query letters. If you’re not getting anyrequests for pages, try running your query letter past the savvy folks at Absolute Write.

      3. Lastly, I went over one paragraph for a synopsis. If you are unpublished, does it makes sense to give a little more info? I understand being concise but I feel like I want to show that this book does have some depth, too.

      As long as the letter itself is not over a page, I don’t think this is a problem. It’s hard to describe one’s novel in a paragraph or two. You might want to read this post, in which I talk about that very issue.

      Thanks.

      You’re welcome!

  12. Jim says:

    Great.

    One more thing, I really want to make sure I am doing whatever I can. As far as personalizing the query. I do make sure the agent or agency wants my specific sub-genre, I personally address the email business address and salutation, and if their is more than one agent at the agency, I will make sure it is addressed to the agent most likely to handle my sub-genre. That seems to me like it should be personal enough.

    Do I need to do any more than that?

    I did personalize one letter a bit because I did see a well-known book similar (but different) to mine on the website and I added a sentence referencing it. That seems like a rare instance, though. Usually it would be a pain to see who was agent for the author of each book similar to mine.

    Thanks, again.

    -Jim

    • Hi Jim,

      By personalizing the query, I meant not just addressing it to a particular agent, which of course you should do, but also saying why you’re submitting to that agent. Does she represent someone you admire? Expressed an interest in novels on the very subject you’ve written about? Did she just start her agency, and you’re hoping she still has room on her list? Whatever the reason is, clean it up and share it.

  13. Jim says:

    Hi, again! You have been very helpful. What’s with small publishers like, say, New Horizon Press, AMACOM, or Career Press? I want to get published and my name isn’t Stephen King, but are these good deals? Fly by night? Give advances? Is it worth waiting out something better?

  14. Thanks a ton for being our teacher on this theme. I enjoyed your article quite definitely and most of all liked the way in which you handled the issues I thought to be controversial. You are always really kind to readers really like me and help me in my living. Thank you.

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