How to Query a Literary Agent
You’ve researched your agents, and you’ve set your eyes on a specific one. Pitching him in a writing conference doesn’t work out for you for whatever reason. It’s time for the dreaded query. How do you approach this daunting project?
When you query an agent, you send them a brief letter of introduction along with samples of your writing. If the agent likes what they’ve read, they will ask to see some or all of the completed manuscript. You’ve got one chance to make a good impression. Here’s how you can nail it.
The Submission Packet
Always check an agent’s submission guidelines to discover what they want to receive in the initial submission packet. They will ask for one or more of the following:
A Query Letter
A query is an introductory letter to the agent telling them the important points about you and your book. This includes the book’s title, genre, and word count. If you have any professional publishing credits, mention them here. NEVER apologize for a lack of credentials, and do not say things like "I won my first grade essay contest.”
While there are many sources available for learning to write a query, they are extremely difficult and require lots of practice. Expect to write several drafts. You can get help at the Query Letter Hell section of Absolute Write, and the forum on Query Tracker. Query Shark is another excellent resource to help you see what piques an agent’s interest and what doesn’t. Kristen Nelson often features successful and failing queries on her blog.
A synopsis is a brief overview of the book’s main plot (That includes the story's end. No cliffhangers!), central characters, and theme. Not every agent will require you to submit this, but it’s good to write one anyway. There are a myriad of opinions on what makes a synopsis good, so spend a few days reading about different ideas and formats. Again, you can expect to write multiple drafts.
Some agents will treat the query letter as your writing sample. Others will ask for an excerpt from the book itself. This can be anywhere from the first five pages to the first three chapters. Every agent will indicate if they prefer to receive these pasted into the body of the email or attached as a separate document. Follow their directions to the letter. And no matter how long or short the sample, make sure it doesn’t cut off mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.
A Technical Note about Emails
To send the query, you will either use the agent’s online submission form or draft an email to the specified address. Type your query letter, then paste or attach the sample pages and synopsis. Take a moment to do a final spell and grammar check. Hit send, and you’re done! Some agencies have an automated reply function and you’ll get confirmation that your query was successfully delivered. If not, wait a few minutes to see if your email reports an error. If nothing happens, you can be pretty sure that your message arrived.
Standing Out from the Slush Pile
The average literary agent receive about ten thousand queries each year. The slush pile might as well be called the slush mountain. It's ginormous. Rejections are inevitable, no matter how much time you spent editing the book or prepping the submission packet. But there are a few things you can do to stand out.
Personalize Your Query. Agents can tell if you don’t know anything about them or what they represent. Never address your query letter as “Dear Sir/Ma’am,” or worse of all, “Dear Agent.” Use their names. Mention the reason you chose to query them instead of someone else.
Follow the Guidelines. This might seem like a no-brainer, but according to Jenny Bent, nearly 30% of all the queries she receives in a given day are rejected because they do not follow the rules. Send the agent exactly what they want. No more. No less.
Check Your Email. Some agencies have reported problems receiving messages from a particular email provider. They will mention this on their website, and if you use the service, you’d be wise to send your query from an alternate address. Make sure that the agency’s email is not blocked so their reply won’t end up in your spam folder.
Never Phone an Agent. Agents do not take queries by phone. It won’t get you ahead of the queue. It will mark you as an amateur. If an agent wants to talk on the phone, they’ll say so and schedule a time.
Querying is a tough part of the writing business. It requires a lot of patience. Agents are inundated with thousands of submissions every year. Don’t be surprised if you have to wait six months or longer for a reply. You will get plenty of rejections— that’s inevitable. Keep in mind that every rejection brings you one step closer to that acceptance letter. So stick with it and keep sending those letters!
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