Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Some Things I Might Know About Query Letters

As usual: caveat.

As you may have surmised by this point, I am not an agent! I have never been an agent, I'm not sure I'd ever want to be (or am cut out to be) an agent, and so there's no reason to think I ever will be an agent. Aside from having written a few dozen query letters in my day and reading many an agent blog, I have no direct experience with actual, paper-and-ink (or electron-and...more-electron) queries.

But! I have written pitch letters, and I do work in sales, so (to some extent) I'm very familiar with many of the basic components of query-writing and -reading, so I consider myself qualified to at least talk about the basics, which (as you may also have surmised) I now will.

Less is more. I'm led to believe that agents don't have a ton of free time. Your query, like a pitch letter or title presentation in a sales call, has to be short and sweet. Yes, there's more small talk and relationship-building between a sales rep and a buyer than between a potential client and an agent, but a good salesperson knows when to be social and when to be businesslike. I'm not saying not to have a little fun with your query; what I'm saying is, cut to the chase. Keep it under a page.

Be professional. This sort of ties into the above point, and it also kind of goes without saying, but it bears repeating. Besides being as brief as possible, you want to be polite and professional. Do not call your novel a "fiction novel," do not talk about how it's sure to be an instant bestseller, do not talk about your multiple academic degrees or your sunny disposition or your cat. Talk about your book, and if it's a non-fiction proposal, talk about yourself insofar as it pertains to the project you're pitching. That's it!

Personalize, personalize, personalize. Guess how many non-personalized pitch letters to editors, publicists, and other industry professionals go into the so-called circular file? Around 95 to 100 percent. It's the same deal with agents: don't be creepy and tell them how much you like the floral wallpaper in their living room and by the way could they please turn the TV toward the window so you can watch reruns of Get Smart with them, but at least do them the courtesy of addressing them by name (no "Dear Sir or Madam"s or "To Whom it May Concern"s) and demonstrating that you know something about them and their agency. Mention some titles they've represented that you liked! Tell them you thought their post on query letters was really helpful! Don't get carried away, but if you expect an agent to take the time to read your query (and hopefully, your partial and full), take the time to personalize your query.

Follow directions. Yes, it can be frustrating when one agent asks for a 300-word double-spaced query and another asks for a 500-word single-spaced query. Occasionally you will find that different agents want totally different—perhaps contradictory—things. But if you believe that agent is right for you, take the time to tailor your letter to their guidelines, which (one must assume) they have established for a reason. If they ask you to include the first ten pages, include the first ten pages, and don't send a writing sample (no matter how sorely tempted you may be to do so) if they specifically ask that you don't. You want to put your best foot forward from the get-go, and following an agent's guidelines is a very big and generally necessary component of achieving that.

Do your research. This ties into the above point, but in a more general sense. If an agent doesn't usually represent science fiction, your grand space opera spanning 10,000 years and a half-dozen galaxies probably won't interest him or her, and you'll likely waste both your and the agent's time by querying. If it's not clear from an agent's guidelines or title list whether they represent your genre, by all means, go ahead and query anyway; however, 90% of the time, you should be able to figure out whether an agent will be interested in your type of project based on his/her (agency's) website. You're not looking for just any agent, after all—you're looking for a business partner, one who's genuinely interested in your work and willing to champion it to an editor. In short, you're looking for a good match.

Know how to sell your product. Sure, you know your product; after all, you wrote your book, so you know it better than anyone. Your knowledge of your book isn't being tested, though, but rather, your knowledge of how to present it. If I'm writing a pitch letter, it's not enough that I know everything about the title I'm trying to push—I have to know the best way to position it and anticipate what will catch the reader's eye and hold his or her attention. You need to know that about your product—your book—as well. Where's your hook? What sets your paranormal romance apart from all the other paranormal romances currently on the market? Don't start crunching BookScan numbers or hypothesizing about your target audience, but grab and hold the agent's attention with a great opening line and a well-paced, concise description that leaves him or her wanting to know more by the letter's end.

That's all I've got for you, gentle readers, and I hope it's not a total rehash of all the query advice you've gotten before. As always, if you have any questions or comments—or even rebuttals, calls of shenanigans, or plain old-fashioned vitriol—fire away!


  1. This was very informative for a non-agent. And not the usual spew from agent blogs, so thanks for that.

  2. You've just emphasized my position that agents are sales people, first and foremost. I can't wait to refer a couple people to your blog.

  3. I don't think I've ever heard about an agent saying they look unfavorably on authors who include first five pages with a query, even where their submission guidelines don't ask for pages. I think five pages can be considered an appropriate thing to send with a query letter.

    However, e-mails should never include unrequested attachments, so those five pages should be pasted into the text of the query, below your signature block and contact information. And be cognizant of the fact that formatting can get messed-up when you paste text from a word processor into your e-mail client.

  4. I wonder how many writers wait until the book is done to start on their query letter?

    I've been fussing with my query ever since I finished my first outline!

  5. Beyond getting the title correct, I wonder how many agents really want personalized queries? I seem to see some that get creeped out by that (and not the I-know-what-you-ate-last-night kind of creepiness). In other words, some seem to think it's unprofessional, whereas others like the personal touch.

    Then some people suggest that you read all (or at least some) of the books an agent reps, and then others suggest that you query widely - up to a 100 agents, if there are that many in your genre. Let's see 3 books x 100 agents ... more time than I have, and that I should probably be spending, yanno, writing.

    I appreciate the insights, but sometimes the rules in this business make my head spin like a mad ferris wheel!

  6. Susan, I agree with you...sort of. I think that (and this is just my guess- my query letter has garnered everything from form rejections to requests for fulls, so take it as you will) agents are looking for *politely* personalized query letters. As in, I read your blog or read an article you write for XYZ or read your client's latest book, not, well...the flowered wallpaper thing Eric mentioned. So you have to walk a fine line there, and of course all agents are not created equal. Some will like that more than others.

    Sigh. Okay, make room on the ferris wheel. I'm with you there. No *way* could I read all of a prospective agent's client list- it would take forever! Now the agents who request a partial or a full? Eh. It might not hurt to take a gander at their list and pluck a few good-looking titles from the pile. After all, ultimately you're choosing an agent, too, right? ;)

    It's a miracle we keep at it, no?

    And, for the record, this *is* a rehash of other posts, articles and advice, but that is exactly WHY it is so valuable- thank you, Eric, for reminding us to keep our eye on the ball. Tried and true rules bear repeating. A lot.

  7. Thanks Eric - this is useful. I love the line "grab and hold the agent's attention with a great opening line and a well-paced, concise description." This is the challenge.

  8. Great post and thanks for spreading the wisdom. We'll link this on our Friday blog post round-up to share your insights. Thanks again!

  9. Great insight, Eric. thanks. And I'm with you Miss Sharp. I too have fuss with my query for a long time too.

  10. Excellent post from a new POV. Thanks!

  11. Helpful post, Eric. Agent guidelines should be regarded as a middle-school quiz: you lose points if you don't follow directions. If they tell you not to send sample pages, and you send sample pages anyway, they may reject you without reading your query. It just depends on the agent. Why lessen your odds?

  12. Thanks for the helpful post, and on a COMPLETELY unrelated topic... GET SMART IS MY FAVORITE EVAH.

    :) really

  13. Thank-you so much for the insight, however I am wondering if you might help me with one question I have on "Query Letters"? What do you put in that dreaded section where they ask for your experience and credentials, when you don't have any formal ones? I finished my novel 19 months ago and even though I spend everyday reading article after article about "how to write a query letter", I still have not managed to do so. The letter is taking more time that the novel did to write...Help!

  14. @Koi i'm stumbling along in the dark myself, but I found http://queryshark.blogspot.com/ a extremely useful and a compelling read. It was also a shock to my system, as I have been piecing together what a proper query letter looks like from sites like http://www.agentquery.com/ and http://www.annemini.com/, and Ms. Reid, a Real Life Agent (tm) does not care about 4-5 paragraphs, target markets, and author bios. Read at your peril! :)

  15. Yep, great article. Wish I would have started the query process earlier. Now that I've finished a novel and want everyone (besides my six tortured subject matters) to read it, I have to begin the query process. Or run photocoopies and hand them out at the grocery store.

  16. Actually -- It's the basics that I needed. So glad I found you. ^_^ Thank you for writing them down!!

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