Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)
CRAFTING A QUERY
How to write a great letter that gets agents’ attention.
by Kara Gebhart Uhl
So you’ve written a book. And now you want an agent. If you’re new to publishing, you probably assume that the next step is to send your finished, fabulous book out to agents, right? Wrong. Agents don’t want your finished, fabulous book. In fact, they probably don’t even want part of your finished, fabulous book—at least, not yet. First, they want your query.
A query is a short, professional way of introducing yourself to an agent. If you’re frustrated by the idea of this step, imagine yourself at a cocktail party. Upon meeting someone new, you don’t greet them with a boisterous hug and kiss and, in three minutes, reveal your entire life story including the fact that you were late to the party because of some gastrointestinal problems. Rather, you extend your hand. You state your name. You comment on the hors d’oeuvres, the weather, the lovely shade of someone’s dress. Perhaps, after this introduction, the person you’re talking to politely excuses himself. Or, perhaps, you become best of friends. It’s basic etiquette, formality, professionalism—it’s simply how it’s done.
Agents receive hundreds of submissions every month. Often they read these submissions on their own time—evenings, weekends, on their lunch break. Given the number of writers submitting, and the number of agents reading, it would simply be impossible for agents to ask for and read entire book manuscripts off the bat. Instead, a query is a quick way for you to, first and foremost, pitch your book. But it’s also a way to pitch yourself. If an agent is intrigued by your query, she may ask for a partial (say, the first three chapters of your manuscript). Or she may ask for the entire thing.
As troublesome as it may first seem, try not to be frustrated by this process. Because, honestly, a query is a really great way to help speed up what is already a monumentally slow-paced industry. Have you ever seen pictures of slush piles—those piles of unread queries on many well-known agents’ desks? Imagine the size of those slush piles if they held full manuscripts instead of one-page query letters. Thinking of it this way, query letters begin to make more sense.
Here we share with you the basics of a query, including its three parts and a detailed list of dos and don’ts.
PART I: THE INTRODUCTION
Whether you’re submitting a 100-word picture book or a 90,000-word novel, you must be able to sum up the most basic aspects of it in one sentence. Agents are busy. And they constantly receive submissions for types of work they don’t represent. So upfront they need to know that, after reading your first paragraph, the rest of your query is going to be worth their time.
An opening sentence designed to “hook” an agent is fine—if it’s good and if it works. But this is the time to tune your right brain down and your left brain up—agents desire professionalism and queries that are short and to-the-point. Remember the cocktail party and always err on the side of formality. Tell the agent, in as few words as possible, what you’ve written, including the title, genre and length.
In the intro, you also must try to connect with the agent. Simply sending 100 identical query letters out to “Dear Agent” won’t get you published. Instead, your letter should be addressed not only to a specific agency but a specific agent within that agency. (And double, triple, quadruple check that the agent’s name is spelled correctly.) In addition, you need to let the agent know why you chose her specifically. A good author-agent relationship is like a good marriage. It’s important that both sides invest the time to find a good fit that meets their needs. So how do you connect with an agent you don’t know personally? Research.
1. Make a connection based on an author or book the agent already represents.
Most agencies have websites that list who and what they represent. Research those sites. Find a book similar to yours and explain that, because such-and-such book has a similar theme or tone or whatever, you think your book would be a great fit. In addition, many agents will list specific genres/categories they’re looking for, either on their websites or in interviews. If your book is a match, state that.
2. Make a connection based on an interview you read.
Search agents’ names online and read any and all interviews they’ve participated in. Perhaps they mentioned a love for X and your book is all about X. Perhaps they mentioned that they’re looking for Y and your book is all about Y. Mention the specific interview. Prove that you’ve invested as much time researching them as they’re about to spend researching you.
3. Make a connection based on a conference you both attended.
Was the agent you’re querying the keynote speaker at a writing conference you were recently at? If so, mention it, and comment on an aspect of his speech you liked. Even better, did you meet the agent in person? Mention it, and if there’s something you can say to jog her memory about the meeting, say it. Better yet, did the agent specifically ask you to send your manuscript? Mention it.
Finally, if you’re being referred to a particular agent by an author that agent already represents—that’s your opening sentence. That referral is guaranteed to get your query placed at the top of the stack.
PART II: THE PITCH
Here’s where you really get to sell your book—but in only three to 10 sentences. Consider a book’s jacket flap and its role in convincing readers to plunk down $24.95 to buy what’s in between those flaps. Like a jacket flap, you need to hook an agent in the confines of very limited space. What makes your story interesting and unique? Is your story about a woman going through a mid-life crisis? Fine, but there are hundreds of stories about women going through mid-life crises. Is your story about a woman who, because of a mid-life crisis, leaves her life and family behind to spend three months in India? Again, fine, but this story, too, already exists—in many forms. Is your story about a woman who, because of a mid-life crisis, leaves her life and family behind to spend three months in India, falls in love with someone new while there and starts a new life—and family? And then has to deal with everything she left behind upon her return? Now you have a hook.
Practice your pitch. Read it out loud, not only to family and friends, but to people willing to give you honest, intelligent criticism. If you belong to a writing group, workshop your pitch. Share it with members of an online writing forum. Know anyone in the publishing industry? Share it with them. Many writers spend years writing their books. We’re not talking about querying magazines here; we’re talking about querying an agent who could become a lifelong partner. Spend time on your pitch. Perfect it. Turn it into jacket-flap material so detailed, exciting and clear that it would be near impossible to read your pitch and not want to read more. Use active verbs. Write your pitch, put it aside for a week, then look at it again. Don’t send a query simply because you finished a book. Send a query because you finished your pitch and are ready to take the next steps.
PART III: THE BIO
If you write fiction, unless you’re a household name or you’ve recently been a guest on some very big TV or radio shows, an agent is much more interested in your pitch than in who you are. If you write nonfiction, who you are—more specifically, your platform and publicity—is much more important. Regardless, these are key elements that must be present in every bio:
1. Publishing credits
If you’re submitting fiction, focus on your fiction credits—previously published works and short stories. That said, if you’re submitting fiction and all your previously published work is nonfiction—magazine articles, essays, etc.—that’s still fine and good to mention. Don’t be overly long about it. Mention your publications in bigger magazines or well-known literary journals. If you’ve never had anything published, don’t say you lack official credits. Simply skip this altogether and thank the agent for his time.
2. Contests and awards
If you’ve won many, focus on the most impressive ones and those that most directly relate to your work. Don’t mention contests you entered and weren’t named in. Also, feel free to leave titles and years out of it. If you took first place at the Delaware Writers Conference for your fiction manuscript, that’s good enough. Mentioning details isn’t necessary.
If you’ve earned or are working toward a Master of Fine Arts in writing, say so and state the program. Don’t mention English degrees or online writing courses.
4. Large, recognized writing organizations
Agents don’t want to hear about your book club and the fact that there’s always great food, or the small critique group you meet with once a week. And they really don’t want to hear about the online writing forum you belong to. But if you’re a member of something like the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the American Medical Writers, etc., say so. This shows you’re serious about what you do and you’re involved in groups that can aid with publicity and networking.
5. Platform and publicity
If you write nonfiction, who you are and how you’re going to help sell the book once it’s published becomes very important. Why are you the best person to write it and what do you have now—public speaking engagements, an active website or blog, substantial cred in your industry—that will help you sell this book?
Finally, be cordial. Thank the agent for taking the time to read your query and consider your manuscript. Ask if you may send more, in the format she desires (partial, full, etc.).
Think of the time you spent writing your book. Unfortunately, you can’t send your book to an agent for a first impression. Your query is that first impression. Give it the time it deserves. Keep it professional. Keep it formal. Let it be a firm handshake—not a sloppy kiss. Let it be a first meeting that evolves into a lifelong relationship—not a rejection slip. But expect those slips. Just like you don’t become best friends with everyone you meet at a cocktail party, you can’t expect every agent you pitch to sign you. Be patient. Keep pitching. And in the meantime, start writing that next book.
DOS AND DON’TS FOR QUERYING AGENTS
· Keep the tone professional.
· Query a specific agent at a specific agency.
· Proofread. Double-check the spelling of the agency and the agent’s name.
· Keep the query concise, limiting the overall length to one page (single space, 12-point type in a commonly used font).
· Focus on the plot, not your bio, when pitching fiction.
· Pitch agents who represent the type of material you write.
· Check an agency’s submission guidelines to see how to query—for example, via e-mail or mail—and whether or not to include a SASE.
· Keep pitching, despite rejections.
· Include personal info not directly related to the book. For example, stating that you’re a parent to three children doesn’t make you more qualified than someone else to write a children’s book.
· Say how long it took you to write your manuscript. Some bestselling books took 10 years to write—others, six weeks. An agent doesn’t care how long it took—an agent only cares if it’s good. Same thing goes with drafts—an agent doesn’t care how many drafts it took you to reach the final product.
· Mention that this is your first novel or, worse, the first thing you’ve ever written aside from grocery lists. If you have no other publishing credits, don’t advertise that fact. Don’t mention it at all.
· State that your book has been edited by peers or professionals. Agents expect manuscripts to be edited, no matter how the editing was done.
· Bring up screenplays or film adaptations—you’re querying an agent about publishing a book, not making a movie.
· Mention any previous rejections.
· State that the story is copyrighted with the U.S. Copyright Office or that you own all rights. Of course you own all rights. You wrote it.
· Rave about how much your family and friends loved it. What matters is that the agent loves it.
· Send flowers or anything else except a self-addressed stamped envelope (and only if the SASE is required), if sending through snail mail.
· Follow up with a phone call. After the appropriate time has passed (many agencies say how long it will take to receive a response), follow up in the manner you queried—via e-mail or mail.
PHOTO: Andy Uhl
KARA GEBHART UHL, formerly a managing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, now freelance writers and edits in Fort Thomas, KY. She also blogs about parenting at pleiadesbee.com. Her essays have appeared on The Huffington Post, The New York Times’ Motherlode and TIME: Healthland. Her parenting essay, “Apologies to the Parents I Judged Four Years Ago” was named one of TIME’s “Top 10 Opinions of 2012.”
SAMPLE QUERY 1: LITERARY FICTION Agent’s Comments: Jeff Kleinman (Folio Literary)
From: Garth Stein
To: Jeff Kleinman
Subject: Query: “The Art of Racing in the Rain”
Dear Mr. Kleinman:
Saturday night I was participating in a fundraiser for the King County Library System out here in the Pacific Northwest, and I met your client Layne Maheu. He spoke very highly of you and suggested that I contact you.
I am a Seattle writer with two published novels. I have recently completed my third novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and I find myself in a difficult situation: My new book is narrated by a dog, and my current agent told me that he cannot (or will not) sell it for that very reason. Thus, I am seeking new representation.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is the story of Denny Swift, a race car driver who faces profound obstacles in his life, and ultimately overcomes them by applying the same techniques that have made him successful on the track. His story is narrated by his “philosopher dog,” Enzo, who, having a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), believes he will return as a man in his next lifetime.
My last novel, How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets, won a 2006 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award, and since the award ceremony a year ago, I have given many readings, workshops and lectures promoting the book. When time has permitted, I’ve read the first chapter from The Art of Racing in the Rain. Audience members have been universally enthusiastic and vocal in their response, and the first question asked is always: “When can I buy the book about the dog?” Also very positive.
I’m inserting, below, a short synopsis of The Art of Racing in the Rain, and my biography. Please let me know if the novel interests you; I would be happy to send you the manuscript.
Putting the word “Query” and the title of the book on the subject line of an e-mail often keeps your e-mail from falling into the spam folder. One of the best ways of starting out correspondence is figuring out your connection to the agent. The author has some kind of track record. Who’s the publisher, though? Were these both self-published novels, or were there reputable publishers involved? (I’ll read on, and hope I find out.) This seems promising, but also know this kind of approach can backfire, because we agents tend to be like sheep—what one doesn’t like, the rest of us are wary of, too (or, conversely, what one likes, we all like). But in this case getting in the “two published novels” early is definitely helpful. The third paragraph is the key pitch paragraph and Garth gives a great description of the book—he sums it up, gives us a feel for what we’re going to get. This is the most important part of your letter. Obviously it’s nice to see the author’s winning awards. Also good: The author’s not afraid of promoting the book. The end is simple and easy—it doesn’t speak of desperation, or doubt, or anything other than polite willingness to help.
SAMPLE QUERY 2: YOUNG ADULT Agent’s Comments: Ted Malawer (Upstart Crow Literary)
Dear Mr. Malawer:
I would like you to represent my 65,000-word contemporary teen novel My Big Nose & Other Natural Disasters.
Seventeen-year-old Jory Michaels wakes up on the first day of summer vacation with her same old big nose, no passion in her life (in the creative sense of the word), and all signs still pointing to her dying a virgin. Plus, her mother is busy roasting a chicken for Day #6 of the Dinner For Breakfast Diet.
In spite of her driving record (it was an accident!), Jory gets a job delivering flowers and cakes to Reno’s casinos and wedding chapels. She also comes up with a new summer goal: saving for a life-altering nose job. She and her new nose will attract a fabulous boyfriend. Nothing like the shameless flirt Tyler Briggs, or Tom who’s always nice but never calls. Maybe she’ll find someone kind of like Gideon at the Jewel Café, except better looking and not quite so different. Jory survives various summer disasters like doing yoga after sampling Mom’s Cabbage Soup Diet, Enforced Mother Bonding With Crazy Nose Obsessed Daughter Night, and discovering Tyler’s big secret. But will she learn to accept herself and maybe even find her passion, in the creative (AND romantic!) sense of the word?
I have written for APPLESEEDS, Confetti, Hopscotch, Story Friends, Wee Ones Magazine, the Deseret News, Children’s Playmate and Blooming Tree Press’ Summer Shorts anthology. I won the Utah Arts Council prize for Not-A-Dr. Logan’s Divorce Book. My novels Jungle Crossing and Going Native! each won first prize in the League of Utah Writers contest. I currently serve as an SCBWI Regional Advisor.
I submitted My Big Nose & Other Natural Disasters to Krista Marino at Delacorte because she requested it during our critique at the summer SCBWI conference (no response yet).
Thank you for your time and attention. I look forward to hearing from you.
Sydney Salter Husseman
With hundreds and hundreds of queries each month, it’s tough to stand out. Sydney, however, did just that. First, she has a great title that totally made me laugh. Second, she sets up her main character’s dilemma in a succinct and interesting way. In one simple paragraph, I have a great idea of who Jory is and what her life is about—the interesting tidbits about her mother help show the novel’s sense of humor, too. Sydney’s largest paragraph sets up the plot and the conflict, and introduces some exciting potential love interests and misadventures that I was excited to read about. Again, Sydney really shows off her fantastic sense of humor, and she leaves me hanging with a question that I needed an answer to. She has writing experience and has completed other manuscripts that were prize-worthy. Her SCBWI involvement—while not a necessity—shows me that she has an understanding of and an interest in the children’s publishing world. The fact that an editor requested the manuscript is always a good sign. That I knew Krista personally and highly valued her opinion was, as Sydney’s main character Jory would say, “The icing on the cake.”
SAMPLE QUERY 3: NONFICTION (SELF-HELP) Agent’s Comments: Michelle Wolfson (Wolfson Literary)
Dear Ms. Wolfson:
Have you ever wanted to know the best day of the week to buy groceries or go out to dinner? Have you ever wondered about the best time of day to send an e-mail or ask for a raise? What about the best time of day to schedule a surgery or a haircut? What’s the best day of the week to avoid lines at the Louvre? What’s the best day of the month to make an offer on a house? What’s the best time of day to ask someone out on a date?
My book, Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon: A Guide to the Best Time to Buy This, Do That, and Go There, has the answers to these questions and hundreds more.
As a long-time print journalist, I’ve been privy to readership surveys that show people can’t get enough of newspaper and magazine stories about the best time to buy or do things. This book puts several hundreds of questions and answers in one place—a succinct, large-print reference book that readers will feel like they need to own. Why? Because it will save them time and money, and it will give them valuable information about issues related to health, education, travel, the workplace and more. In short, it will make them smarter, so they can make better decisions.
Best of all, the information in this book is relevant to anyone, whether they live in Virginia or the Virgin Islands, Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine. In fact, much of the book will find an audience in Europe and Australia.
I’ve worked as a journalist since 1984. In 1999, the Virginia Press Association created an award for the best news writing portfolio in the state—the closest thing Virginia had to a reporter-of-the-year award. I won it that year and then again in 2000. During the summer of 2007, I left newspapering to pursue book projects and long-form journalism.
I saw your name on a list of top literary agents for self-help books, and I read on your website that you’re interested in books that offer practical advice. Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon offers plenty of that. Please let me know if you’d like to read my proposal.
Mark Di Vincenzo
I tend to prefer it when authors jump right into the heart of their book, the exception being if we’ve met at a conference or have some other personal connection. Mark chose clever questions for the opening of the query. All of those questions are, in fact, relevant to my life—with groceries, dinner, e-mail and a raise—and yet I don’t have a definitive answer to them. He gets a little more offbeat and unusual with questions regarding surgery, the Louvre, buying a house and dating. This shows a quirkier side to the book and also the range of topics it is going to cover, so I know right away there is going to be a mix of useful and quirky information on a broad range of topics. By starting with “As a long-time print journalist,” Mark immediately establishes his credibility for writing on this topic. This helps show that there is a market for this book, and establishes the need for such a book. Mark’s bio paragraph offers a lot of good information. It’s nice when I feel like an author has sought me out specifically and thinks we would be a good fit.
SAMPLE QUERY 4: WOMEN’S FICTION Agent’s Comments: Elisabeth Weed (Weed Literary)
Dear Ms. Weed:
Natalie Miller had a plan. She had a goddamn plan. Top of her class at Dartmouth. Even better at Yale Law. Youngest aide ever to the powerful Senator Claire Dupris. Higher, faster, stronger. This? Was all part of the plan. True, she was so busy ascending the political ladder that she rarely had time to sniff around her mediocre relationship with Ned, who fit the three Bs to the max: basic, blond and boring, and she definitely didn’t have time to mourn her mangled relationship with Jake, her budding rock star ex-boyfriend.
The lump in her right breast that Ned discovers during brain-numbingly bland morning sex? That? Was most definitely not part of the plan. And Stage IIIA breast cancer? Never once had Natalie jotted this down on her to-do list for conquering the world. When her (tiny-penised) boyfriend has the audacity to dump her on the day after her diagnosis, Natalie’s entire world dissolves into a tornado of upheaval, and she’s left with nothing but her diary to her ex-boyfriends, her mornings lingering over “The Price is Right,” her burnt-out stubs of pot that carry her past the chemo pain, and finally, the weight of her life choices—the ones in which she might drown if she doesn’t find a buoy.
The Department of Lost and Found is a story of hope, of resolve, of digging deeper than you thought possible until you find the strength not to crumble, and ultimately, of making your own luck, even when you’ve been dealt an unsteady hand.
I’m a freelance writer and have contributed to, among others, American Baby, American Way, Arthritis Today, Bride’s, Cooking Light, Fitness, Glamour, InStyle Weddings, Men’s Edge, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, Parenting, Parents, Prevention, Redbook, Self, Shape, Sly, Stuff, USA Weekend, Weight Watchers, Woman’s Day, Women’s Health, and ivillage.com, msn.com and women.com. I also ghostwrote The Knot Book of Wedding Flowers.
If you are interested, I’d love to send you the completed manuscript. Thanks so much! Looking forward to speaking with you soon.
Allison Winn Scotch
The opening sentence reads like great jacket copy, and I immediately know who our protagonist is and what the conflict for her will be. (And it’s funny, without being silly.) The third paragraph tells me where this book will land: upmarket women’s fiction. (A great place to be these days!) This paragraph highlights impressive credentials. While being able to write nonfiction does not necessarily translate over to fiction, it shows me that she is someone worth paying more attention to. And her magazine contacts will help when it comes time to promote the book.
SAMPLE QUERY 5: MAINSTREAM/COMEDIC FICTION Agent’s Comments: Michelle Brower (Folio Literary)
Dear Michelle Brower:
“I spent two days in a cage at the SPCA until my parents finally came to pick me up. The stigma of bringing your undead son home to live with you can wreak havoc on your social status, so I can’t exactly blame my parents for not rushing out to claim me. But one more day and I would have been donated to a research facility.”
Andy Warner is a zombie.
After reanimating from a car accident that killed his wife, Andy is resented by his parents, abandoned by his friends, and vilified by society. Seeking comfort and camaraderie in Undead Anonymous, a support group for zombies, Andy finds kindred souls in Rita, a recent suicide who has a taste for consuming formaldehyde in cosmetic products, and Jerry, a 21-year-old car crash victim with an artistic flair for Renaissance pornography.
With the help of his new friends and a rogue zombie named Ray, Andy embarks on a journey of personal freedom and self-discovery that will take him from his own casket to the SPCA to a media-driven, class-action lawsuit for the civil rights of all zombies. And along the way, he’ll even devour a few Breathers.
Breathers is a contemporary dark comedy about life, or undeath, through the eyes of an ordinary zombie. In addition to Breathers, I’ve written three other novels and more than four dozen short stories—a dozen of which have appeared in small press publications. Currently, I’m working on my fifth novel, also a dark comedy, about fate.
Enclosed is a two-page synopsis and the first chapter of Breathers, with additional sample chapters or the entire manuscript available upon request. I appreciate your time and interest in considering my query and I look forward to your response.
Scott G. Browne
What really draws me to this query is the fact that it has exactly what I’m looking for in my commercial fiction—story and style. Scott includes a brief quote from the book that manages to capture his sense of humor as an author and his uniquely relatable main character (hard to do with someone who’s recently reanimated). I think this is a great example of how query letters can break the rules and still stand out in the slush pile. I normally don’t like quotes as the first line, because I don’t have a context for them, but this quote both sets up the main concept of the book and gives me a sense of the character’s voice. This method won’t necessarily work for most fiction, but it absolutely is successful here. The letter quickly conveys that this is an unusual book about zombies, and being a fan of zombie literature, I’m aware that it seems to be taking things in a new direction. I also appreciate how Scott conveys the main conflict of his plot and his supporting cast of characters—we know there is an issue for Andy beyond coming back to life as a zombie, and that provides momentum for the story.