Contacting Literary Agents: How to Write a Query Letter

I speak a lot about self-publishing because that’s the route I decided to take for my own writing. However, while I found to be self-publishing to be much easier and better suited for my tastes, I don’t think you should count out traditional publishing for your own work. After all, traditional publishing is the big leagues. 99% of the books you find on bookstore shelves are from established publishing houses. Why not take that leap and see if you can make it? Do you think you have what it takes to get published?

But before you can get published, you need to find a literary agent. And how do you go about getting an agent? You need a query letter.

Imagine you’re looking for a job. You have years and years of experience and you just know that you’d be a major asset to a company. But how are recruiters supposed to know you’re out there unless you submit a cover letter and resume? And if you don’t have a great cover letter and resume, you can’t expect them to start knocking down your door to get you to work for them.

Finding a literary agent and publisher is a lot like looking for a job. A query letter is little more than a glorified cover letter. It’s what gets your foot in the door. Without a decent query letter, you’re going to have a hard time getting agents to read your work. It might seem intimidating trying to sell yourself and your book to a complete stranger in just a few words, but it’s necessary if you want to be published. Luckily, writing a convincing query letter isn’t that difficult.

Most literary agents describe what they want in a query letter right on their website. They usually ask for two main details: your writing history and a basic overview of your synopsis. Every agent is different, and you’re bound to encounter the occasional agent who will ask you a curveball. In some instances, I’ve seen agents ask submitters to explain why they think their manuscript would be a good fit for the agent. I even had one agent ask me to list my influences and whose writing I emulated in my manuscript.

No matter what I tell you in the rest of the blog post, you must always consider the agent’s submission rules above all else. There are agents who will immediately trash your manuscript if they see that you didn’t listen to their rules, and they have every right to do so. They read hundreds of letters each day; they don’t have time to waste on people who won’t bother reading their submission requirements. That is why I advise you to ALWAYS adhere the submission guidelines on an agent’s site thoroughly. If you fail to do that, not only do you risk them tossing your manuscript without a second glance, but you might also tarnish your own name with that agent and any of their partners. Don’t create a negative reputation for yourself because you didn’t take a couple minutes to read the rules.

In the case where an agent doesn’t specify what exactly they want in the query letter, there is an easy-to-follow formula to help you along the way.

At the top of the letter, you should list your full name, phone number, email, and address. This is a no-brainer. How do you expect the agent to get in touch with you without any contact information?

Some authors (including myself) have social media profiles based around their writing. Personally, I don’t recommend adding them to your query letter. Your letter needs to stay within one page, and adding small details like social media handles can eat away at your space. Only add social media links if the agent specifically asks for it.

Now onto the actual letter itself. First off, you should thank the agent for taking the time to read your query. Like I mentioned earlier, they can get hundreds of letters a day. They’re taking the time to open your email or letter, so the least you can do is thank them for their time. Those few words can make a world of difference.

In that same first paragraph, let them know that you are asking for their representation for your manuscript. Tell them your title, the genre, and the approximate word count. For example, a good opening line for a query letter would be:

Dear Ms. Jane Doe

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I hope you will consider representing my novel, John Smith Goes to Space, a 60,000-word science-fiction novel about a man who travels to space on an epic adventure.

Right away, the agent can get an idea of whether they want to consider the book or not. Is it within their preferred genre? Does the title sound appealing?

After the introduction, you will want to give a basic synopsis of the story. This is where you REALLY have to sell your manuscript. You want the reader to see the synopsis and think, “Wow! I need to know what’s going to happen!” It’s like when you watch a teaser trailer for a movie. After it’s over, do you want to know more? Or did the trailer give away too much? Or even too little?

Here’s an example of giving away too little:

John Smith was the first man to travel to the deepest recesses of space. Little did he know, he wasn’t alone.

Here’s an example of giving too much:

John Smith is a 42-year-old insurance salesman who loved his wife, Margaret, and his two daughters, Lana and Janet. While he was content with his life, he still felt like he needed some excitement to spice things up. How could he get over his mid-life crisis?

One night, two mysterious agents in black suits, Bob and Steve, come to his door and tell him that he’s been “randomly selected”. John has no idea what they mean until they drive him to a top-secret research laboratory in the middle of the desert and tell him that he’s going to be traveling to the furthest ends of space. His mission is to collect data on a species of aliens that have been discovered on a planet similar to Earth.

Weeks later, John is sent off in a prototype rocket with the power to travel hundreds of lightyears in mere hours. He arrives at the planet and makes first contact with the aliens. While they initially seem friendly and accommodating, he soon discovers that they’re actually carnivorous beasts with a taste for humans.

John escapes their clutches, but he’s miles away from his ship. He has to navigate his way through a perilous jungle, across a raging ocean, and over miles of scorching desert, all filled with flora and fauna that shares the aliens’ appetite for human flesh. John Smith may have started out as an Average Joe with an encyclopedic knowledge of every insurance policy known to man, but he eventually becomes a survivalist who will do anything to survive.

Here’s an example of a great summary:

John Smith was your average guy. He worked in an office, he had a wife and kids, and he hated rush hour traffic. He wanted to do something more with his life. Luckily, things were about to change.

One night, two mysterious agents come to John’s door and tell him that he’s been randomly selected for a top-secret mission: a trip to the edge of space.

The next thing he knows, John is being blasted off in a prototype rocket into the deepest parts of the known universe. He soon lands on a strange planet, where he discovers a whole race of an unusual alien species; a species with a taste for human flesh . John forgets his mission objective as he desperately tries to survive in an unknown alien world where literally everything is trying to eat him.

Will John Smith ever make it home?

The first summary is just too short for a query letter. It’s a logline. It’s the type of line you give when you want to pitch your book to a random person you met on an elevator. You might encounter an agent who wants a very, very brief summary of your work, in which case a logline works, but for the most part, a one-sentence summary is not right for a query.

The second summary adds a lot of unnecessary detail. We don’t need to know individual names except for the main protagonist. We don’t need a play-by-play of certain scenes. The second summary definitely lets the reader know what the story will entail, but it’s got a lot of excess fat.

The third summary has it all. You’ve got your protagonist, you’ve got a conflict, and you’ve got a hook. It tells you what you need to know. That’s what agents usually want to see in a query letter. Keep in mind, though, that there will be agents who will ask for a one- to two-page synopsis of your story. At that point, you can go crazy with the summarizing, but know which details deserve to be in your synopsis and which don’t.

Next, you’ll want to add a little author bio. You don’t need to explain every single essay or short story you’ve ever written. You should talk about the writing that has shaped you into the author you are today. When did you start writing? Where did this interest come from? What made you want to write this particular manuscript? Who are your favorite authors, and who have you tried to emulate? You were selling your story in the previous paragraphs; now it’s time to sell yourself.

In the next paragraph, you can brag a little. Talk about any awards or accommodations you’ve won. This is also the place where you should talk about whether you’ve been published before.

When I submitted Dodger’s Doorway to several agents, I made sure to notify them that I previously self-published. This is a very important detail since many agents do not accept previously published (self and traditional) work. DO NOT LIE about whether you’ve been previously published! The agent will find out, and you do not want to get yourself into that situation.

The closing paragraph of the query letter is the easiest. Thank the agent once again for taking the time to read your letter, and let them know that they can contact you if any additional information is needed.

Before you go and hit that submit button, you must proofread, proofread, proofread! Do not let one spelling or grammar mistake slip through the cracks. Do you think an agent will want to read your manuscript if you don’t even bother editing your own query letter? It takes an extra minute or two to proofread; don’t be lazy.

Once you submit the query letter, it’s a waiting game. You’ll get the agents who respond months later, and then you’ll get the ones who don’t respond at all. Don’t take it personally. You’re just one of thousands of applicants. That may seem daunting, but you have nothing to lose by submitting your manuscript. For all you know, you might get lucky and actually impress an agent enough to spark some interest. Once you get that foot in the door, the real work begins!

Is there a particular topic you’d like me to cover in a future post? Leave a comment, or head on over to my Facebook page and share your thoughts!

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