5 Tips for Querying Agents
You’ve done it: You finished your manuscript, revised it, received feedback on it from your critique partners, and maybe even paid to have it professionally edited. If you’re opting for the traditional publishing route, the next step is equally huge. Now it's time to query literary agents and impress them enough to make them want to read the book you've poured your whole heart into.
Does that sound daunting? Figuring out how to send a query letter, finding the correct agents to send it to, what to put in the letter itself…don’t panic!
Let’s start with the basics: What is a literary agent and what is a query letter? A literary agent is a person who sells your book to publishers. They are your professional voice and advocate. They want your book to succeed nearly as much as you do, and they will fight and negotiate for you every step of the way. A query letter is the business letter you write to literary agents to introduce them to you and your book in the hopes that they'll want to learn more, and possibly become your agent.
Research, research, research
Do not, under any circumstances, Google “literary agents” and then proceed to send query letters to every single name you find. Nothing good comes from this! Only a lot of wasted hours on your part— followed by a lot of rejections.
Agents aren't book-selling robots! Like most publishing professionals, they have specific areas of expertise and specific preferences. Some only represent romance authors, and others prefer mystery and horror. Some specialize in young adult novels, while others will only be interested in adult literature.
Great places to search for agents include Manuscript Wish List or the #MSWL tag on Twitter, where agents list what they’re looking for in a book. Query Tracker and Publisher’s Marketplace can help you find agents and their submission guidelines. As you're searching and noting which agents you'd like to query, make sure you note why you’re selecting these agents. Later, when you're writing your query letters, you’ll want to let them know why you think they’re the perfect person to represent your book, and these notes will come in handy.
Another way to find agents to query is to find recently published books in your genre. Flip to the Acknowledgements section— writers always thank their agents. Make a list of the agents who represent the types of books you wrote and start researching them.
The next research step is to check the agent’s submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. This is essential. Agents use these guidelines partly as a way to see how well you follow directions. If they ask you to submit the first chapter with your query letter and you send the entire book, you’re all but guaranteed a rejection.
Hook the reader
A query letter is a business letter. It needs to be professional (and proofread several times!). Always, always, always address the agent by name and not by “Sir” or “Madam," or worse, "To Whom It May Concern." At the same time, don't waste space with nonessential pleasantries. Agents receive more queries than they can count and they don’t have time to read “How are you? Hope you are well. Great weather we’re having in New York!”
Instead, open your query with a hook related to your book. Perhaps a tagline like Victoria Aveyard’s Realm Breaker: "Save the world. Or end it." That pulls the reader in because they’re wondering, How does that work? There’s a huge chasm between saving the world and ending it.
Another way to open your query letter is with a provocative question. For example, Danya Kukafka's novel Girl in Snow has the tagline: "Who are you when no one is watching?" The idea is to offer a teaser of your story— one that stands out from every other letter the agent receives.
Remember the query letter is the first glimpse of your writing the agent will read. Don’t be boring! Let them hear your voice and draw them in so they’ll want to keep reading.
Write a brief summary of your book
We need to stress the word brief a few more times. Remember: your query is one of hundreds the agent received that day. In general, you want to keep your entire letter to one page— 500 words or less. More often than not, you’ll be querying via email, so try writing it in your preferred word processing program first to gauge the length. As for your summary, keep it quick and snappy, and end it in a way that leaves them wanting more.
You’re not telling the agent every single twist and turn and how the ending plays out in detail. Think of this summary as what would appear on the back of the book if someone were to pick it up at the bookstore. You want to give a feel for who the characters are and what the conflict is, and entice the person holding the book (or in this case, reading the email), to seek more.
This step may require some practice! Start by grabbing some books off your shelf and studying their summaries. See what they have in common and which ones you find yourself excited about. Then write a few versions of your own book's summary and have a trusted friend or critique partner give you their thoughts.
Sell yourself succinctly
You may be wondering why this part comes so low in the query letter process. Shouldn’t you introduce yourself right off the bat? List all your hobbies and make sure the agent knows you’ve been writing stories since you were six? Nope. Your book is the star and you are there for a cameo appearance at this stage.
That said, you do want to tell the agent something about yourself. Do you have any writing credits? Have you been published before? Do you write articles or have a blog? What about your social media presence? Do you have 1.5 million followers on TikTok? Agents want to know these things.
And if you don’t, that’s okay. It’s important that you do not exaggerate or outright lie about any of the above. You can share meaningful personal details such as the city you live in, your profession, your hobbies, or your educational background. It’s far better to have no previous credits than to be exposed as a liar.
Things will get more friendly and personable if and when the relationship progresses. For now, remember that this is a business letter and you’re keeping the nonessential stuff off the page.
Limit the number of queries you send
We know this sounds counterintuitive. Shouldn’t you send your query letter for your fantasy novel to all thirty-five agents you found listed in the back of your favorite books? Doesn’t that increase the odds that one or more of them will be begging to represent you?
As frustrating as it sounds, odds are your query letter will be met with rejections. And if you send that first round of the letter to ten agents, maybe all ten will reject you. But what if they all reject you for the same reason?
If you receive rejection letters saying, “Hey, the hook is great, but the conflict in the summary is a little weak,” you can fix that. And then you can email ten more agents with the stronger conflict firmly in place.
You might even be able to resubmit to the agents you’ve already queried—if you read in their submission guidelines that they accept resubmissions.
As a general rule, do not send your query letter to more than one agent at the same literary agency. If there are two agents there that you think would be a good fit, pick one. At some agencies, if an agent thinks another agent is a better fit, they may forward your query to their coworker. At others, a "no" from one agent is a "no" from all of them. This is why it's important to do your research!
Querying is an exciting (and occasionally nerve-wracking) time. Do your research, take your time when crafting your query, and be professional. And don’t forget to proofread your letter one last time before you hit send!