If you've written a book and are now approaching literary agents for representation you will need to know how to write a query letter. Will your query letter be the one to catch a literary agent's attention? This primer will detail the process of writing a winning query letter that will get you noticed.
When you write your query letter, you need to keep in mind that the agent is probably reading through a stack of 20 to 50 query letters or e-mails, putting aside the one or two that catch her eye. Most literary agents represent a small number of clients (anywhere from 10 to 100 authors), and she will take on only a few new clients each year. Yet that literary agent is most likely receiving queries from between 5,000 to 30,000 writers every year. How can you make your query letter stand out from the mountains of letters?
Keep your query brief.
Don't go beyond one page unless you absolutely have to. Revise your letter over and over, eliminating unnecessary words and condensing phrases until your letter is direct, compelling and to the point.
Make it professional.
Watch your tone. If you are too casual, you run the risk of appearing overconfident or unreliable. A literary agent needs to know you are serious about writing as a business. No agent wants to represent a hobby writer who will write when he feels like it. Agents are seeking career novelists with many books in them who will take writing seriously.
Catch interest immediately.
It may take a while, but you'll need to find a way to express the essence of your book, including why it will garner interest, in one or two sentences. This is called a logline. Flip over a paperback, read the first line or two describing the book and you'll have a practical example to follow. Practice telling other people what your book is about in one to two lines. Then polish those two lines until they shine. Use this as an introductory sentence.
Make it your best writing.
Yes, it's painstaking work to condense your book into two paragraphs, but you need to do it, and you need to do it well. Agents will judge your writing by those two paragraphs, not by the beautiful description you wrote in chapter fourteen. This is your one chance to get this agent's attention, so write and rewrite that query letter until it's the best example of your work possible.
Follow proper format.
Single space your query letter, and do not indent paragraphs. Your letter must include the following: the title of your book, the genre in which you have written, the word count of the manuscript, one or two paragraphs summarizing the book in a compelling manner, and one paragraph about you, the author, including your publishing credits, if you have any.
Tailor the query letter to the specific agent.
Take the time to research agents before you send your query letter. If the agent writes a blog, read it carefully. Many agents will give clues to what they are looking for, saying things like "I hate query letters that open with rhetorical questions" or "I never accept e-mail queries." If the agent has mentioned she is looking for a Hispanic "Gone with the Wind," and your book has a Hispanic heroine, mention this in your query letter. The Internet makes research quick and easy, and that extra 10 minutes spent researching may be your ticket.
Get a referral if possible.
Many agents will read your manuscript if you have a referral from a writer he or she respects or represents. The next time you're at a writer's conference or are chatting up an author who is represented by an agent, ask if she will read some of your work and consider giving you a referral. If you do get a referral, mention it in the first paragraph of your query letter, naming the name of the writer that agent represents who gave you the referral. While this will not guarantee a request for a read, it will improve your chances significantly.
Sample Query Letter
Attention: Mr./Ms. Agent
I understand you are interested in (your book's genre). TITLE OF YOUR BOOK IN ALL CAPS is a 70,000 word novel about (add your log line here).
Short paragraph about your book's plot, introducing main characters.
Another short paragraph about the appeal of your book.
Brief paragraph detailing who you are, why you are qualified to write this book and what publishing credits you have to your name.
Tell the agent what you have enclosed with the query letter (synopsis, first chapter, first three chapters, etc.).
Request permission to send the full manuscript.
Your contact information
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