Written by Wendy Keller
Imagine you are a literary agent sitting beside a box brimming with queries. You lift your letter knife high and the sun glints off its blade, illuminating your evil grin. “Whose dreams can I dash today?” you chuckle as you pluck the first victim from the pile.
Or try this: an agent waits by the mailbox, checking her watch for the tardy mail truck. Nervously twisting her hands, she finally sees the truck come reeling around the corner, and her heart skips a beat. Perhaps the ideal query letter will come today!
Neither is true, but you could never tell that from the query letters agents receive! Writers hear the horror stories, obsess about query writing and STILL botch it up so horribly that only the most tenderhearted, patient, brand new agent will even look at their material (just take a look at some of our craziest queries!).
YOU can do better! Here’s how to get noticed: Pick 30 agents from Jeff Herman’s book “The Insider’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents”. Choose agents who advertise sold material like yours and who specialize in your subjects – people who MAKE THEIR LIVING SELLING BOOKS LIKE YOURS.
Write a personalized letter to the top 15 of them. If you must use a form letter, at very least personalize it in the same type font as your letter. It’s probably better if you send an email, but still personalize it.
In the first paragraph, clearly state your book’s primary feature and define its category. If it’s fiction, call it by one genre, not four genres all mixed together. (If you don’t know your genre and its rules, you shouldn’t be writing).
For nonfiction, mention your primary credential as the author or identify/quantify the target audience. The author must answer the agent’s first question, which will become the editor’s first question, “WHO IS GOING TO BUY THIS BOOK AND WHY?”.
Your second and third paragraph can either describe your plotline (fiction) or your subject (nf) and further elaborate on your credentials. Agents dislike fiction queries which meander all over the plot and nonfiction proposals written by people who don’t know their subject.
Close briefly, simply and professionally. Do not threaten, bribe, try to placate, grovel or make grandiose claims. (If I see one more claiming it’s better than Grisham, or touting “all the girls at bridge club loved it” I’m going to scream!). Instead, end with “I look forward to your response. A SASE is enclosed. Thank you for your attention to my query.” If it’s an email query, just close it politely. We’ll write back if we’re interested.
Wait six weeks for all responses. Some will ask for your manuscript immediately. Some will ask for money (think hard before you pay). Some will demand an exclusive (which means the writer waits while manuscript collects dust). Wait the whole 6 weeks, for all the responses. Anyone who hasn’t responded isn’t worthy of your time or doesn’t have any time to spare.
Send your manuscript to those who ask, particularly those who ask nicely, on good quality letterhead that represents an image you’d like to be associated with. If at the end of their readings you don’t have a contract with a proven agency you feel comfortable with, repeat the process with the final 15 agents. Wait for everyone to respond before you sign any contracts.
If NO ONE offers you representation, there’s either something wrong with your query letter or your manuscript. Figure it out and fix it. At this point, it isn’t about sending out more query letters in desperation. These are people you personally hand-picked who make their living selling books like yours. Chances are good they know the market for your book at least as well as you do, or better.
To evaluate an agent, look for Credibility and Personality. Credibility is proven sales of books like yours. Any real agency will be glad to tell you which books they’ve sold, but probably won’t give you the phone numbers of their authors. Read the acknowledgments section of the books they mention if you’re still skeptical.
Personality means, “Can you work with this person?” Returning phone calls, for instance. The agent should be willing to speak with you before you sign a contract (but is not likely to want to chat before one is offered). Your allegiance as an author will likely be to your agent, not your publisher. Agents invest in authors’ careers. We want to sell your first book and your tenth. Find someone whose personality meshes with yours – whatever that means to you.
Once you’ve got an agent, a signed contract, and your hopes up, don’t quit your day job. It can take a while for the best of agents to sell a book, but as long as you’re getting rejection slips, you’ll know that at least it’s out there circulating. Good luck, and I’ll see your name on a book jacket soon!
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