Literary Agent Sound Off: Query Letter Basics

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 11.04.09 PMBelow find a collection of helpful quotes from literary agents regarding how to write & submit a query letter. 12 reps chime in with helpful advice.

(This post excerpted from the new writing guide Get a Literary Agent: The Complete Guide to Securing Representation For Your Work, which you can find wherever books are sold, in person or online, including the WD Shop.)

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Queries are business letters. Agenting is business. Publishing is business. I try to be nice and friendly and funny and all, but the bottom line is that I expect those with whom I work to be professional and take what they’re doing seriously.
—Linda Epstein (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)

The best query letters convey the tone of the book.
—Mollie Glick (Foundry Literary + Media)

I dislike it when a query letter focuses too much on the author’s bio and doesn’t tell me what the book is about. Make sure you include essential story details.
—Shira Hoffman (McIntosh & Otis, Inc.)

First, take heart—agents really will read a great query. For queries, here’s a secret: Any agent will read a well-researched, personal query. Show the agent that you know a little about the list that she pours so much time and care into. You can do this by stating something such as, ‘I’m writing to you because I loved Book X and I know that you represent Writer Z.’ Then write a smart, focused query.
—Lindsay Edgecombe (Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency)

I’m sure it has been said before but the best queries are the ones that are pitched to agents who share your sensibilities. Don’t pitch an agent who specializes in science fiction a book about financial markets, and vice versa. Also, avoid the term ‘fiction novel.’
—Melissa Flashman (Trident Media Group)

I love a query that reads like the back of a book cover. Also, I do encourage all writers to treat their query as a job interview. Be professional. Be concise.
—Nicole Resciniti (The Seymour Agency)

Spell-check your letter. Follow all the agent’s directions for submitting a query.
—Dawn Dowdle (Blue Ridge Literary Agency)

Being able to really articulate what you want to say in a short query is difficult yet extremely important. We need to see something that jumps out at us as different, passionate, and expressive. On a daily basis, our team reads and considers several submissions, so it is those ideas that promise change and innovation that catch our eye.
—Jan Miller (Dupree/Miller & Associates)

The silliest mistake I see in a submission (and I see it surprisingly often) is an unprofessional query letter. I’ve received queries for ‘Dear Editor,’ ‘Dear Agent,’ ‘Dear Publisher,’ as well as e-mail queries that are addressed to ten different agents together. I wonder if people really think someone will want to work with you if you can’t be bothered to get their name right. A little homework and a professional letter that provides all the information we request in our submissions guidelines on our website is the best way to showcase your work and send the message that you will be pleasant to work with.
—Jacqueline Flynn (Joelle Delbourgo Associates)

Query letters do need a voice. Some voice. Your voice. You can tell when a writer is a natural, and can convey simple ideas and plot summary without being boring or giving away too much.
—Elana Roth (Red Tree Literary)

Avoid a sentence such as ‘This is my third (or fourth, or fifth, or sixth) unpublished novel, so I am clearly very dedicated and hardworking…’
—Alex Glass (Glass Literary)

Watch those typos, folks! We do notice.
—Peter McGuigan (Foundry Literary + Media)

Ever since I started taking electronic submissions, I’ve found that many people don’t put the care into query letters that they would have in a hardcopy submission. It’s as if they see an electronic query letter more as another random e-mail than a professional introduction to their work. So I’m seeing the disturbing, ‘Hey, I’ve got this manuscript I think is right up your alley. Can I send it?’ sort of letters. Writers should think of the query as they would a cover letter that goes along with a résumé. You wouldn’t dash that off carelessly (or CC it to everyone in the field, another common mistake), so don’t do it with query letters.
—Lucienne Diver (The Knight Agency)

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2 thoughts on “Literary Agent Sound Off: Query Letter Basics

  1. sassy

    Okay, I ‘get’ it: Be Professional. I’ve not written a query yet, but I am annoyed with the info Agents ‘demand’ from submissions, i.e. “I get so many submissions, I am so busy so don’t waste my time, be professional (what’s ‘your’ definition of professional?) etc. etc. It’s all about ‘You,’ not the submission.

    Yes, I agree a query should be professional, concise, well written, business oriented and informative, but stop complaining: It’s YOUR JOB to find new authors. That’s what you get paid to do, first and foremost. If it’s too much of a hassle to look beneath the ‘errors,’ the stuff that irritates you the most, then you’re not a ‘professional’ agent. Get out of the business.

    Further, you never know where the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling lurks, so be courteous and send a notice of a submission received. A note of why it is rejected and perhaps a suggestion as to where the author might apply next shows you’re human. A ‘canned’ automated letter or email shows you have a heart instead of a cement block for a brain. How hard is it to click on ‘reply?’

    I’m certain to be blacklisted for this email, but sometimes a jerk on the leash gets the animal’s attention that some behavior is mutual and needs a ‘head’s up.’

    Just my opinion as a writer. We have a right to be treated as ‘professionals,’ too.

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