How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material

While attending the Midwest Writers Workshop, I posted a summary of a talk given by Marcus Sakey and John Gilstrap. Sakey advised that query letters, if any good, would result in a 75% “send me something” response.

I had no idea what a bomb I was throwing by tweeting and blogging that principle. Thus, I asked Marcus to write a guest post further elaborating on it. Here he is!

About two weeks ago I pissed a lot of you off.

I was attending the Midwest Writers Workshop at the time, where along with my buddy John Gilstrap, I gave a presentation on “The Secrets of Getting Published.” One of the things I said was that a properly written query letter should result in at least 75% of agents requesting the manuscript. 

My host, the delightful Jane Friedman, tweeted this, and many of you disagreed with me rather strongly.

To which I respond, respectfully: you’re wrong.

I know because I had that success rate. In fact, once I had my query in its proper form, about 80% of the agents I queried requested materials.

Some of you said that this isn’t realistic for today’s market. But this was late 2005. While the rise of e-books and a down economy have taken a toll, you’re going to be hard-pressed to convince me that agents have fundamentally changed their business model in the last five years.

Others pointed out that I’m an established author.
However, when I was querying my only publication credit was a short story in a UK journal with 600 subscribers. 

Still others said that there were too many variables in play.  You raise a point, but remember, I didn’t say any query letter. I said a properly written one.

Here’s how to do it. 

(By the way, all of this applies to fiction; nonfiction is different, and I don’t know beans about it. Sorry.)

1. First of all, finish the book.
And I don’t just mean type “THE END.” If it isn’t polished to a high gleam, if it hasn’t been read by a dozen friends and rewritten in response to their comments, then you aren’t ready to worry about Step Two. But let’s assume that it is.

2. The next thing you need to do is decide which agents to approach.
This is one of the ways you limit the number of variables in the equation. Only query agents who represent work like yours. My own agent, for example, specializes in crime fiction, thrillers, and some nonfiction. Sending him fantasy would be a waste of time. It’s not his market, and even if he did like it, you’d be better served by an agent who really knows your field. ??

How to do that? Go to your local bookstore or library, and bring a notebook. Find the section that matches your genre, and start pulling books down. In their acknowledgments, authors almost always thank their agent (if they don’t, you don’t want that agent anyway.) Focus on books that are somewhat similar to yours, but don’t obsess. Don’t try to pick a favorite in advance. ??After three or four deeply boring hours, you should have a sizable list.

To find their addresses, turn to the Internet. You can Google search, using quotes around their full name. You can also look at sites like and

Again, not fun, but necessary. Make a spreadsheet, and include the agency, the agent’s name, the authors they represent, the address and e-mail, and sections for dates to track who you’ve sent letters and when. ??

Okay, so you’ve got a targeted list.

3. Now it’s time to write the dreaded query.
It’s dreaded for a reason, which is that you already wrote the book. You slaved over every one of 350 pages. You know its intricacies, its subtleties, its moments of grace and its smelly underarms. Now you have to forget all that. ??

Here’s the key to writing queries: You’re not actually selling the book.

I want to repeat that: You are not selling the book. In fact, you could write a highly successful query for a book that does not exist.

All you’re doing is seducing the agent. You want to get them interested enough that they ask to see your manuscript. That’s it. ??It’s like online dating. If you can write a charming e-mail, you might get a date; if you get a date, who knows where it could lead. But try to put all your history and baggage in that first message and you won’t get any play. Instead, demonstrate that you’re worth someone’s time. That you are interesting, sincere, and respectful.

??How do you do that?

Well, for one, you’re polished. Your language is compelling and your presentation is perfect.

Also, you’re brief. Agents are busy. There are hundreds of other queries to read.

Finally, you are a storyteller. You know how to tease, how to intrigue, and you’re not afraid to put those wiles to work.

The Guts of the Query
??After a professional greeting (Mr. or Ms.), begin with a 1-2 line paragraph explaining that you are writing them because you know they represent X, and your book is similar. This shows that you have done your homework. It also begins to frame their expectations. By implication they know the genre and style of your work.

This is also a good place to put the word count, because if it’s appropriate (70,000-120,000, give or take), that’s a hurdle you’ve already cleared.

?Next, in 3-5 lines, sum up your story.
This is the hard part, but it’s easier than most people make it. In essence, what you want to do is leave out the tangents, complications, minor characters, and themes. Remember, this is seduction. Focus on drama and stakes. Here’s mine:

For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score—until his former partner comes looking for him. A hardened killer fresh out of Stateville, his partner wants to kidnap the son of Danny’s millionaire boss, and he needs help to pull it off. Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom. ??Refusing could cost him his life.

Did I leave out a lot? About 86,974 words. And man oh man did it hurt at first. But look at what it accomplished. By keeping the pitch brief, using only one name, and including significant stakes, I demonstrated that I know how to tell a story.

And that, my friends, is the point of the query letter. 

Think about it. Agents get hundreds of these a week. Do you really think they remember them? Hell, I bet they forget the beginning of most by the time they reach the middle. You try and read 300 queries, see how fast your eyes glaze over.

So instead of trying to convey the beautiful bleeding soul that is your novel, just show an agent you know how to tell a story.  That’s what makes them willing to read your manuscript.

Okay, next paragraph. This is the place for awards, previous publications, and nepotistic hookups. Will Stephen King blurb you? Is Oprah your aunt? Do you run a wildly successful blog? Put it in there.

Also, if you have some experience that informed the book, consider including it. Be judicious: if you’re hawking a mystery novel, by all means mention that you’re a cop. If your character likes to cook and so do you, leave it out. In fact, if you have nothing to mention here, le
ave the whole damn ‘graph out.  Never write just to fill space.

Finally, end with what in advertising is known as a call to action: “May I send you the finished manuscript?” ??If you’re writing a conventional query, you’re done.

However, when possible, I recommend you query via e-mail.

There are a couple of reasons. First, e-queries are cheaper and faster and better for the environment. Second, you can include a little taste of your novel. Do it like this:

Page one of <insert compelling title here> follows. May I send you the finished manuscript?

Then, after your name and contact info, paste in the first page or so of the novel. Do not attach it, as that will freak people out about viruses. Also, be sure to check your formatting, since e-mail can screw that up.

Finally, make sure that you end on a minor cliffhanger, something interesting.

The idea is simple. The agent has just read your brief and compelling query letter. They’re intrigued. It’s the easiest thing in the world to scroll down and read a little more. And then, because your first page is dynamite (right?), hopefully intrigued upshifts to excited. Simple as that.

??A good query letter is not written in a day. Write it and rewrite it. Have friends and critique partners read it. Buff the hell out of it. Once you feel like it’s ready, start sending out waves, say 5-10 a week.

Doing it in waves is crucial, because it will tell you how effective your query letter is. (Note: I didn’t say how interesting your book is. Query letters and novels are separate things.)

Remember, your query letter isn’t finished until you’re seeing about a 75% request rate.

When you do get a bite, remember to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in big letters on the envelope so that your manuscript hits the top of the pile. Then do a little happy dance and go send out another couple of queries. ?

Of course, the painful part is that for all the requests, you’ll get plenty of rejections. I did. This is a subjective business, and some very big names told me they didn’t like the book, that it lacked tension, that they didn’t think it had a market. Which made it all the sweeter when CBS Sunday Morning called The Blade Itself “how immortality gets started,” or when we sold the film rights to Ben Affleck. 

Don’t sweat the rejections.  Have a beer, then send another query. And great good luck!

Marcus Sakey is the bestselling author of four novels. His latest, The Amateurs, was called “genius” by the Chicago Tribune. He attended the University of Michigan, earned two majors, both promptly ignored; collected single terms at grad schools in several states; and spent ten years in advertising and marketing, which gave him the perfect experience to write about thieves and killers.

His first novel, The Blade Itself, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR, and chosen as both a New York Times Editor’s Pick and as one of Esquire Magazine’s “Top 5 Reads of 2007.” The Chicago Tribune called his second novel, At the City’s Edge, “nothing short of brilliant.” His third, Good People, came out to wide critical acclaim, with movie rights selling to Tobey Maguire.

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27 thoughts on “How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material

  1. adisonadolf

    his is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the leisure here! Keep up the excellent work.
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  2. JAlmon

    Just attended the Virginia Writers Club Symposium where author Brad Parks talked about “Charming the Gatekeeper: How to land that perfect agent and why you still need to.” He cited Marcus Skaey’s post as a “must read” for all writers in search of an agent. He was right. This is one of the most helpful articles, so concisely and so powerfully written, that I’ve read about the importance of a query letter, that key to unlock the gatekeeper’s door.

  3. Vickie Motter

    You nailed it. Even if I’m not completely thrilled on the subject or plot, if it’s well written, I’m very likely to request it, because everyone is looking for a good writer.

    When reading queries I’m looking for the basic information. Do you fit my category (did you research anything at all?)? How long is it? Who are the main players? What is the main plot? What is the protagonist fighting against/for? Contact information.

    The main point of the query is to show you can write. If I’m on the edge of liking something, a well written query will tip me in favor of you. Most importantly though, make sure the manuscript is polished, polished, polished.

  4. Steph

    When I last queried (in 2008-9) I had a 100% success rate. All agents and publishers (61) requested the manuscript.

    I never ever send an unsolicited manuscript (I write non-fiction by the way) without having queried first. I also enclose an acknowledgment card which has always been returned to me as requested. I got a deal in the end and I do think that a fabulous query letter, *coupled with* a really good manuscript, just works. But no excellent query letter is going to salvage a poor manuscript.

  5. Bart Cleveland

    This is great advice. Particularly that one’s query is not used to "sell your book". One of the most frequent mistakes made in marketing is forgetting that a potential consumer always thinks, "What’s in this for me?" If a query doesn’t deliver that answer in the first couple of sentences, it is most likely rejected.

  6. Bob Mayer

    I’m going to say something that is going to make agents everywhere scream, but I’m tired of hearing this "research the market" thing. "Only send to the editor/agent who does your type of book."
    Because, in essence, all a writer is doing is limiting her chances by crossing a bunch of people off the list. I see tweets all the time from agents complaining about their slush pile. Which is like a writer complaining about writing. It’s the job. Shut up and do it. Or have your non-paid intern do it. Mine is writing my manuscript right now. Oh wait. Not.
    I got published by sending my query to the wrong place. But the key was, it was a damn good query from a damn good book. The editor, who didn’t do fiction, liked it, referred me to an agent, a year later I got bought by a publisher that had rejected the work when I didn’t have an agent.
    It is not the writer’s job to make an agent’s job easier. It isn’t to be a pain either, but the more shots you take, the more chances you have to hit. Let’s face reality. Right desk, right day. More desks, better shot. Having a 75% ask rate on your query is nice, but what you really need is just one person to love it. I’d take a 1% success rate on that.
    I sit on both sides of the desk as a publisher and a writer. We just picked up backlist from a Amy Shojai on how to care for your aging cat. Our focus is military fiction and nonfiction. Why the heck are we publishing a book on cats? Because it’s a good book, with a target audience, and the author is a great promoter.
    Listen. At the end of the day we have to make a living. An agent can hate fantasies but if the greatest fantasy query in the world comes across their desk and piques their interest, they’re going to do something with it, most likely refer it to someone they know.
    So I know agents everywhere hate my comment, but that’s ok. They still need books. More now than ever. Because in publishing Amy’s book, I noticed there was no agent involved. Hmm.

  7. Marisa Birns

    Very good advice here, and from someone who has been through it. Marcus, your hook sentence certainly hooked me!

    Brief, professional, and following any submission guidelines requested is the way to go.

    This was useful and I will go and check out your website. Thank you.

  8. Jenny Rose

    Loved this post and have bookmarked it until AFTER I finish the book. Are there really enough agents out there to send out 5-10 queries per week (my genre seems to be a rather small niche with only a few books on the shelves that would be kinda similar–Christian children’s sci-fi/fantasy)? Is there a point when you can re-query an agent–you know if you polish your book (months, years)? It sounds like from all the comments, that I would need to check submission guidelines first. If someone has a bad idea, wouldn’t that be "fixed" with the dozens of test readers? And the point he made was a request for the manuscript, not a guaranteed contract–so you could still be rejected and unpublished.

  9. Edward M Wolfe

    Thanks for the info. I’m still on step 1, but when I run across good info I’ll need later, I save it. This goes in the Save folder.

    Great advice – and I’m not tweeting. (Why would I?)

  10. Erika Robuck

    This post is succinct, honest, and helpful. Of course, if an agent website asks for a synopsis first followed by a bio, you do what the website says. But these tips are great, general guidelines to help take away some of the anxiety involved in the process.

    I read for an agent, and honestly, if the querier is able to "seduce" me, the particulars of the submission guidelines are secondary.

    Fantastic post.

  11. Robert Gregory Browne

    I agree with most of what Marcus says here, although if I were writing a query today I’d probably START with the summary of the story. It never hurts to start any query with a hook, and Marcus has a great one here:

    "For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score—until his former partner comes looking for him."

    I’d finish up that summary, THEN add the part about who you are, etc.

    Queries get rejected for these reasons:

    1) They’re boring;
    2) The writer can’t write. And, yes, you can tell that from the letter;
    3) The premise is either overdone or is simply not one that interests that agent in particular.

    The trick is to hook them. And that isn’t easy.


  12. Marcus Sakey

    Hey folks, thanks for reading! I’m especially grateful to those of you who felt this was helpful and took the time to post that. There’s no real motivation for me to write something like this except that a lot of people helped me, and I’d like to return the favor.

    A couple of specific responses to people:

    Elwood, sorry to hear you disagree. Let me respectfully ask: What’s your query percentage? Unless it’s awfully high, you might want to consider whether your opinion, though heartfelt, is accurate.

    Andy, I agree with you. In fact, I think that your approach is pretty much what I said. There’s nothing at all dazzling about the kind of pitch I propose–in fact, just the opposite. I’m suggesting they be brief and professional, while also providing the exact criteria you looked for.

    Laura, you’re absolutely right, a great query can’t make up for a lousy idea. All a query letter can do is get an agent to ask for more. At that point, your manuscript needs to stand for itself.

    Hope this was useful to you guys. If it was, I have more articles on my website (

    Cheers, and good luck!

  13. Nathan Carriker

    By far the BEST piece on this torturous process I’ve EVER read. And I’ve been reading a few years.

    Especially love the part about sending Q’s out in waves to take soundings of their efficacy. Wondered if that was a good idea, and never heard it mentioned before!

    Back to work, will tweet this to my peeps though! Thanks!

  14. Laura Pauling

    I agree with the high percent rate. But it’s very hard to accomplish! And I’m not sure if great query letter will make up for a bad idea – if it is truly reflecting the idea. Makes me want to write a query letter. 🙂

  15. Perry

    I love the way people are always happy to tell you why something won’t work.

    I’ve been writing for a long long time and thinking about querying agents and publisher for most of that time. I don’t really see much difference between the way it works from 10 or 15 years ago. It has always been a difficult business to break into and people have always looked for shortcuts.

    Being professional and polishing your work is tried and true.

    Thanks for the tips on queries.

  16. Sara J. Henry

    Here’s my short version (pretty much what he said):
    1. Write a kick-ass book, and revise and hone it until your fingers are nearly falling off – and listen to your test readers.
    2. Write a kick-ass query letter, and revise and hone it, and attach short first chapter.
    3. Query only agents that seem right for your book.

    I was a first-time novelist, a nobody, and sent out queries in May 2009, not a great time to try to launch a career in publishing. Maybe all the stars just aligned for me, but in short order had a phenomenal agent and a two-book deal. Yeah, pretty much could have knocked me over with a feather, but it happened.

    And it can happen to you.

  17. Shirley Jump

    Very well said, Marcus, and excellent advice! I totally agree and when I queried had a similar success rate. I’ve been to some workshops where agents read queries aloud and you learn pretty quickly what they request and what they don’t. They like queries that have a little entertainment value, don’t bore them to death with the blah-blah details and showcase a bit of the writer’s voice. All in less than one page, of course. 🙂 Easy as pie, LOL.

  18. Andy Ross

    I would have to respectfully disagree with this. A well written query letter is always better than a badly written one. But no amount of artful pitchmanship is going to compensate for a bad idea or an author lacking authority or platform.

    Some agents may feel otherwise, but I want a query that tells me what is the genre of the project, what is it about, why is it important, and why is the author the right person to write about it.

    I see a lot of queries that attempt to dazzle me with technique. I often feel that these are manipulative. I prefer a query that is honest, straightforward and realistic.

  19. Elwood Henry

    This man lives in Fantasy Land, and he wants the rest of us to buy into it. Every agent is different. Most I have tried don’t like word counts until the END of the letter, many wants THREE paragraphs on the storyline, and most do not care if you’re "qualified" to write a piece of fiction. This "75% rule" smells like an April Fool’s joke a few months too late.

  20. Lynne Spreen

    Thanks so much for this! I know it IS very subjective (the agent has a headache when your email arrives, or she just got rebuffed by the cute guy down the hall). However, every bit of finesse helps, and this post is loaded with it. Best wishes.

  21. Cyndi

    Yes-but….as Jane states so succinctly, THERE ARE NO RULES. Nearly all of his comments (except for MAYBE ‘finish the book’) are totally objected to by many agents I’ve aproached, from putting the genre and word count at the beginning to addi…ng a sample page at the end.

    So it’s still a crapshoot, at best :-/