Wouldn't it be great to have an agent? Imagine how much faster it would be to have your book skip the slush pile and go straight to the desks of editors at prominent publishing companies. Imagine how useful it would be to have someone negotiating your contract for you, helping you get a big advance and selling your film rights and foreign rights for even more money. But agents are only interested in representing previously published writers, right? Wrong. Some of the best agents are looking for new writers to represent.
But how do agents find new writers? More importantly, how will they find you? Well, if you've got some extra money and vacation time, you could attend a writers conference and do some schmoozing with the agents who attend. Or, you could always beg that famous author next door to refer you to her agent, right?
What's that? You don't have the time or money for a conference? You don't know any famous authors? You're in luck. There's another method, possibly the best method of all: the query letter.
What's so great about the query letter? First, you can take all the time you need to compose it. You can get every word perfect without worrying about how you'll come across in a face-to-face meeting. Second, you can send out more than one letter at a time. Instead of meeting agents one-on-one, you can meet them one-on-10. Finally, it's inexpensive. Most agents will accept queries through the good old U.S. mail. Many will accept queries by e-mail.
But do agents really take on clients who solicit them through the mail or by e-mail? You bet they do! And some of those clients have watched their agents sell their books for news-breaking advances.
Great! So how does the query process work? First, you compile a list of all the agents who could represent your work well. Be sure they handle your genre and have made recent sales to legitimate publishers.
How do you compile a list of good agents? Many ways. For a list of agents with strong sales and a tight code of ethics, check out the Association of Author's Representatives, www.aar-online.org. Read Publishers Weekly. Read the acknowledgments page in your favorite novel—a place where authors frequently thank their agents. Get a copy of Writer's Market or check out the database at WritersMarket Online (www.writersmarket.com) for listings of agents that include what type of work they handle, whether they're taking on new clients and a few of their recent sales.
Once you have your list, it's time to write that query letter. If the agents like your query letter, they'll request your manuscript. If they like your manuscript and they think they can sell it, they'll offer you representation. It's as easy as that.
Now, if you're like a lot of writers, the mere mention of the word "query" makes your palms sweat. How can one piece of paper have the power to make an agent request your entire manuscript? There has to be some special trick to it!
As a matter of fact, there is. Read on.
A three-part recipe
A great query letter must do three things: give a short summary of your book in the most compelling way possible; introduce yourself as a sane person who has the ability to write this book; and thank the agent for his time.
That's all there is to it. No need to bribe the agent with Godiva chocolates or blackmail her with suicide threats. But, you argue, if all you do is follow a formula, how will your query letter stand out from all the others?
To answer that, I'll ask you to imagine a family get-together or a party with all your friends. Three people bring a plate of homemade cookies. You're bored with cookies though, right? Of course not! You dig in, taking a cookie from each plate, a chocolate chip, a peanut butter and a cinnamon cookie. One's kind of hard, the other's too salty, but one is just perfect: all the ingredients a cookie should have, working together in harmony to create a sweet, moist, delicious experience.
So ... will the agent be bored if you include all the regular ingredients? Not at all. All you have to do is follow the recipe and add the special ingredients from your own book.
1. A sample of story
First, you must summarize your book in a paragraph or two. How, you might ask, will I boil thousands of words down into a paragraph or two? Is that even possible?
Fortunately, you don't have to. Your query letter doesn't need to tell the whole story of the book, just enough to get the agent interested in seeing more. Think of the samples they hand out in the grocery store. All they give you is a quick taste that will entice you to buy the entire package. Likewise, your query will give the agents only a quick taste of your book to compel them to request the entire manuscript.
But what do you include in this brief summary? How do you decide what makes the cut? Well, I like to use the journalism method: Who? What? When? Where? Why? For fiction, this means character, situation, setting and era when it takes place. It also includes the motivation or goals of the characters, how they got into their current situation, and the obstacles that will prevent them from bettering that situation.
For nonfiction, this includes who your audience is, what benefit your book will give them, under what circumstances they'll need this information, and why.
Let's take a look at some examples of novel summaries.
Talia Landers, a soft-spoken secretary at a law firm in downtown Chicago, has just lost her job, the lease on her apartment and her dog. Figuring she has nothing more to lose, Talia decides it's time to take some risks. First, she's going to get even with the man she hates the most in the world, Alan Smothers, her evil, sexually harassing former boss. Next, she's going to confess her crush on her handsome neighbor Jeffrey Markson—as soon as she can get her mouth to move in his presence. Finally, she's going to take a career risk that could make her famous—or kill her in the process. Not bad for her first week of goals. ...
After reading this paragraph, we've met the protagonist and a couple other characters, and we know this is a modern-day story that takes place in Chicago. We see that all the losses in Talia's life are motivating her to suddenly set some big goals, but we also see the element of risk involved. And we can tell this is a modern-day romance novel with some comic elements.
Here's another sample:
Steven Hartz, a postal worker in Miami, has a peculiar talent. He's very good at sketching, but he isn't an artist. In fact, all of the sketches are done in his sleep. More disturbing, all of the sketches are coming true. First, there was the portrait of Maria Seever—two days before he met her. And then, more sinister, came the sketches of the crimes, all two days before they occurred. The places in the sketches are all familiar haunts of his, and Hartz begins to wonder if he's involved in the crimes somehow. Fearful of turning to the police, Hartz determines to solve the mystery himself—with the help of Maria, the psychic from his first sketch, who knows far more than she's telling.
Again, we know the protagonist, where he lives and his main problem—he's involved in a crime and can't go to the police. We know it's a dark novel, horror or thriller, and that it has some supernatural elements. We also have a hint of some of the plot twists, but some of the strings are left dangling, hooking the reader and making him want to see more.
Notice in the above samples how two completely different books both unfold in a unique direction by using the same formula. We have a taste for both books now, and even though they're nothing alike, both are well done.
For nonfiction, the method is similar. For example:
Eighty-five percent of Americans will own a diamond or other precious gemstone, but the background of these beautiful pieces of jewelry can be ugly. The History of Gemstones tells the story behind the ornaments, where the supply comes from, who controls the market, the role of advertisers and how consumers can put a stop to the unethical gem trade that preys on the poor while funding countries that sponsor terrorism.
In addition to introducing topics the book will cover, we are given an audience (diamond and gemstone owners) and a reason this book will benefit the reader (offering ways consumers can make a difference).
2. A taste of who you are
Once you have your summary, the rest of the letter is easy. Give a short introduction of yourself or what qualifies you to write the book. Even if you've never published before, dig up some useful facts to support your interest or knowledge in the subject you're writing about. For the above examples, the query writers could all present different qualifications:
I'm a member of Romance Writers of America, and I've had my novel critiqued and edited by several writers.I've been researching psychics who aid police in capturing criminals, and I've extensively interviewed one who works with my local police department to verify some of the facts used in my book.
As a gemologist, I've been collecting stories on "blood diamonds" and other atrocities related to the gemstone market, and I've carefully researched every fact in this book. In addition, I've interviewed some of the key people who have come up with a way to microscopically "brand" a gemstone to let consumers know where the gem was mined.
3. A dash of thanks
Finally, you're ready for the closing paragraph. This is where you show you're a gracious person who appreciates the agent taking time out of her excruciatingly busy schedule to read your query letter and sample your ware. Remember, a little flattery never hurts, and if you've done your research on this agent, a few kind words will be easy to sprinkle into the mix. For example:
Thank you for taking the time to consider my book, Among the Mongers. I noticed that you represented Jean Rittenberg for her book Scone-heads. Rittenberg is one of my favorite authors—she works in details of the setting so well that you feel as if you've toured a new city with a friend and found all the scrumptious hangouts by the end of her novels. I think you'll find our styles similar in that way, and I'd be delighted to send you a copy of my entire manuscript for your consideration.
Notice that you aren't comparing your work to Stephen King or John Grisham. Agents have many more authors on their client lists than the best sellers, and they'll be flattered you've taken the time to sample other books they've represented—and that you're familiar with the type of work they handle.
Now that you've got a list of all the necessary ingredients for a compelling query letter, what are you waiting for? Let's get cooking!
This article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Writer's Digest