38 Query Letter Tips from Literary Agents

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(This is Part 2 of a three-part series to kickstart your awesome 2017. Part 1 is a roundup of what to do before you submit, and Part 3 is a list of literary agent pet peeves.)

Your first contact with a literary agent is crucial, and the margin for error is slim. Is your query amazing? Have you committed any common query letter pet peeves? What etiquette is preferred when sending requested material? Can you address an agent by their first name?

So many questions...

To help you with the query letter and the submission process, I've cobbled together some amazing advice straight from literary agents in the publishing trenches -- reading through years of hashtags of agent info on Twitter so you don't have to. Below find 38 great tips on what you should know and understand when you send out that all-important query letter and first contact. I've also chimed in to expound on their helpful advice.

Good luck submitting in 2017!

This is one of the first things you need to know for querying agents. Each query has a personalized salutation -- "Dear Mr. Jones" or "Dear Ms. Williams," etc. If you are unsure of an agent's gender, you can always use their full name: "Dear Cris Wendel." You can also further personalize your query letter by mentioning in the text why you are submitting to this agent -- such as "I saw in your interview on XYZ website that you're seeking military action novels."

First of all, a hook, so you know, is an intriguing part/idea/element of your story that gets people's attention. It's your cool idea. For example: "My story is about three guys having a midlife crisis who decide to start a college fraternity." The text I put in italics is the hook -- the cool idea that sucks you in. Another hook example: "Imagine star-cross'd lovers in the vein of Romeo & Juliet -- except instead of two noble families in 1500s Italy, my story follows Barbary pirates battling the British Navy in the 19th century Caribbean." Having another spin on Romeo & Juliet is nothing new (and like Laura says, "typical is the enemy"). But a Juliet who's the daughter of a British Navy captain, and a Romeo who's the son of the cruelest pirate on the seven seas? Now that's a hook. I want to know more.

And then she mentions quirks and plot points. Anything unique or different or special about your main character and storyline should show up in a pitch. Set your work apart from the other many pitches that an agent sees during a given week.

Don't send an attachment for each chapter; one big attachment with all requested pages/chapters is good. Also, it doesn't really matter if you have a blank page separating chapter breaks.

If you truly wrote a young adult (YA) novel, then the main character -- the character the agents immediately want to understand -- is a teen (usually aged 16-18). So the pitch should start off with that teen and their life/goals/problems. Introducing adult characters upfront is a red flag that the book is not really a YA novel at all, or there is age category confusion.

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This is actually a blessing in disguise. It may seem like a hassle to individualize each query (besides the salutation), but any slight alteration can help you make a connection with an agent. Depending on what the agent seeks, you can call your book science fiction or get more specific and call it cyberpunk. Depending on what the agent likes in pop culture, you can compare your zombie book to 28 Days Later or rather "The Walking Dead."

This doesn't refer to submitting to only one agent at a time before another agent gets your query. Exclusive queries like that are not advised. The tweet here is saying that you should compose an individual email for each agent you contact. In other words, do not write one email and send that same message to 40 agents at the same time, saying "Dear soon-to-be-rich agents!" in the salutation.

Yes, send the first pages/chapters always. If they ask for "10 pages," send the first 10. Otherwise, it will always seem like you are hiding something. If you want to ask, "But if I have a prologue, do I send the prologue or the first 10 pages starting in Chapter 1?" the answer is you send pages from where the book begins -- so from the prologue if you have one. If this makes you nervous, then perhaps your prologue isn't strong and you should find a way to eliminate it.

Gimmicks are basically never advised. Don't offer money or send cupcakes or hire a singing telegram or do anything strange/weird. This usually comes off as awkward or creepy rather than fun. Let your weapons remain the usual ones -- a good query letter and a good manuscript (or nonfiction book proposal).

Nowadays, there are several pitch parties that recur on Twitter from time to time. These pitch parties, such as #PitMad or #DVpit, allow you to pitch your work to agents using Twitter on a chosen day. But when these pitch parties are not happening, you should always follow agents' traditional submission guidelines when querying, and submit via email. For years, I have seen writers tweet agents, saying stuff like, "Hey, I just finished a fantasy -- you interested?? Hit me back. PEACE -- ME OUT." Don't be that writer.

If you're writing fiction, you do not need to have a bio. You can always just wrap up your query letter by thanking them for considering the submission. That said, if you have anything to say about yourself (awards you've won, organizations you belong to, any publishing credits of any kind, interesting background that pertains to the story), yes, go ahead and list such notes quickly and humbly. They can almost never hurt, and they can certainly help sometimes. I've seen a writer pen a mediocre query, but their bio listed several short stories published with notable publications. At that point, the agent doesn't even care if the query is poor. The awards won verify that the writer can write.

More info: What to Write in "Bio Section" of Your Query Letter.

Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers Conferences:

If you are querying a self-published book, yes, you must disclose that it was indeed self-published. I know you may be avoiding mentioning it to help your chances, but realize that the agent will certainly find out at some point, and then her trust in you will be shaken, and the whole partnership can fall through. That said, if you've self-published other books in the past, and this new book has nothing to do with those previous works (i.e., not a sequel, etc.), you do not have to mention those past books. Just ignore them and pitch your new book with confidence. More info: Pitching a self-published book to an agent is difficult, so understand what agents look for in a query for a self-published book.

Pitching more than one novel at a time can come off as scattershot. A writer may say "But doesn't the agent want to know I've written 8 novels already? Wouldn't they want to know that I'm prolific and have all these novels we can sell together?" From an agent's point of view, they may think, But if you have eight novels already written, why aren't any published? Were none of them up to snuff? An agent isn't looking for a big glut of average writing. She's looking for that one amazing project to kick-start a career.

More info: Querying Literary Agents? Your Top 9 Questions Answered.

I've personally edited more than 2,000 queries now, and I can tell you for a fact that the biggest problem most people have in a query letter is generalities. Understand what an agent does and sees on a weekly basis. Each and every day, they get 10-50 submissions. A lot of these queries start to blend into one another. They've heard all the plots and conflicts before. That's why it's so important to stress the different and unique parts of your story. I don't care how many times I repeat it in this article: Be specific in your query pitch. Generalities sink query letters; specifics bring them to life. More info: Crafting a Novel's Pitch -- 7 Tips.

Always follow submission guidelines. Just do it. Every agent basically wants some combination of the same items (query, synopsis, sample pages, proposal [for nonfiction]) sent to them in their own desired way. Just follow the guidelines to a T, or else your work may not even be considered.

I always advise introducing your main character, in the present, to begin your query pitch. This is not a hard and fast rule; it's just a good thing to do if possible. Start by letting us get to know this MC, and get invested in them. Only then should you introduce backstory.

(What does a literary agent want to see when they Google you?)

Novels are driven by characters, so the agent has to get to know at least your main character, and begin to root for them to succeed. A lot gets left on the cutting room floor when writing a query letter or synopsis. Cool world-building elements and setting details and secondary characters will all be left out, and that is OK.

I don't care how many times I repeat it in this article: Be specific in your query pitch. Generalities sink query letters; specifics bring them to life.

Sometimes, if you're sending a query letter to an agent, you will start a new email off by saying "Dear Mr. Shane" and then paste query letter text below into the email body. The problem is when you do this, the font for the salutation is oftentimes different from the font of the body text. When you're an agent or editor and you see this, it completely takes you out of the moment, because it's a stark reminder that you are not special, and simply the recipient of a cut & pasted message that many others have received. While everyone understands that you are indeed querying other agents, actively reminding someone of this is not necessarily the warmest/best move.

Nothing good can come from something like this, even if you are trying to use humor & levity to your advantage. This is not advised at all.

You may find an agent's email online -- agentname@xyzagency.com. The problem is: If you looked at their submission guidelines, they may request all queries are sent to queries@xyzagency.com. This goes back to simply following submission guidelines to a T.

A great thing that you can do in a query letter is reference or mention books/clients that agent represented in the past. But if you don't actually name the books or clients that you enjoyed, then it seems like you're just making the line up, and then the attempt works against you.

Kurestin addresses two different problems here. The first is when a query pitch attempts to explain too much. Pitches are only 5-10 sentences long. It sounds like the writer here may have been trying to take her synopsis (which tells the whole story) and squeeze it into a query pitch. This is not a good idea.

Secondly, ending your pitch with a rhetorical question is an overused, ineffective technique. Don't do it.

More info: 5 Tips on Writing a Novel Synopsis.

The bio section of your query letter (talking about who you and what you've done) comes last in the query letter. The only times to instead talk about yourself upfront are: 1) if you have something extraordinary to put there. For example, one time I edited a query letter from someone who was coming back to the writing world after taking a 15-year hiatus. During her writing heyday in the 90s, she had success and even saw one of her novels get adapted into a movie. That's impressive! I recommended she lead with that. 2) If you are a nonfiction writer, who you are and your ability to sell the book (your platform) is perhaps more important than the book idea itself. So leading with a brief bio in a nonfiction query is not a bad thing. More info: What to Write in "Bio Section" of Your Query Letter.

One of my biggest pet peeves when critiquing someone's query letter is when I'm done reading the novel's pitch, and then the writer says something like "Despite the book's dark subject matter, the story is actually quite humorous!!" If your book is lighthearted and funny, you darn better make the agent laugh during the pitch. If the story is disturbing psychological horror, try and put a chill down their spine when they read your query. Aim to elicit emotion.

This is another reminder about simply following submission guidelines, but the key word here is professional. Agents use that word all the time; they want to work with a professional.

If you query an agent for a self-published book, you need to explain what the book is (like a typical query would), but you also need to lay out compelling reasons why the title deserves a second life via traditional publishing. Simply linking to the book's Amazon page doesn't do either well.

More info: Pitching a self-published book to an agent is difficult, so understand what agents look for in a query for a self-published book.

Standard protocol when querying for a series is to simply pitch Book 1 of the series, and include a line in the query letter such as "This is a standalone book, but could serve as the first in a series." Do not explain what happens in all 7 books of your projected series. Let an agent fall in love with the first book, and let her inquire about the sequels.

If you have great past credits such as having books traditionally published, you should at least name the years and publisher, and hyperlink to the book somewhere. If you have anything notable about the book to quickly mention -- sales, awards, fun facts -- do so. For example, "My previously published books include Create Your Writer Platform (Writer's Digest Books, 2012). The book was praised on Forbes.com." My mention is simple and sweet, and the hyperlinks are clearly a means so that the agent can learn more if they are so inclined.

More info: What does a literary agent want to see when they Google you?

Once again, speaking negatively about yourself in any way (even a humorous one) is not advised. Nicole makes a good point here to think about a query letter as something of an application. (Remember we've discussed how important it is to be professional during communication.) Also, one thing she touches on here is how it's not important to mention your age. Writers who are either quite young or quite old sometimes feel insecure about querying, and mention their age. Do not do this.

Read books of today. Learn from books of today. Compare yourself against authors from today. In query letters, reference books of today. Enjoy the classics, sure, but make sure you are seeing what is happening and working in today's market.

More info: 5 Comparisons NOT to Make With Your Book.

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Agreed. If you have 70 agents on your list, do not query all 70 at once. Because if your query letter stinks or first pages stink (or both), you will just shoot yourself in the foot. Query a small bunch, and if the response is nothing, then try something different (new edited query version, revised first pages) with the next batch. More info: How Many Literary Agents Should You Query at One Time?

This kind of language/approach will never help you -- whether it comes from a self-deprecating desire to be humorous or out of bitterness or both.

I don't care how many times I repeat it in this article: Be specific in your query pitch. Generalities sink query letters; specifics bring them to life.

First of all, agents like writers who are engaged in their communities and online. So get online and start meeting people, even slowly.

But what Renee is suggesting is for you to include your social media accounts (especially your Twitter handle) in your query letter. A simple place to do this is at the bottom left of your query letter after your signature.

If an agent asks to review your full manuscript, that's great -- but not great enough to brag to other agents about. The only time to do anything like this is when an agent formally offers representation. If that happens, you can contact any other agents reviewing your partial or full manuscript and say, "I was just offered representation by XYZ Agency and plan to make a decision within one week. If you would like to review the book before then and possibly talk, please let me know. Thank you." In other words, you can use one offer of representation to generate others. Then you can talk to multiple agents on the phone, and choose the one rep that's right for you. More info: Evaluating an Offer (or Offers) of Representation.

I don't care how many times I repeat it in this article: Be specific in your query pitch. Generalities sink query letters; specifics bring them to life.

The first line of your query could say "Ever since a recent tragedy, David is depressed." Or it could say "Ever since he lost his four-year-old son to leukemia, David has spent far too much time staring at the bottom of empty glasses in bars, and crying on long subway rides back to his empty home." The second one works better because you're showing us his depression and painting pictures in our mind, not just telling us he's sad.

Christa is talking about the subject line of your e-mail, and she is absolutely right. Don't put something generic. Be specific, so that the agent can recognize your submission quickly or search for it easily. See these subject line examples and guess which one most is most effective:

  • "Query"
  • "Query - Sambuchino"
  • "Query - thriller"
  • "Query - Sambuchino, thriller: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES"

Obviously it's the last one because the most information is conveyed. Also, note that if you are sending to a generic query email account that goes to several agents, you can always write the target agent's name in the subject line, such as "Query for Christa - Sambuchino, thriller: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES."

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