How to Get An Agent: Write A Query Letter

Agents can receive 500 query letters a month. From those, they might ask to see 5 to 10 manuscripts, and might sign 1 person. You want to be that person. Here’s how to make your query letter stand out from the crowd:

Spend Time on It
You’ve spent weeks, months, years maybe, perfecting your book. Do not skimp on the query letter. It should not be a last-minute, slap-dash cover formality for your real work. Nor should it be a rambling treatise on you, your talent, and your big idea.
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Author Nicholas Sparks, who spent two weeks writing 17 different drafts of his first agent query letter, calls it “the single most important page that any unknown, unpublished author will ever write.” Treat it that way.

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sweetheart)
You do not have to play games or get crazy creative to get an agent’s attention. They are looking for one thing: writers. If you can write, they can tell by the end of the first paragraph. A zany limerick is only going to aggravate them. They are professionals, and deserve a professional letter.

The format of a good query letter is quite simple:

    – Personalized Greeting
    – Your Bio
    – The Pitch

Those are the components, but the order isn’t steadfast. I like to structure my letters that way, but you can mix it up. Some people open cold with their pitch (“It was a dark and stormy night…”), and then launch into their bio, and close with a personalized bit. I can’t manage that without it coming off too dramatic, but if you can, go for it! The most important thing is that your letter flows, so however you can structure it best to read beautifully, do that.

Personalized Greeting
Make sure you are addressing the letter to the correct person, that you have spelled their name correctly, and that they are still alive. (This seems like a joke, but Nicholas Sparks actually got his first agent when the person going through the mail of a recently deceased agent found his letter. Addressed to the dead person.) If you can’t find the correct information on the Internet, call their agency and ask.

Now open your letter with a little personalized praise: how you found this particular agent, what appeals to you about them, compliment them on a recent book deal they closed or article they’ve written. Little praise — as in one sentence. And only praise them, not yourself; no “I know I can help you…” or “We would be a great team…”

Your Bio
Now give a very brief biography of yourself. Very. Brief. Just a couple of sentences, no more than a paragraph.

Just include a few facts that relate to your writing–your college degree, any writing awards you’ve won, how your background in life makes you the perfect author for this book–and a peek into your personality. The end.

Believe it or not, they already know who you are: an unpublished writer. Therefore they also know you’re creative, you’re passionate about what you’ve written, that you’ve been writing for years, that it’s your dream to have your book published. So you don’t need to waste any precious text telling them.

I wish I could find my first agent query letter, but I remember I did open with a joke about how being on a reality TV show wasn’t good for anything except skipping the lines in Vegas (a perk I indulged in probably more than I should have). Doing so quickly established that I had a sense of humor, a modicum of a following, and transported the reader somewhere fun with me.

(Side note: If I were querying today, I wouldn’t use the same opener because now everyone and their plumber is on reality TV. Back in 2005, it was rarer, somehow more special, and much, much cooler. Just kidding. Kind of. The point is you want to show that you’re unique, and not like everybody else.)

The Pitch
Now, pitch your book. The pitch is a short, exciting summary that should read like the back cover of your book.

Imagine your book is already published, and you’re holding a copy in your hands. Now turn it over, and read the back. What electrifying single sentence would be at the top to capture a reader’s imagination? How would the one or two paragraphs underneath read? That’s the pitch.

The first sentence is called the hook (or “logline” in the movie industry), and it should tantalize. The following paragraph partially summarizes your book. It should include your main characters, setting, the conflict, and the consequences, but not the resolution. You want to leave the reader dangling, dying to know how your book will end.

It sounds easy, just writing a few paragraphs, but for most of us, editing ourselves so severely is the hardest part of the whole project. We can talk and talk (or write and write) about what we’re passionate about, but whittling all that passion down into just a few sentences is murder. If you need a push, here are my Pitch Writing Inspiration Tips.

Final Tips
Remember, you have to make every word count. Unnecessary extra words/sentences/paragraphs could cause an agent to quit reading. Instead, you want them to fly through your letter without stumbling over a single section.

Only focus on the book you are currently pitching. Unless you had real sales success (in which case you probably wouldn’t be querying for an agent), don’t mention any previous books you’ve written or future book ideas you have. You don’t need to let the agent know you have a million books in you. They know you do.

Every time you mention the title of your book, bold it. And don’t forget to include the total word count and genre at least once. (Best Book Ever is a 65,000-word Young Adult Romance…) [A word about word counts.] But don’t bold or italicize or change the color of the font anywhere else.

Unless it directly relates to your book and gives you some kind of expertise, you do not need to say where you live. It doesn’t matter, and it just uses up valuable words. If your book is about ancient China and you lived there for 3 years, by all means, include that. Otherwise, don’t.

You don’t need to tell the agent that you are simultaneously querying other agents. They assume that you are.

Finally, no matter what, your entire query letter has to be 1 page only. No more. Not for anyone. That means around 300 – 350 words.

Now send it in!

sharkNeed more help? QueryShark is a wonderful blog that has tons of samples and will help you edit your query letter for free! Wonderful site, but it’s for fiction books only.

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