The query letter is a letter you send to an agent by whom you would like to be represented. It can be sent as an e-mail or snail mail, depending on the agent’s preference. To find out what an agent prefers, you can look at their website, or check them out in the Writer’s Market Guide to Literary Agents. Do take the trouble to learn what an agent prefers, and also make sure they represent the type of work you write. They all have specialties, and if you don’t know what those are, you run the risk of wasting your time and theirs.
The purpose of a query letter is simply to inquire whether the agent would be interested in reading your work, and possibly in representing you. Keep your letter short and to the point. Don’t try to be clever or gimmicky. Don’t use outrageous fonts or crazy colored paper. It should follow the standard business letter format, examples of which are so prevalent on the internet that there’s no need for me to reproduce them here. It should be no more than three paragraphs: an introduction, a description of the book, and a thank-you to the agent for taking the time to read your letter. It’s really that simple.
The prospective agent should be able to tell the following things from your letter:
- Is it the kind of book I handle? Can I sell a book of this type?
- Is the query letter well-written, neatly formatted, and professional? Or is it rife with spelling and grammatical errors? Is it whiny or demanding? Does this person strike me as someone who might be a difficult client?
- Is it clear from this letter what the story is about?
- Can I sell this story?
- Does the author strike me as a credible person? If they are not previously published, is their writing good enough to justify me investing a few hours of my time in responding to them and reading more of their work?
If the answers to the above questions are all good ones, then the agent will likely write back and let you know that she would like to see the first fifty pages of your manuscript.
I think it’s important to spend a few minutes talking first about #2, that is, what makes a difficult client. There are many kinds of difficult clients, and all of them are universally detested by agents. Difficult clients are major drains on an agent’s time and energy. They complain constantly. They pepper the agent with the same repeated inquiry even after having been told the answer. They wonder why the agent isn’t dropping everything and serving them all the time. They have a sense of entitlement that is out of all proportion to their actual worth. The list of tricks a difficult client pulls goes on and on.
If your name is Steven King or J.K. Rowling, maybe you can get away with being a difficult client. (I’m not saying those people are difficult clients. I’m saying that if they wanted to be, they could.) If it isn’t, then you will soon find yourself alone in an agentless limbo, for as many agents have told me, difficult clients are never worth it. And if you become known as a difficult client, you will find it that much harder to get an agent to take you on, because word gets around.
So don’t be one. In your relationship with your agent, you should behave the same way you would in any other relationship, be it personal or professional. Treat them as you would have them treat you. And if for some reason they don’t treat you well, have the courage to move on. As Maya Angelou said, “Don’t make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”
Now, let’s talk a bit about #3: Is it clear from the letter what your story is about? I’ve always found this the hardest part of any query letter. It’s very difficult to summarize anything well. Why is that? Because it requires a lot of different mental disciplines, including logic, rhetoric, and grammar. You also have to be impartial about the work you’re describing, which is very difficult, considering you’re the one who wrote it. It’s as hard as being impartial about someone you love, like your children, or your sibling. You will never see your work the way the rest of the world does.
So, work extra hard on this part to make sure you get it right, and also to make sure it doesn’t go on longer than necessary. Ideally, you should be able to summarize the plot of your book in one line, and you should be able to rattle this off in taxi cabs, at cocktail parties, waiting in line at the supermarket, or in an elevator with the president of HarperCollins. I know, I know… there’s so much more to it than that! I’ve been there. It’s hard. You can do it. If you can write a whole book, you can write a single paragraph.
Your very short synopsis should also make clear to the agent what genre your book falls into. Maybe you are offended at the suggestion that your book is defined by any genre at all. Maybe you think that your work is so unique that it really defies description, and it must be read and fully experienced in order to be appreciated. You very well might be right. You might be–but you’re probably not. If this is your attitude, it’s more likely you’re a precious snowflake with an overinflated sense of your own genius. Your book fits into a genre. So what is it? Don’t be coy. Tell them: “My book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being A Penguin, is a 100,000-word Western techno-thriller set in 25thcentury Antarctica and 19th-century Colorado.” If you don’t know your genre, then that’s another big warning sign to any potential agent that it probably isn’t ready to send out yet. They don’t want to hear “it’s a revolutionary and innovative work that melds numerous styles and transcends all of them, incorporating elements of my fantastic imagination and using my amazing skills as a wordsmith to conjure dimensions no one has ever imagined before.” They want to hear “Fantasy.” Got it?
It should also be clear from your second paragraph what happens in the story. This is very hard to convey in a few lines. You know you should say that it’s got this girl in it who escapes from a mental hospital and runs halfway around the world to find the man she loves, but you also just can’t bear not to mention the circus family who comes in on page 75, because you spent six years working on that part and maybe, just maybe, this will be the one detail that makes an agent sit up and say Whoa! I need to represent this person right now! The rule of thumb here is to stick to describing only the major beats of the story. Don’t get bogged down in details. Describe the narrative arc, just like the St. Louis Arch we talked about earlier. You don’t actually need to use the words “narrative arc”, of course. Just talk about the journey the main character makes to the top of the arc. If there is more than one main character, and therefore more than one arc, be even more broad.
Remember: you’re actually not trying to sell the book to a publisher here. The job of the query letter is to get the agent to request the first fifty pages. That’s it.
The job of the first fifty pages is to get the agent to request the whole manuscript to read.
The job of the whole manuscript is to get the agent to say Yes, I will represent you.
And then it’s out of your hands, and you sit back and wait.
So, to summarize, your cover letter should make the following things clear:
- Something about yourself, the author, that establishes your identity. If you’ve published other work, say so. If your job is relevant to your book, say so. We don’t need you to tell us how talented you are here. Let your work show that.
- The genre, subject matter, and general plot of your book
- How to contact you
It can be very difficult to get an agent to agree to represent you. You need to remember that a refusal says as much about the agent as it does about you. It may be that your book is good, but it simply isn’t right for them. Maybe they don’t know anyone they can sell it to. Maybe they tried to sell a similar book recently and didn’t have any luck. Maybe they have personal problems that are demanding all their energy. There could be a thousand reasons why they’ve turned your book down. Although it’s very hard to deal with rejection, don’t take it personally. If you’ve spent all the time you can possibly spend on it, making it as good as it can possibly be, then you just need to be patient and keep trying. Eventually, someone will take it on.
Kowalski’s latest work, THE BEST POLISH RESTAURANT IN BUFFALO needs your help! But hurry, the project ends September 14, 2016.
Read Will’s followup article: Agent Hasn’t Sold the Story Yet? Consider Self-Publishing.
Read the first article in this series: The Business of Publishing.