Doris Booth, Founder and Editor, Authorlink.com

How to Write a Query Letter That Grabs an Agent’s Attention

July 9, 2018
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In today’s chaotic marketplace how can you capture a literary agent’s attention and get him or her to request your manuscript?

Surprisingly, getting an agent to represent your work is not about you.

Surprisingly, getting an agent to represent your work is not about you.

It’s about what motivates the agent to take you on, and in turn, what motivates the publisher to buy from that specific agent.

Literary agents are people. They are driven by two things: 1. Maintaining their reputations with publishers (because their survival depends on it); 2. Making money for themselves, their publishers and, yes, you (because, again, their survival depends on it).

A good agent knows what’s selling and what’s not, or at least what “might” sell. More importantly, he or she knows the tastes, moods quirks and general budgetary constraints of many acquiring editors. Acquiring editors don’t usually acquire works by themselves. They must sell the project to the publishing house’s editorial board. That’s right. The editor isn’t the sole decision-maker.

To land a publishing deal in your behalf, the agent and the editor must work hard to sell the idea to several senior executives or team members who comprise the publishing house’s editorial board. Nobody there wants to take the blame for spending great sums of money on a book that flops. There is safety in collective decision-making. That way no one person can shoulder the blame and possibly lose their job if a book doesn’t perform as anticipated.

Your agent must be extremely sensitive to the internal needs of the editor and publishing house.

Flops sometimes have nothing to do with the quality of the author’s writing.

Flops sometimes have nothing to do with the quality of the author’s writing. A book can fail to sell in the first place because the agent doesn’t have the right contacts for that project. Once published, the work can still flop because the publisher won’t allocate sufficient funds to market the title, the cover or title misrepresents what’s inside, it’s pitched to the wrong audience; the timing is all wrong, and so on.

Luckily you don’t have to consider all the selling angles once a publisher has purchased the book. Your job is to convince the agent you have written a worthy (meaning salable) project.

When writing a query letter that catches an agent’s eye, think yourself into his or her mindset. Try to understand the challenges of selling your book from the agent’s or editor’s point of view. When your manuscript arrives on the agent’s desk, they will likely ask themselves questions. Is this a genre I normally represent? If not, how might it be different? Can I sell this work? Do I know an editor who will see the same potential I see? How big is the market out there? Is the story’s main premise (idea) strong enough? And on and on.

A query letter essentially is the sales pitch that convinces the agent you have something powerful or interesting enough to appeal to an editor…

A query letter essentially is the sales pitch that convinces the agent you have something powerful or interesting enough to appeal to an editor (whom the agent probably already knows.

The letter is a request for your work to be considered. Today most query letters can be sent electronically but be sure to read each agent’s guidelines before doing so.

You probably have no more than about three seconds to catch the eye of a busy agent, so your pitch must be exceptional.

Before you write your introductory letter, study the market.

Before you write your introductory letter, study the market. Pick ten agents you believe have sold similar material on the same subject or within your genre. Here’s an obvious example: never send an adult horror book to an agent who exclusively handles children’s board books. You get the point.

When you have identified the agents you want to target, its time to sit down and write a one-page letter or message. If you have read a work which an agent has recently sold you can personalize the letter by mentioning the sale, though it’s not a requirement:

Dear, So-in-So,

I read on Authorlink.com (or Publishers Weekly) that you recently sold “XYZ, A Thriller” to Penguin Random House. I write in the same genre and request that you take a look at my project:

XYQ

Thriller

80,000 words

 

The most important two elements of the pitch letter, whether fiction or nonfiction, are: the central idea or theme (the idea behind the story), and compelling characters (or in a nonfiction work, points) who set up a path for conflict which begs a resolution.

To develop your book synopsis one good way is to study movie log lines. Here are a few from IMDB.com

The Year of Spectacular Men(2017)

 Comedy | Drama

Story of Izzy Klein, a young woman fresh out of college as she strikes up and ruins relationships with several men, and struggles to navigate the failures of post-college adulthood, leaning on her mother and older sister for support.

Gemini II (2017)

 Mystery | Thriller

  A heinous crime tests the complex relationship between a tenacious personal assistant and her Hollywood starlet boss. As the assistant unravels the mystery, she must confront her understanding of friendship, truth, and celebrity.

 

Galveston (2018)

Action | Crime | Drama

  After escaping a setup, a dying hitman returns to his hometown of Galveston where he plans his revenge.

 

In each example, the author or copywriter tells us

  1. Who the main characters are
  2. Hints of the challenges or conflicts they face
  3. Leaves a question in our minds as to what will happen or how the problems resolve.

Within a few lines, one gets a sense of what type of reader may be interested in the story. The Year of Spectacular Men probably appeals to young single women.  Gemini contains elements that may appeal to both men and women, especially mystery and thriller-lovers.  Galveston may attract a male audience and appeal to readers of action and crime stories.

The reader also has a clue about the nature of the character’s main problem.

All of these elements are readily and quickly assessed by the agent, who immediately knows whether your story is worth the time to read in more depth. If the agent sends for the manuscript, it may be that he or she has an editor or two in mind who might be interested in buying, provided the whole story holds up on further assessment.

There! You have succeeded in getting the busy agent’s attention by sending an interesting query letter.

Every inquiry should contain…

Every inquiry should contain the story title, author, length of work, category or genre (i.e., romance, thriller) and a few lines about your credentials. What makes you qualified to write this work? And do include detailed contact information near the end of your letter.

Here are a few more basic rules to follow when developing your query letter.

  1. The presentation is important. Use standard fonts and formatting for your letter. A safe choice is Times New Roman or Arial, 12-point type with one-inch margins (the default settings in Microsoft Word work well).
  2. Keep it short. A query letter should be no longer than one page or about 250 words.
  3. Clearly state the title and length of the work and define its category. Into what category would the work fit? Pick only one, such as thriller or romance.  Don’t list five categories. You want to demonstrate that you know the audience for which you are writing.
  4. Use strong action verbs. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Be sure to check our spelling and grammar ten times!
  5. Don’t grovel or make grandiose statements. When an author claims to be better than Grisham or King a rejection is almost certain.
  6. Try to address the question every agent will ask if only in his/her own mind: Who will buy this book and why? Don’t “tell” the agent the answer; “show” him/her. In the example log lines above the agent already has an idea about your potential audience. In nonfiction, the biggest selling point is whether you are qualified to write the book, so your “author platform” is even more important than in fiction. Having a large social media following, an active website, speaking engagements or an unusual, high-profile job increase your odds of making a sale. Just be brief and list only credentials that specifically relate to the project at hand. For example, if you are a dancer who once worked as a policewoman and the manuscript relates to police work, then focus on that credit and leave the dancing experience for another work.
  7. Write a sparse summary of the work. Never attempt to tell the whole story in a query letter. The agent is looking for essential elements that he or she feels will make the story interesting and salable. Promotional lines for a movie in program listings offer a good pattern to follow. Notice how the main characters and the chief challenges they face are captured in a few short lines, as we saw in the earlier examples.
  8. Include some brief information about you. Write one or two lines with some interesting facts. If writing nonfiction, you will want to give a few facts about your credentials. You will need to show that you are qualified to write the material.
  9. Close the letter simply and professionally. Don’t threaten, bribe or grovel. For example: “Thank you for considering my project for representation. I look forward to your response.”
  10. Wait six weeks for a response. Forget about those who don’t bother to respond.

You want to make your time count by searching out those who might be truly interested in the work. At the end of the six weeks, repeat the process with another group of ten agents. 

Even the best-known authors have received hundreds of rejections. Don’t get discouraged. Remember, twelve publishing houses rejected JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, before she sold the first story to Bloomsbury and then to Scholastic to become one of the richest women in the world.

Remember, a query letter isn’t about you (although it is). Addressing the agent’s needs and questions should put you ahead of the game.

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Doris Booth is editor-in-chief of Authorink.com and author of UNLOCKING THE SECRETS OF E-BOOK PUBLISHING, GET YOUR BOOKS INTO EFFECTIVE SALES CHANNELS (WITH OR WITHOUT Amazon). Reach her at dbooth (at) authorlink (dot) com. 

 

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