A QUERY and a love letter are no different. You’re trying to pour your heart out to someone who does not yet understand you. You’re trying to form a connection. You’re trying to become your beloved’s chosen suitor—but it’s tough, for she has other callers. This one is a doctor. This one knows how to waltz with the best of them. This one comes from oil money. And look at you, the every man, hoping to stand out against all others.
You can steal a literary agent’s heart. It just takes a proper query, one that’s warm and familiar that smells as sweet as spring flowers. A query that’s pound-for-pound just as enriching and nourishing as your book. Now I’m no matchmaker, but I am an obsessive and studious researcher, and I’ve recently learned a lot about how to query with confidence, spirit, love, and even a little bit of attitude.
Here I’ve broken how to query literary agents down into a set of steps, but first let me just marvel at that gorgeous new manuscript of yours! Oh, you didn’t think I noticed, did you? How could I not? It’s so shiny and polished. It glimmers in the moonlight. It’s like the hem of a pretty girl’s skirt contrasted with the soft skin of her thighs, or the comfort of your crush’s big strong arms wrapped around you. You’ve done a wonderful job, and now it’s time to show this beautiful book to the world.
So let’s get this party started!
STEP ONE: You need to write a great query. A query is not a quick email, a chore for the end of the day. A query demands of you the same undying passion you poured into your manuscript. It needs to throb with the pulse of your manuscript’s beating heart. Think of it this way: when readers walk into a bookstore to browse, they pick up random books and read the back covers until something strikes them.
This is exactly what agents do when browsing their inbox. Your query letter is all about your pitch. It’s not about being clever or different or defiant. The Number One Rule of querying is simple: Follow. The. Guidelines. No gimmicks, no tricks, no trying to be cute. What goes in the subject line? How many sample pages do you include? Are attachments allowed? Will linking your website automatically send your query to a spam folder? Is the agent currently closed to queries?
Agents have hundreds of queries to peruse, and they want to be able to quickly cast their eyes over TITLE, GENRE, WORD COUNT, and PITCH. If their eyes can’t find these things quickly and in their proper place, they might move on without glancing at those sample pages.
If you don’t know how to write a good pitch, then your new best friend is the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series. Read them. Absorb them. Note the things they do in common. Your pitch needs to introduce your protagonist, outline their set of obstacles, and leave the agent with a big shiny hook. Just like on the back cover of a book. Soon we’ll do another post for How to Write a Query, but for now, let’s assume you’ve mastered the art and you’re ready for exhibition.
STEP TWO: You need to make a list of agents. It’s tempting to just look up agents and query the first ones you find who represent your genre. I urge you to be patient. There are lots and lots of agents out there. You can use the Poets & Writers Literary Agent Database, or you can use QueryTracker, or you can pick up the 2019 Writer’s Market. There’s no shortage of agents. But which ones should you query?
You want to curate a list of the best agents—not the best meaning, Oh, Agent X represents J.K. Rowling and Agent Y is the president of an agency that’s been in business a hundred years and manages the estates of classic American authors. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the best agents FOR YOU. That titan of the industry president agent sounds fancy as all get out, but she’s probably A) really, really busy, B) not taking on very many new clients, and C) slower to respond than other agents because she has so much to manage. Whereas the associate agent three years into her career across the street is probably A) more available to clients, B) taking on more clients, and C) driven by an insatiable hunger to get her career off the ground.
So it’s not about how long the agent has been in the business or whether or not she represents the elite authors of our time—all that’s great, but there’s more to it. What matters most is that she not only represents your general genre but she has a particular taste that matches your own. It is of utmost importance that when selecting agents you take the time to look up the work of her clients. I’m not saying you have to go on a book-buying spree, but samples of books are available on Amazon, and if you really, really think an agent might just be your soulmate, it’s worth it to read a book she recently sold. You don’t want to blindly aim for the president or CEO of every agency. The agent who would have fallen in love with and championed your book might be sitting across the hall, lonely, pining, waiting for you.
Okay, now you have the perfect query AND the perfect list of agents. What’s next? Are we ready?
STEP THREE: It’s time to pull the trigger and send out your query! But wait. Should you scattershot your query to all 50 agents on your list? No, of course not. Because that perfect query you wrote might be a heaping pile of rancid garbage that needs to be rewritten. Start with half a dozen, or maybe eight, or maybe a dozen. It depends on how confident you are. Then give it a little time. Are form rejections coming in? Did you get a partial request? A full request? That’s certainly exciting! What if after a month 75% of your queries have been flat rejected and you’ve received no response from the rest?
Revise. Rewrite. Re-imagine. Try again. Send your new query out to another half dozen to a dozen. Wait a little longer. You can even make the rule that every time a rejection comes in, a new query goes out. Just make sure you’re not burning through your list with the same query.
Well, that’s all I have for now. I’ll close with a little note about that last paragraph you might include in your query: the bio. You may or may not need a bio in your query. It all depends on whether or not the information is relevant. I’ll leave you with a few examples of what and what not to include in the closing of your query. Bye-bye!
INCLUDE IN YOUR BIO:
–I’m a surgeon with a book about a surgeon
–I’m an attorney writing courtroom dramas
–I’m a war veteran writing about PTSD
–I published a story in a notable literary publication
–I am an opinion columnist for the New York Times
–I am Barack Obama
DON’T INCLUDE IN YOUR BIO:
–I am the most passionate book lover ever
–My self-pubbed urban fantasy debut was downloaded 10,000 times for free
–I am an “award-winning” author but I can’t tell you what the award is
–everybody says I’m destined to be famous
–I dropped out of college because English Departments can’t contain this beast
Query Examples: Writer’s Digest Successful Queries
Agent Databases: Poets & Writers Literary Agent Database, Query Tracker, Writer’s Market (book)
For inspiration: keep up with the Publisher’s Weekly Book Deals of the Week, and also follow @PartyFreckle on Twitter.