Over the last year, I have read around 3,000 queries while working as an intern for an NYC literary agency. I’ve read some really great queries that ended up receiving offers of representation as well as a lot of bad ones that still make me shake my head. On my own, I have had some success with my own query receiving around fourteen requests for partials or fulls.
When I began querying on April 1st, 2016 and sent out a batch of about eight queries. Zip, zilch, nada…I only received form rejections, if any response at all. (Click here for information about form rejections). At this point, I knew something must be wrong, because I obviously had the most amazing story ever written, like ever *sarcasm*.
As long as you are following an Agent’s/Agency’s submission guidelines, you can be assured you’re either querying the wrong Agent, your query needs work, or your sample pages need work. In this three-part series, we will discuss each item.
Let’s start with finding out if your query needs work:
- Grammar? Spelling? Punctuation? Did you spell the Agent’s name correctly? Agents will delete your query for any of these infractions, especially when it comes to their names. If an Agent’s name is Jane Doe, and you write Mr. Doe, you will be out of luck.
- Did you follow the submission guidelines? The best way to check this is to go directly to an Agency’s website and look at their guidelines. Other sources include Publisher’s Market Place and Association for Authors’ Representatives.
- Do you introduce too many characters immediately? EX/ Ms. Suzy the next door neighbor, of our protagonist Lucy, has a cat named Tod. Probably, not very important. Only mention the characters who will be important in the first ten pages, which is the sample most Agents request. This should include the main protagonist and antagonist.
- Do you introduce the challenge your character faces immediately? This is a crucial step, for it allows the Agent to understand what drives the plot and your character motivations. You must be clear and concise. Ask yourself what the crux of your story is? Don’t give the entire plot, but do say why your story needs to be told. Practice by creating a short summary of classic stories such as Cinderella, The Hobbit, The Odyssey, and any others you may think of. Feel free to comment below with your summaries.
- Is your query too long? Too short? I’d aim for between 250-400 words for your query letter. Remember a query letter is only a single page in length. Also, always start with small batches of query letters so you can find out what is working before you work through every agent in your genre.
- Do you mention relevant information in your biography? EX/ If you’re writing historical fiction and are a history professor or spent weeks at your historical site, mention it. If you’re a police officer writing a crime novel, mention it. If you’re a scuba diver writing a Western romance, don’t mention it. You may also mention any publication credits that you may have, but make sure they are legitimate. However, if you have no relevant biographical information you don’t need to add anything.
- Do you have a clear understanding of your genre? At this stage of the publication process, you must be 100% certain of your genre. Only with this certainty will you be able to find compatible Agents, comparable titles, and have the ability to market your book. When you get to the publisher they may change the genre, but for now, you do not need to think about that. The best way to understand your genre is to read, read, and read. Read books that are similar to yours that are from the past year to fives years ago. You do not want to comp your book to a classic or a book that hasn’t been on the shelves since the 80s. This clear understanding of genre must also align with word count. Debut Historical Romances run from about 85,000-95,000, YA 65,000-85,000, Fantasy 85,000-110,000, see what I mean? Yes, there are exceptions, but it’ll make it that much harder to get past the query stage.
- Do you have good comparable titles? A good comparable title tells an Agent you understand your genre and that there is a market for your genre. It also gives the Agent an idea of what kind of book you have written. A note of caution: sending a query to an Agent who represents someone who writes in the same genre as your work, can be the best plan of action or the worst. Sometimes an Agent will reject your work because it is too similar to something they already represent.
- Were you professional? Do not, I repeat do not come off as arrogant. EX/ My book is the next Harry Potter and will make a great movie. Do not call the agency unless directed to do so. Do not stalk the Agent, but feel free to follow them on social media. Do not downgrade your work. Use a professional email, I suggest making one specifically for querying and one that uses your pen-name. No emails from Hotmail as those are often sent directly to spam. Do not forget to thank the Agent for their time and consideration. Lastly, do not email an Agent asking if they’ve received your work until after the response time has passed. If they are an agency that always responds, which many do not, then resend your query with a note saying you had not heard from the Agent within the time frame.
- Did you send to the right Agent? The publishing industry is filled with subjective tastes, just like the real world. One time, I sent my Victorian mystery to an Agent specifically looking for Victorian mystery and was form rejected. However, sometimes you send to the wrong Agent. Make sure the Agent you’re sending to represents your genre, even better if you can fit a specific request.
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UPDATED 2018 (originally published in 2016)