Writing a Query Letter to a Literary Agent

Writing a Query Letter to a Literary Agent

Finding a Literary Agent

If you have a piece of writing that you want to publish, one way to do it is through a literary agent. The process involves three basic steps:

Find the name of an agent who is seeking manuscripts written in the particular genre and style in which you have written.

In my case, it was upmarket, women’s historical fiction. I learned that the term “upmarket” refers to novels which are a cross between literary and commercial. They don’t fit exactly into a particular genre. However, they have more commercial appeal than a strictly literary novel. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants would be an example.

Research the agency’s requirements for submissions.

Most agencies accept/prefer electronic submissions, but they will be very specific about what they want. All of the agencies that I contacted specify either

  •  a query letter not attached but pasted into the body of the e-mail, and a synopsis of the novel in an attachment.
  •  a query letter not attached but pasted into the body of the letter and the first chapter or the first 50 pages of the manuscript.

Two agencies that I contacted require the manuscript to be pasted into the body of the e-mail. One requires an attachment.

In the subject window of the e-mail, the agencies call for various entries–such as “query” or “attn: name of agent.

Guide to Literary Agents Blog

Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest publishes a wonderful blog called Guide to Literary Agents Blog. His January 5, 2015 entry is entitled New Agents–Building List.  http://bit.ly/2uYJaI3

In the blog, he tells first time authors that one of their best chances of landing an agent is to send queries to agents who are new to their agency and are in the process of building their lists.

He features a number of new agents and interviews them about the types of books they are seeking.
The blog includes the agency contact for each agent.

From that I was able to visit the web site of each agency, find the submission requirements, and write my query letter.

One piece of advice that I read in numerous sources is that you should not send query letters to multiple agents within a particular agency–only one per agency. http://bit.ly/2veiwu9

Write (and send) query letters. 

I found another great blog on Writers Digest, under the menu bar entitled “Editorial Blogs,” located at the top of the web site. I learned that the query for a novel follows a basic three-paragraph model.

First Paragraph–The Hook

The hook contains the title and a brief description of the novel. It should also identify the genre and/or audience to which the novel will appeal. The word count should be mentioned as well as whether the novel is complete or in progress.

Second Paragraph 

Contains a very brief author bio with credentials, such as writing courses completed or publication awards. Advice for first time authors was not to attempt to pad the resume. Rather, be honest about this being a first attempt. For first time authors, this paragraph will be short.

Third Paragraph 

The conclusion, in which the writer thanks the agent for considering the manuscript and reinforces how the novel is a good match for the agent’s list. For example

Given your preference for upmarket women’s fiction that is character driven, I thought that Hattie’s Place would be a good fit for your list.

In the blogs I’ve mentioned, you can read real query letters that received responses from actual agents.

Good Communication Tips

Of course, the blogs also emphasize standard tips for good communication:

  • correct grammar
  • free of typos
  • address agent by name and spell name correctly
  • keep it to one page
  • meticulously follow the agency submission guidelines.
Mistake to Avoid

There was one big mistake I made that would have disqualified my submissions. That’s assuming the agents ever read past the query letter and on to the excerpt of the manuscript (first chapter or first 50 pages).

I didn’t delete the editing marks on my manuscript. I thought that by checking the “final copy” option in the editing menu, the marks would be suppressed and that would be the final copy.

Remember that my manuscript had gone through two professional edits, in addition to the ones that I had made myself. The edit view had so many marks on it that it looked as if all of my high school English teachers had gotten together and had their way with it.

However, I found out later in the game that you must accept or reject the edits, and then manually delete them from the document before submitting the final manuscript.

That’s an example of how really green I am in this whole business of editing and publishing. It was a costly mistake in terms of time and forward progress, but I’ll chalk it up to lessons learned.

 Indie Publishing is Another Option

As I mentioned in my last blog, I ultimately abandoned my search for a literary agent. I turned instead to Create Space online publishing.

I don’t regret in the least the time I spent constructing queries and a synopsis. Both will be useful when it comes to deciding what should go on my book cover. I’ll use them when I need a description of the book to post with the thumbnail picture of the cover that will appear on Amazon.

When I have another book or two under my belt, I may try the agency approach again. Bit for now, I’m excited about working with the folks at CreateSpace.com, who will format my manuscript for Kindle and for print-on-demand hard copies, as well as design an eye-catching cover.

I have a phone conference with them on Monday afternoon, April 27.  In the next blog, I’ll tell you about the conference. I’m also hoping to have a publication date to share.

For additional information on publishing, see Selecting a Publishing Method.

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