I’ve been following Kristen Lamb ‘s blog for a while now, and she always has something interesting to say about writing and publishing. She is not afraid to say that writers should be paid, for example, and then to write about the ensuing storm of comments. That is not a discussion for today, but if you want to read more, it’s here.
Today I want to talk about query writing, and how to hook a literary agent. Of course I don’t pretend this is the last word on queries, there are resources everywhere. This is what I gleaned from various sources and from Pitch Perfect, one of Kristen’s webinars I attended recently under the WANA banner. She runs regular courses aimed at getting writers skilled, published and noticed.
How to find an agent to query
Literary agents represent specific genres according to their personal taste. They take on a book they believe in, and sell that book to a traditional publisher to offer in bookshops and stores. They also sell rights to film, TV, translations and so on.
You want someone who likes the kind of thing you write. Do your research so you won’t end up sending gory horror to someone who likes cookbooks and cosy mysteries, or indeed vice versa. You and your agent will conduct a business relationship aimed at selling books and making money. It pays to find the person who will be the best fit for you and your story.
- Acknowledgements sometimes mention the agent by name. Check in books that are similar to yours – in other words, comparative titles.
- Attending conferences and festivals can yield contacts.
- Twitter can be very useful for making connections with agents. Also try looking through hashtags such as #mswl (manuscript wish list) which details stories agents are looking for right now, or genre based such as #scifi or #romance. Not all agents are very active on twitter, but it offers a chance to interact and importantly, to see how people behave online.
- Google can be your friend here. Searching manuscript wish list + genre + agents will yield more options to look at.
- Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK) and Writers’ Market (USA) are very useful resources for everything to do with writing, including searchable databases and physical directories which are updated annually.
Which agents to query
Your agent will be getting 15% of your earnings, typically, so you want to be sure they are adding value. Check their websites to see what they have sold recently, who their other clients are, and so on. Remember that most of their energy will be spent on servicing existing clients. That said, everyone wants the next bestselling author. The new agent looking to build their list might have more time for you than JK Rowling’s agent.
Draw up a long list, and send queries out in batches of 10-12. They need to go in groups, it can take some time to get a reply so sending them singly takes far too long. If two (or more!) agents want to read more of your work after seeing the sample pages, you can always grant one exclusive reading for say, two weeks. Then they need to decide or you can move on to the next prospect.
What to write in your query
First read the submission guidelines. Let’s say that again.
First read the submission guidelines. Then follow them exactly.
Every agent has a slightly different preference. You look this up on their website, and you do not deviate. This is no time to show your creativity, you need to show that you can follow instructions. The agent or assistant has hundreds of these emails to read. They’re looking for a reason to say no and make the job easier. Tough, eh? But that’s how it is. Not dissimilar to making a job application, you need to demonstrate a professional approach. Reading and understanding instructions is a basic skill.
Everything is pasted into the email. Nobody will open an attachment. That’s the quickest way to viruses, the modern-day equivalent of the plague.
The query itself
The query is brief, no more than one page. Write in Word or your preferred program, and trim until it fits. Four paragraphs should cover it.
- Greet the agent by name.
If unsure of gender, avoid titles and use the whole name eg Dear Sam Smith. This is a formal letter to a stranger, so unless you know them well, no first name terms. State your connection if applicable, eg met them at a conference, referral from a mutual contact, conversed on Twitter. Otherwise state how you found them eg from manuscript wish list, represented similar books, or anything else.
- Write about the book.
“TITLE is a (genre) novel complete at (word count).”
If you have a comparative title, mention that here, “in the style of (title)”. Don’t be overambitious and mention a mega-selling book. Just a current best-seller will do.
Summarise the story, beginning with your log line. This is intended to whet their appetite to read more, it should sound like back cover blurb. It is not a full synopsis, that comes later.
- Author biography goes here.
Keep this simple and on topic. Any writing credentials such as an MFA, and any publishing credits or competition wins belong in this section. Personal details such as age, job, how long you’ve been writing, are irrelevant until you meet your agent. The exception is where your thriller is set on an oil rig and you worked in the business for fifteen years, for example. That’s relevant.
No credentials? Just state you’re a writer living in X, you write Y genre, and you’re currently working on Z. Don’t apologise for it. Absolutely every writer started with nothing to their name.
- Thank you for your time.
Agents read constantly. Between meetings, while commuting, in the evenings. They have lives just like us, and they love good books, and they don’t get a penny until you do. A thank you is basic good manners, and rude people are remembered for the wrong reasons. Don’t be that person.
Below this, you paste the sample pages or chapters as per the submission guidelines (check them again). And below that, a one page synopsis. This is the one time Kristen suggests going off-menu.
I’ll cover the theory and practice of the log line and synopsis next time.