Enticing an Agent with a Captivating Query Letter

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If you’ve browsed a meetup app, you’ve probably seen a profile that triggered second-hand cringe. Now, imagine that fellow is you, and it’s a potential literary agent wincing at your query letter. If the thought of an agent thinking “Dull Lifetime movie” about the story you poured your soul into makes your throat tighten, read on. 

Literary agencies receive tons of queries every day. You need a phenomenal query letter to make an agent curious about your full story. They’ll have no qualms about throwing your letter straight into the rejection pile if it’s not up to snuff since they are anything but short of stories they could take on. People look for good judgment, and a lousy query letter implies the opposite. If you can’t ace a letter, why would they assume you have a handle on plotlines, character arcs, and stylish prose? 

Luckily, a professional can craft a query package for you, saving you time and stress. You can also check out our tips for producing a top-notch query letter. 

Do your due diligence 

You’re asking an agent to potentially launch your career, bring you prestige, and net you a hefty advance. That’s too important for a run-of-the-mill email, and a generic letter that could have been addressed to anyone isn’t going to get you all that. Show your respect and research the agents you’re contacting. Actually, doing proper research is recommended for your sake as well—it will help you determine whether you could get along with the agent and whether they have a less-than-stellar track record.

One way to start is with databases such as AgentQuery or QueryTracker, which list agents and their specialties. Alternatively, a specialist can compile a well-researched agent list for you, saving you time and effort. From there, you can look up an agent’s website and social media to get a feel for their work and personality before reaching out. Mentioning a podcast you heard them on is a good move as long as you don’t seem disingenuous. In fact, you should use any opportunity you can to personalize the letter and identify connections with the agent provided that such details are relevant and you’re being honest.

Address the agents by name, not “Dear Agency Submissions Department” or “Dear Mr./Ms. Agent.” This takes work because it’s quality and quantity. Reach out to as many agents as you can, but resist the urge to shotgun your queries. Yes, it’s significantly more work to personalize every single query letter, but that’s more effective than just wasting time on generic queries that will never get you a book deal.

Demonstrate impeccable manners

An agent is your business partner. You can convey friendly professionalism right from the start. If you’re conceited, rude, or otherwise disrespectful, the agent won’t care about your manuscript. Follow all of their submission guidelines and read their wish list (if they have one). Unless the agent states otherwise, submit your query on one page, single-spaced, in a 12-point serif font. 

Be respectful and courteous, not desperate to impress. You wouldn’t want to ruin your charming letter with something like “I was so excited for you to read this that I sent it Priority Express.” Let your writing and your story do the selling. Another thing: Always screen for typos! Everyone makes them, but if you allow any to remain in such an important text, the agent is likely to think you’re lazy and careless.

Establish yourself and your story

If you did your research, you know why the agent you’re approaching might be a good fit for your book, but why should they care about you? After your hook and synopsis, make sure you include your qualifications, especially in the genre you’re querying about. This includes small presses, magazines, and work in other media, such as television. However, if you’re a brand-new author pitching your first book, it’s okay if you don’t have any previous literary achievements to show off.

Meanwhile, give the agent a feel for your story. Specify the genre, audience, and a couple of books it brings to mind. The trick is not to pick titles that make your story seem like a cardboard cutout or make you sound pretentious. “A philosophical adventure with the scale of A Song of Ice and Fire and robust characters” won’t help your case; keep it realistic and helpful. 

Write a proper synopsis

Even if you can compose a letter to make a Victorian romantic swoon, you’re writing to promote your story, so follow the agent’s specifications. Often, you’ll submit a summary and maybe a few chapters. For nonfiction, it’s a proposal. You can pique an agent’s interest or leave them utterly cold. Here are some ways to ensure the former:

Have an engaging hook. Keep it to a sentence or two but draw the agent in with an undeniably interesting story. Publishing expert Alan Rinzler says of reading a good hook, “It’s a rush, a little like falling in love.” A prospective agent is just like a prospective reader—you need a strong hook to make them want to read your book.

Showcase your style. What attracts an agent to your book should be apparent in your brief synopsis. The tone and voice should reflect the story. If your book is written with dry, sarcastic humor, flaunt that in the query letter—in a respectful way, of course.

Do some showing along with telling. When summarizing your book, don’t just say what the conflict is or what the characters are about. Give the agent a feel for the plot, why the stakes are high for the characters, and what the ramifications are. This will pique the agent’s interest and give them a taste of your writing skills. 

With so many query letters crossing agents’ desks, yours has to turn heads to give you a fighting chance. Also, with such fierce competition, even seemingly trivial oversights can cost you a deal. Nevertheless, your query letter could be the start of your literary career, so it’s worth the effort and patience. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that there are always experts to help write your query letter and boost your chances of a positive reply. 

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