If you’re an author of fiction and want to follow the traditional route to publication, you’re probably going to need a literary agent.
A query letter (also known as a pitch letter or cover letter) is one of three things you need when trying to persuade an agent to sign you. The other two components are your synopsis and a writing sample.
This post is the first in a series in which I’ll address how you should approach your submissions to literary agents. Today, we’re going to take a look at how you can nail your query letter to make sure you give the best first impression.
Do you really need a literary agent?
First things first. Do you actually need a literary agent? If you want to follow the traditional route to publication (i.e. have your manuscript published by an official publishing house) then you do. Usually.
Most publishers don’t accept submissions directly from writers, which is why you need an agent to submit your manuscript for you. Some publishers – especially the smaller, independent ones – do accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can follow the advice in this post to help you pitch to publishers as well as agents.
It’s still a good idea to nab an agent, though, because agents have a wealth of knowledge about the publishing industry and an array of invaluable connections.
Agents usually take a 10-20% commission from the proceeds of sales as payment for their services.
Not all agents are created equal, so make sure you submit to the best and most suitable agents who match both your career needs and your personality.
Why is a query letter important?
It’s a good idea to invest time in your query letter. Though the letter isn’t as important as your novel, it’s the first impression the agent will have of you – and first impressions count.
From your query letter, an agent can get a sense of how serious, professional and hardworking you are, which indicates what you might be like to work with. Agents want to work with authors who know their stuff and act in a professional manner, as well as those who can write cracking good books.
Before you begin the query process, you should make sure you have a finished and polished manuscript ready to go. This means no rough or incomplete drafts, and no more plans for tinkering. (Every time you tinker with your finished novel, a fairy dies.)
The 5 most important things to remember about your query letter
1. Follow the agent’s guidelines. Whatever advice I give you here, if the agent’s website states something different, always follow what the agent’s website says. Agents are people too, and people have preferences. Different agents might ask for different things in a submission, which is why you should tailor your queries to each agent you approach.
2. Put yourself in their shoes. (Not literally – that’s the kind of creepy shenanigans that won’t land you an agent.) Agents receive thousands of submissions a year. They long to discover a fantastic new author – probably almost as much as I long for an endless supply of chocolate digestive biscuits – but they have to wade through a mountain of submissions for every one they take on. Your query letter should help them do their work. It should tell them what they need to know – which is not necessarily what you want to tell them.
3. Keep it focussed, friendly and short. Don’t try too hard to impress, otherwise your letter could seem hyperbolic and stilted. Instead, write as if you’re writing to a friend, matching the tone of your book. Don’t comment on how ‘compelling’ or ‘heart-warming’ the story is; stay clear of imposing judgements on your writing and speaking in abstract terms. The agent should be able to see that your story is heart-warming (or whatever) from the information you provide, without you spelling it out. Close the letter succinctly and professionally.
4. Mention if your book is currently being considered by another agency. Not only does this alert the agent that your book is clearly worth considering and that time might be of the essence, but it’s polite to let them know if you might pull out of the process in order to pursue another opportunity. Don’t bother mentioning that you’re querying multiple agents – that’s practically a given.
5. Proofread! Obviously, you want to make sure that your letter is written exceedingly well, and that includes making sure it’s written with correct grammar, artful syntax and is free from errors. If your letter is sloppily written, an agent will assume your novel is, too.
Spelling errors or grammatical mistakes … just make me want to stop reading.
Structure and content of a query letter
In your query letter you must:
- Capture the interest of the agent
- Convince them your book will sell
- Tell them a little bit about yourself as an author
The letter should be short – between 150-250 words – and it should fit on one side of A4 paper, single-spaced with generous margins. Make sure your font is 12-point and easy to read.
I recommend the following three-paragraph query letter structure because it makes sure you include everything you need without rambling, and everything is presented nice and clearly.
Paragraph 1a: Put your best foot forward
The first paragraph should lead with your strongest selling point, so this will vary from writer to writer, book to book. If you have any connections to the agent, you could start with this – e.g. if one of the agent’s current clients referred you, if you met the agent at a conference or heard them speak at an event, etc. You might also want to kick off with any prestigious credentials you have, such as a creative writing MA from a highly regarded university, awards from writing competitions or publication credits from noteworthy publications.
Paragraph 1b: Your hook
If you don’t have insider connections or any exciting writing credentials to your name, fear not. Instead, start your query letter with your book’s hook, and make it the best damn hook possible. If you can mention some of the things above, your hook will be your second paragraph of a four-paragraph query letter (unless you decide your hook is so awesome it should come first – which is totally fine). Don’t forget to mention the title!
If you can’t convey the essence of your book in three sentences, the chances are that I won’t be able to either. Publishing (certainly at the commercial end) is largely centred on elevator pitches.
What to include in your hook
Your hook should include brief information on the protagonist and their conflict, and a summary of the main choices the protagonist has to make and the stakes of these choices. If it’s a main component of your book, you can also mention the setting or time period.
What should be obvious from this description is that your hook is about the specific details of your story – it’s not a general overview or summary of the main themes.
How to make your hook stand out
As well as everything above, your hook needs to be written with spark.
Spark is the energy and personality you inject into your hook. It’s what makes someone feel something after they’ve read your hook. It’s what sets your story apart from every other story. You could have the most well-written, perfectly-structured hook in the world, but if it lacks spark, the agent will be yawning.
A hook without spark makes your protagonist seem flat and your story premise seem boring. A hook with spark will make the agent desperate to read more. It’s the first promising clue that you’re a writer who knows how to tell a good story. And yes, adding spark to your hook is the toughest part of writing a query letter.
Tips on writing a great hook
Your hook needs energy and personality, and it needs to make the agent care. You don’t want the agent saying ‘So what?’ once they’ve read your hook – you want them saying ‘Then what?’ You want them chomping at the bit to read your story. Keep it brief. Literally one or two sentences max. Your synopsis is where you can go into more plot detail.
These formulas may seem, well, formulaic, but when you plug in the unique, sparky details of your story, I guarantee results will vary delightfully. Here are some options:
[Title] is a [word count][genre] novel about [character name + short description] who [conflict].
Example: The Martian is a 130,000 word science-fiction novel about Mark Watney, a wise-cracking botanist, engineer and astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and must improvise to survive, facing challenges such as dust storms, biochemical explosions, and not going insane from having only a library of seventies disco music to keep him entertained.
[Character name + short description] is faced with [the conflict they’re going through] and so must [the choices they have to make] in order to [desired result].
Example: Frodo Bagins, a young and gentle hobbit, is faced with the task of destroying the One Ring when he inherits it and its dark origin is revealed, and so he must decide to carry the burden and make the long and dangerous journey to Mordor in order to prevent the rise of Sauron, who would send the world into terrible darkness.
[Title] is a [genre] novel in which [character name + short description] must [main conflict], but not by [genre expectation]. Instead, [character name] is/must [genre expectation turned on its head].
Under the Skin is a darkly satirical surrealist novel in which Isserley, a beautiful yet allusive young woman, must take advantage of unsuspecting men to provide her family with food, but not by conning them, as you might expect. Instead, Isserley is an extra-terrestrial on the hunt for human meat.
It can be extremely hard to condense your novel into one or two sentences, so it’s useful to get as much feedback as possible on your hook. If people seem genuinely interested in reading more, you’re onto a winner.
Paragraph 2: Why your book is worth publishing
The first paragraph of your query letter should grab the agent’s interest. Next, you should elaborate on why your book is interesting, important and saleable. Think about the following elements and condense your most important points into a 50-word paragraph.
Genre and word count
If you haven’t mentioned it already in your hook, stating the genre and word count will help the agent assess how the book might be positioned in the marketplace. If your book is cross-genre, mention it – but nail this down to no more than two! (It’s easier to understand and sell a steampunk-romance than it is to understand and sell a literary-historic-adventure-YA-romance with aliens.) Mention how your book differs from others in the genre – in other words, how it will stand out on a bookshelf of other steampunk-romances.
Why did you write this book? What questions or concepts were you compelled to explore? For example, you might have set out to subvert the conventions of dystopian fiction or to analyse a society in which the option of choice has been removed. Your hook is not the place for this.
If your book has topical relevance, make sure to mention it here – but be aware that your topic might be old news by the time your book is published. Think about the longevity of your topic. Is it part of a conversation people will still care about it in a year’s time? If it’s about a specific event, will people still be affected by it eighteen months from now?
Consider the kind of people who would be interested in reading your book. Be as specific as possible, so don’t just say ‘middle-aged men’ but ‘men in their forties who feel disenfranchised with their career choice and are frustrated at falling behind with new technologies’.
You might also want to mention in your query letter any writers who have influenced you. Avoid listing all your favourite authors or stating that you think you’re going to be the next J.K. Rowling or E.L. James (if you’re aspiring to be the next E.L. James, please leave my website immediately and never return). Instead, make it relevant to your book. For example, ‘I admire Angela Carter’s rococo style and the way she plays with ambiguity to intrigue the reader, and I have tried to capture a similar tone in my novel.’
Paragraph 3: About you, the author
This paragraph of your query letter is all about reassuring the agent that you’re a good bet as a client. It demonstrates your professionalism and gives them an idea of the kind of person you are. You might include:
Provide a little information about yourself – your age, occupation and any interesting details. For example, ‘I’m a stay-at-home dad in my early thirties who paints skateboards for a living.’ Keep in mind that this kind of information might seem boring to you, but could be interesting to someone else – especially if the subject matter of your book provides a dramatic contrast to a conventional lifestyle.
What makes you qualified to write about the subject of your book? Are you an archaeologist writing about a theme park full of real dinosaurs? (Hmm, that one might have already been done.) Perhaps you’re a recent graduate writing about the hardships of the current economic climate? Or perhaps you’re writing about space and have seen every episode of Star Trek – seventeen times.
If you’ve previously had work published, briefly summarise your achievements. If you have a longer publishing history, it might be better to send along a brief CV with your letter. If you’ve previously self-published the book you’re submitting, keep in mind that most agents won’t be interested in taking on a book that’s already hit the market.
However, if you’ve self-published other works, it’s really up to you whether or not you mention this. If you’ve had huge successes with your self-publishing venture, certainly mention that! If not, an agent might discover your self-published novel through a quick Google search, so make sure it’s still something you’re proud of, and be prepared to talk about it.
Don’t worry too much if you’re unpublished – if your writing is good, that’s the main thing. Plus, an agent might be super excited to be discovering a fresh new writer! You could also mention here if you’re planning to write a series or if you have another novel in the works – agents don’t want to work with one-book writers.
Wear your writing history with pride. Tell me about that short story you had published or that writing course you attended and the fact that you are writing alongside a demanding job or in the evenings and weekends when the kids are asleep. Tell me why you write.
Your social presence: not necessary
It’s not necessary to include information about your platform or social media presence unless it’s absolutely amazing and you have a following of thousands waiting and eager to read your work. The agent can find your website and Twitter handle with a quick search if it interests them.
Put all that together, and you have yourself a fantastic query letter.
Where to find agents
Remember to carefully consider each agent you submit to. Are they reputable? Are they taking on new clients and books in your genre? Do they seem like a good fit? You can find agents in the following databases, but always check out their website, too.
- Writers&Artists – https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/listings
- AgentMatch – http://www.jerichowriters.com/agentmatch
- Publishers Marketplace – http://www.publishersmarketplace.com
- Writers Market – http://www.writersmarket.com
- AgentQuery – http://agentquery.com
- Manuscript Wish List – http://manuscriptwishlist.com
Make sure your manuscript is ready to pitch
You don’t want to pitch your manuscript before you’ve filled in all those plot holes, suitably infused your themes and smoothed out your character motivations. If you’d like professional feedback on your draft, consider hiring me to conduct a manuscript critique.