Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Tips for Querying Literary Agents

One of the things I love about this blog is being able to share with you what I’m learning on my writing journey. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading up on how to query literary agents. As you might guess, thanks to my BFF Google, there’s plenty to find on this topic. Seems a lot of us writers are on the hunt to get published, and if you want to go with a Big Five traditional publisher, that means finding a literary agent.

Now, I should probably advise my readers that I’ve only submitted, oh, perhaps three query letters in my life so far. What I’m going to share with you today comes from my research and good ol’ common sense, not practical experience. Someday I’ll let you know how it’s worked for me, but until then, hopefully I can help you out, too.

I’ve heard you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than get your picture book published. I’m not sure what the odds are for your YA or adult fiction book, but I can’t imagine they’d be encouraging. Still, if we do some things right on our end, we’re bound to sway the odds in our favor. So, muster up your Han Solo attitude, and let’s see how to improve our chances of snagging a great agent who loves our work.

Before You Query

Like any endeavor in life, your odds of success will improve big time if you show up prepared. What does that mean for querying?

Essentially, a query is like a job application. You’ve created a product, and you’re looking for a partner to work with you to bring it to the market. The purpose of a query letter is to offer a tantalizing glimpse of this great new product, as well as to show that you’ll be an easy-to-work-with professional. If your letter does its job and the agent is hooked, they’ll ask for more–either a partial or full request, or in some cases, a book proposal. AND if they find that the full story lives up to its promises and is something they adore, AND it’s something they can sell, AND it fits within their client list, AND you seem like you’ll make a good business partner, THEN you’ll get the call.

So what do you need to get started?

1. A COMPLETE manuscript: Can’t stress this one enough. First time authors MUST have a complete manuscript to query. Nobody wants to hear about when you’ll be done drafting, editing, etc. It should have been drafted, rewritten, edited, critiqued, and polished until you can see your reflection in it. Okay, maybe not literally…but it should be the best story you can write. If you’re not quite happy with it, if you think maybe it could still be improved, don’t query yet. Many agencies only allow you to query one agent, and agents don’t like to see repeat queries without SIGNIFICANT changes, so don’t query until you love your story. Unfortunately, there really aren’t second chances with the same manuscript.

2. A synopsis: No, technically you don’t need a synopsis to query. But, if you get that dream e-mail asking for a partial or full manuscript, an agent may ask for a synopsis also. Better to be prepared, right? The synopsis should cover your story’s main plot points, including the ending. No secrets here. For best results, try to capture as much of your story’s flavor or voice as you can. And you’ve got to get it all into one single-spaced page, unless specifically instructed otherwise. It’s a tall order, but there are plenty of great articles on the web that will give you tips. (My friend Google can help.)

3. A blurb: Think of this as back-cover copy. Aim for two to three paragraphs covering the first quarter or so of your story, with a final question or statement hinting at a choice the main character will face or some other hook. Blurbs are HARD to write well, so spend some time studying published books in your genre at the library or bookstore to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

4. Promo Sentence and Sales Handle: Don’t freak out; stay with me. Deep breaths. YOU CAN DO THIS. While you’re at the library/ bookstore reading the backs of all those books, take a look at the catchy phrases on the front cover and the top of the back cover. Usually the one on the front is a short question or statement that catches your attention. This is a sales handle, also called a tagline. This sales handle works in tandem with the gorgeous cover to convince you, dear reader, to pick the book up, flip it over, and read the back. One step closer to the sell.

The back has the blurb (unless it’s inside the dust jacket), but almost always at the top there will be another question or set of short statements. These are almost like a mini-blurb, pitching the concept of the book. You’ve already been hooked by the sales handle; now, this promo sentence (or concept sentence or hook) dangles a little more information about the book. If it does its job, you’ll keep reading the blurb, then the first chapter, then…cha-ching, you’re at the cash register.

Like blurbs, promo sentences and sales handles can be hard to write. Again, the best thing to do is read examples of successful ones in your genre. Consider what you like and what you don’t like, then brainstorm a number of options. What captures the essence and feel of your story? How can you tweak it to be as enticing as possible?

5. Comparables: Technically, like the synopsis, you don’t need a list of comparable books in order to query. But you may want to include a couple in your query letter, and you will need them if an agent requests a proposal.

What are comparables? Two to three books published recently in your genre that are similar to your book in some way. Ideally, someone who reads these books would also enjoy yours. Your choice of comparables shows what you know about the market and helps an agent/ editor better understand where your book might fit in terms of sales and marketing. 

How do you find comparables? It can be tricky pegging down similar books, but I’d suggest trying (again) the library and the bookstore. Think about all those blurbs you’ve already read–what books have similar elements to yours? Don’t think identical (hopefully that doesn’t exist); instead, look for a common setting or plot elements or character journey. Once you have one comparable, use Amazon or Goodreads to see what else the same readers liked.

6. A list of agents to query: There are plenty of wrong ways to query, and lots of other blog posts about what not to do. So I’ll cut straight to what TO do–your homework. (Sorry, I know, you thought you were past that by now.) If you have a completed, well-written manuscript, you need to get it into the right agents’ hands. Literary agents aren’t all the same–they each represent specific genres according to their personal reading tastes, their connections in the publishing world, and their expertise.

The only way to know what an agent represents, and what they’re looking for, is to do some research. Start with the agency’s website. It will list all of the agents and their personal wish lists. Often these aren’t very specific–if you want to be even more selective in your targeting, find agents on social media. Many agents use the hashtag #MSWL (for Manuscript Wish List) to offer more specifics. Or, they may tweet or post details about what they’re looking for on social media sites. At the very least, you could do a web search for the agent’s name and see if they’ve participated in any recent interviews.

As a bonus, all this research will help you tailor your query letter to fit each agent’s interests.

Feeling better prepared? Good. Let’s dive in to the querying itself…

Querying Tips

A ten-second internet search will reveal a plethora of resources on how to write a query letter and what to include, so I’m going to skip the letter mechanics and go straight for suggestions.

1. Be professional: As I mentioned earlier, a query letter is like a job application. It reflects your work and you as a potential candidate for a career partnership, so make sure it presents you in the best possible light. Personalize your letter for each agent, and tell them why you’ve chosen to query them in particular.

Tell the truth. If you don’t have any writing achievements to include in your bio paragraph, you can simply say this is your debut novel.

Read the submission guidelines. Show you take your writing career seriously by respecting each agent’s requests. Agents receive hundreds of queries (or more) every week; they’ve created guidelines for a reason.

Proofread. Nobody wants to work with an author who can’t be bothered to edit their own query letter.

2. Hook your reader: The point of a query letter is to convince the agent to keep reading, first to your sample pages (if included by submission guidelines), and then on to requested material. Use your promo sentence, sales handle, and blurb to craft the best query letter you can. Run it by your critique partner or pay a freelance editor.

3. Query intelligently: Second chances are hard to come by, so be smart about how you query. No matter how excited you are, don’t blast the inboxes of every agent on your list at the same time. Instead, pick a few agents to start with and see how they respond. If you’ve targeted selectively and you only get rejections (or hear crickets chirping in the distance), your query letter and/ or opening pages might need more work. Try tweaking what you’ve got before sending out another round.

4. Give yourself grace: Typos and errors will happen. You will realize you jumped the gun and sent something before it was ready. Write those letters/ agents off for now, make your corrections, and move on to the next bunch on your list. Some things just aren’t meant to be. Accept it and move on.

5. Don’t give up: A lot of factors go into an agent’s decision about whether to request more material or pick up a writer as a client. Some of these factors you can control, like the ones we’ve covered above. But others are out of our hands. An agent may love your work but already represent someone that fits the same niche. Or, maybe your story is fantastic, but it isn’t salable in the current market. Agents are business partners–they’re looking to make money, just like writers are. They won’t take on a project they can’t sell.

People call it the “query trenches” for a reason. There will be rejection, and a lot of it. You could avoid all that rejection by not querying, but…there goes the dream. Accept that the “no’s” and the chirping crickets are part of the process, and keep moving.

Querying involves a lot of waiting. Use that time to sharpen your synopsis, start on another project, tackle some reading in your genre, or research more agents. Sometimes your first manuscript isn’t going to be the winner. You might have to make the difficult choice to set it aside and move on with something else. Some authors don’t get their agents until their third or fourth (or more!) manuscript.

I’m convinced that what gets an author published isn’t raw talent, but perseverance. If you want it badly enough, if you keep learning and writing and querying, if you don’t give up, one day you’ll get THE CALL.

Here’s hoping I get one, too.

Have any tips to share from the querying trenches? I’d love to hear them. Let’s embrace this wild journey together!

Image credit: Pexels.com, CC0 license.





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