I give a lot of classes and presentations at writers’ groups and conferences. Whenever I do, I get questions about how to write effective query letters. You can find advice about writing queries floating around the Internet and in magazines like Writer’s Digest. So this information is widely available. I see a lot of misinformation and bad advice as well. It usually comes from people who promise sure fire success getting published if only the writer will follow a certain technique. Don’t buy that for one minute. The only road to success in publishing (and it is by no means sure fire) is by working on good projects, writing it well, and having the platform to get attention by an audience of readers. There is no kabalistic knowledge of query technique that will bring you closer to getting an agent.
These tips are what work for me. Other agents will likely see things differently.
1) Do your research in preparing your submission list. There are over 2000 literary agents listed in Publishers Marketplace. Most of them specify the subject areas they are seeking. You can find it on their websites or on databases like: Association of Author Representatives and Agentquery.com. Don’t waste your time and theirs sending queries to agents who aren’t interested in your genre.
2) Always do multiple submissions. The odds for finding an agent through unsolicited queries isn’t so great, so you might as well maximize your chances. I get about 3000 queries a year. Out of that number I probably will respond to about 50 asking to look at their proposals. From that number I might take on 5 as clients (probably less, really). And I might succeed in getting one published. Agents’ decisions are subjective. Harry Potter was rejected by lots of agents.
3) Follow agents’ submission guidelines. This might also be on the agent databases mentioned above , but it will always be on agents’ websites. Specifically look to see whether the agent wants queries by email or post, and what and how much information they want included . Some agents will even specify what words to use in the subject heading of the email.
4) Keep the query short. I like less than half page for the entire query. Save the rest of the information for the book proposal. Remember that agents are getting hundreds of unsolicited queries a month. Chances are that they will be spending about 10 seconds deciding whether they want to follow up with you. Make sure those 10 seconds are used effectively to find the information the agent needs.
5) Answer the key questions: What? Why? Who? What is the genre? What is the book about? Why does it need to be published? Who am I to have the authority to write it? And remember that in this day and age “platform” is everything in commercial publishing, so most agents will look for your qualifications first.
6) Be professional and sound professional. Writing for publication is a business as well as an art. Familiarize yourself with the proper terminology and terms of art in publishing. When you specify the genre of your project in the query, make sure you know what the standard genres are. More than once I have received queries that begin: “This book is a narrative non-fiction novel.” This is not an impressive way to start a query.
7) Be transparent. Avoid hype. After hearing thousands of pitches, agents (and publishers) have pretty good bullshit detectors. A query brimming with hyperbole sends a message to me that the author is either imbued with grandiose delusions or playing me for a fool. Neither of these messages bodes well for a happy author-agent relationship.
8) Be patient. As we have mentioned above, agents get hundreds of queries a month. Responding to them is not always the highest priority of an agent. Some agents are not even interested in new clients and accordingly may not respond at all to your query. You can usually determine this by looking at their submission guidelines in the databases. I try to respond within a week, but I don’t always succeed and I am in the minority on this. If you don’t hear back, assume that the answer is “no”.
9) Writing queries isn’t very hard. Chances are that you didn’t need to read this list of tips to write an effective query. Agents are all looking for good projects that have a chance of finding a publisher. We aren’t going to reject one of those projects because the query diverges from a desired format. If you have a great idea and are the right person to write it, I’m going to discover that regardless of the form of the query.