Conquer the Query Letter: How to Wow Any Agent

by | Viewpoint

You know you need a powerful query letter to snag an agent. But how to start? How do you know what’s important to include and what isn’t? How do you even know what agents are looking for? Never fear, in this brief guide we’ll spill the beans. Let’s get started.

What Agents are Looking For

So, what are agents looking for, exactly? Well, in a word, talent. But it goes deeper than that. Eric Myers, from Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, gives us a clue:

“I think most of us specialize in the kind of material we feel most comfortable with.”

David Forrer, from Inkwell Management, underscores the point when he says, “Some agents tend to be stronger in certain areas depending on their personal taste and experience.”

So the first takeaway we can draw is: knowing your audience. Don’t throw query letters to the wind hoping they land under receptive noses. You can use a site like Duotrope to find agents who might be interested in your material. Writer’s Market is another reliable resource.

Here’s a helpful hint from Jacquie Flynn-@BookJacquie, writing on Twitter:

“Check out an agent’s website, tweets, & blog posts to get a sense of her style & taste before you query. Customize for best results.”

Lots of agents hang out on Twitter. By reading their tweets and checking their bios/profiles, you can get an idea of what they like. Of course, it’s also a good idea to check their websites.

Regina Ryan from Regina Ryan Books, gives us another clue about what agents want:

“I look for books of significant non-fiction that bring something new to the table.”

Pay special attention to the latter half of that sentence.

…that bring something new to the table.

In other words, what’s your hook? How is your work different from all the other submissions that agents receive every day? What is the one quality that sets your work apart? If you can’t answer that lickety-split, you might need to do an honest appraisal of your latest draft.

Here are a few other things that agents look for:

  • A strong individual voice.
  • A manuscript that is completely ready to send to publishers or near so.
  • Writers who don’t need a lot of hand-holding.
  • Writers who can take feedback and constructive criticism.
  • Writers who can go from your first draft to final draft in a decent amount of time.
  • Writers who create material for a well-defined, pre-existing market.

What else do agents look for? Well, lots of things, but one of the most important things they look at is the author’s platform. Now that publishers have to treat self-publishing as an actual threat, an author’s ability to market their own work is more important than ever before.

Only a few of the manuscripts a publisher accepts will be smash hits. Most will be average, and a few will underperform. This means, of course, that publishers can’t afford big marketing campaigns for all the books they accept.

So, an agent wants to see that you’ve taken the time and effort to establish your own platform. This means that you have, at a minimum:

  • Created an author website for yourself.
  • Started and maintained a blog.
  • Established a presence on social media.

If you have done all of the above, by all means, mention this in your query letter.

What’s in a Query Letter?

In the battle to net an agent, you have two powerful weapons: your polished manuscript and your query letter. Many writers lull themselves into a state of complacency by thinking that an agent is just going to skip their query letter and go straight for their sample pages. Sometimes that does happen. But you can’t count on it.

The thing is, the ability to craft an effective query letter demonstrates a few key traits:

  • Tact.
  • Professionalism.
  • Dedication.

So why not pair this with your brilliant sample pages and increase your chances? What’s more, an agent may receive up to 10 queries per day, but she might only sign 5-10 authors per year. Making a good first impression matters.

But what makes a great query letter? Let’s take a look.

1. Start strong.
Greet the agent by name. If you don’t know their name and whether they’re a man or woman, you haven’t done your homework. Don’t reach out to this person.

2. Mention any previous publication or awards in your opening sentence.
Example: I’m seeking representation for my latest novel, A Good Book. This novel is a follow-up to A Great Novel, which won first place in the Some Competition in 2017.

If you’re just starting out but have gotten a referral from someone else, you can mention that instead.  Jane Doe at Some Great Publishing House suggested I reach out to in regard to my debut novel, A Great Novel.

Networking is a big deal in publishing. If you’ve managed to make connections, mention them.

If you don’t have anything published and don’t have connections yet, no worries. Just jump right into your opening sentence: I’m seeking representation for my 103,202-word thriller, A Great Novel.

Note: Always, always mention your title, genre and word count in the opening. Always!

3. Hook ‘em and real ‘em in.
The first few lines of your query letter are the most important. This is known as the ‘hook.’ Your hook must instill a feeling of, Okay, I just have to read this.  Your hook must:

  • Demonstrate to the agent how your book is different from the thousands of other books out there.
  • Introduce the genre and tone.

Your hook might take days to nail down. This is normal. Don’t rush it.

Consider the following oft-used example:

Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He’s a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likable: he only kills bad people.

This is, of course, Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first novel in a series that went on to become a hit TV show.

4. Write an effective synopsis.
Like your hook, the synopsis is there to get the agent’s interest. It’s not there to tell the agent everything about your manuscript. The synopsis should summarize:

  • The plot.
  • The primary characters.
  • The conflict that drives the story.

That’s it.

5. Finish up with a review of your credentials.

This is particularly important if you’re pitching non-fiction, but it matters for fiction too. This is the place to prompt the agent to reach out to you by listing any credentials that make you particularly qualified to write what you’ve written.

Note: if your job, hometown, etc. aren’t relevant to the story, don’t mention them. The agent doesn’t care.

What Not to Do?

Naturally, it’s equally important to talk about what not to do when writing a query letter, so let’s wrap up with that, shall we?

Here are the essentials.

1. Don’t be a prig. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t use these phrases or anything like them:

My manuscript is a best-seller. The world just doesn’t know it yet!
You won’t be able to put my book down, and neither will publishers!
You would be lucky to represent me.

Many agents scan incoming letters for statements like these as a sort of filter. If they find just one, they toss the letter into the trash.

If you’re going to brag, put it at the end of your letter and make sure you’re highlighting actual achievements such as awards won or previous publishing credits.

2. Don’t talk about how old you are.

There’s no real upside to it, the agent doesn’t care, and it can hurt your case.

3. Don’t talk about writing credits that don’t have anything to do with what you’re pitching. If you’re writing a sci-fi epic, your cookbook isn’t relevant. For one thing, it’s a completely different skill set. The fact that you got it published doesn’t mean much if you’re now trying to get niche fiction published.

4. Don’t talk about how you value their time. Just get on with it. This just takes up space and it wastes their valuable time.

So, there you have it. You now know how to write a powerful query letter, and perhaps more importantly, you know what not to do. Go forth and snag that agent.

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