QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, June 14, 2010

How to Grab an Agent's Attention in a Query

First, how important is a query letter?

The query letter is the first thing I look at, so it should accurately reflect your project.  I think some authors think query letters are just a formality, but so much of being an author is also being able to market your work - and if you can’t take that first step to write a query, you’re in trouble.
 Literary Agent Katie Grimm of Don Congdon and Associates,
from an interview on WordHustler.

Now, tips from twenty agents to make your query shine:

Only about once a year does something immediately grab me from a query. If that happens, I immediately get in touch with the author to ask for the manuscript as soon as possible. Those very rare moments happen when the story sounds fresh and interesting, the tone of the letter expresses the tone of the book, and in those three or four very simple paragraphs, there is a preponderance of evidence that the author is a great writer.

Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, on The League of Reluctant Adults blog.

A great hook. Even if the rest of the query isn’t as stellar as it should be, if you have a great hook, I’m requesting pages. I totally get that some people just have issues with queries and that’s ok with me. But you have to grab me somehow. 
Kathleen Ortiz of Lowenstein Associates, on YA Highway.

I see queries all the time that capture my interest. The one thing they have in common is compelling voice. They usually have a fresh approach to a plot, or an interesting concept. If it’s non-fiction, it’s generally something that makes me think, “Oh I want to know more about that.”

Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management, on the WOW Women on Writing Website.

In short, the perfect query isn’t the most important part; doing your homework on agents (finding which are really a perfect fit), and having good writing and a solid story are. 
Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, on the Teens Writing For Teens blog.

I have no patience for query letters that compare the work to a bestseller or literary lion. I’ve seen letters where the author compares their work in a way that makes me sure this person has completely unrealistic expectations. What I do find helpful is for the author to tell me whom they envision being their audience (e.g., readers of so-and-so may enjoy my work). There is a big difference between over-hyping and helping to position the readership.

Wendy Sherman of Wendy Sherman Associates, on WOW, the Women On Writing website.

I am always thankful when someone values and respects my time by gathering information prior to contacting me. I am also a stickler for grammar, so typically, a poorly written query, or one that contains grammatical and/or typographical errors directs my attention elsewhere. 
Adriana Dominguez of Full Circle Literary, on The Examiner.

No need to apologize for yourself—"I'm so sorry to take up your time." Please don't threaten or beg me to "make your dream come true" or try to pump up the project in ways that mean nothing—telling me how your mom or friends loved it, or that you have 150 Facebook friends, all of whom you're sure would buy a copy. Don't get in your own way! Just tell me about the book, and we'll go from there.

Holly Root of the Waxman Agency, on the Guide to Literary Agents blog.

I’d like to see the author summarize their book in a paragraph or less, and be able to point out authors whose work is like theirs. And of course, what makes me hit “delete” are the usual mistakes—addressing the letter “Sir/Madam,” calling me someone else’s name, misspelling my name, lots of typos, a weak command of the English language, etc. etc. 
Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd., on Gretchen McNeil's blog Seanchai.

I don’t want self-aggrandizing statements. (This book is the next bestseller!). All I need is a brief paragraph outlining the plot and characters, and five pages so I can see if you can write. Please only include biographical information that is relevant to the content and sale of the book. And take into account what I’m looking for. It’s just a waste of time to send me material that I do not take on.

Beth Fleisher of The Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency, on the QTblog.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of query letters that don’t tell me anything about the plot. I can’t figure it out. I’m being pitched a story, but the writer won’t tell me what the story is–though he assures me it’ll be a great read!  Baffling. 
Tina Wexler of International Creative Management, on the Teens Writing for Teens blog.

Another pet peeve is what I like to call the Chinese menu query letter. I get query letters that pitch me five projects in three fiction genres, a screenplay and a memoir. Needless to say, I respond with a polite no thank you. Also, I automatically reject any query that has my name improperly spelled.

Barbara Collins Rosenberg of The Rosenberg group, on author Dianna Love's website.

Do take the time to hone and then highlight your one or two sentence pitch or hook. Do take only one paragraph to summarize the rest of your work-following the grab-your-attention style found on the back cover of books. 
Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency, on the WOW Women on Writing website.

The worst thing you can say is “I am unpublished and this manuscript isn’t very good.” If you don’t think it is good or publishable, then don’t waste anyone’s time mentioning it or sending it along. The writer becomes a professional writer the moment they act professionally and being apologetic isn’t being professional. Have confidence and poise.

Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer DiChiara Literary Agency, on The First Novels Club blog.

A crisp and to-the-point letter that lets me know you know your way around words and can tell a good tale. 
Jennifer Flannery of Flannery Literary, on Gumbo Writers.

What if, instead of on impulse sending a pushy email requesting a status update, you wrote to an agent: “I just wanted to let you know that you should feel free to take your time considering my manuscript. I know how busy you are, and I’m just happy you’ve requested the full and are considering – naturally, I want you to have the time to make the right decision here”? What if you made it your goal to be the most professional and pleasant writer to ever approach the agent you’re querying – can you imagine what sort of impact that might have on the results you get?

Stephen Barbara of Foundry Literary + Media, on the blog of Erica Ridley. 

Be honest and open and show some personality. Agents aren’t looking for worker bees, we want to see originality. Talent is primary, but compatibility goes a long way. Make it clear to agents from the start that you are going to be cooperative and will work with an agent for the betterment of your career. 
Rebecca Sherman of Writer's House, on The Career Cookbook.

From an agent’s stand point, the most important part of your query is the story pitch. I need to love the concept above all else. If you have writing credentials or a compelling reason for querying me specifically, great, but if I don’t love the pitch than the rest doesn’t matter.

Mandy Hubbard of D4EO Literary Agency, on Day by Day Writer.

It sparks my interest in the story, tells me more than the title and word count. It's great when a writer can clearly describe the appeal or "hook" of his or her own work and say why I'd be the best representative for it. Sell yourself to me. Professional credentials help, but aren't necessary. You might mention other authors whose work you like or who inspire you. 
Steven Malk of Writer's House, on Hope Vestergaard's blog.

Please don’t be overly friendly or chummy. We’re not looking to be friends (though I certainly like being friends once I’ve signed you on as a client), but to form a business relationship. Keep it cordial and professional.

Caren Johnson Estesen of the Caren Johnson Literary Agency, on Break Into Fiction.

The real key to a successful query letter is to get the point across succinctly. Write a good letter and check it for spelling and grammar. We're nerds! We will judge you for your funky punctuation. And try to capture the spirit of what's exciting about your book. Convey your own passion for the material without egotism. Or, best of all, make me laugh. 
Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, on The League of Reluctant Adults blog.

Now, put these tips to use - and let me know the results. 
Go forth, conquer, and dare to be remarkable!

Suzette Saxton writes books for tots, teens, and in-betweens. She is represented by Suzie Townsend of FinePrint Literary.


salarsenッ said...

An amazing list and so helpful. Thanks, Suzette.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Thanks for the great post, Suzette. It's amazing at the consistent mistakes agents are seeing. Obviously those writers have never heard of the QT blog. ;)

Kristi Helvig said...

Awesome tips--thanks!

Erinn said...

This is one of the most useful posts I've read on this topic. I love this blog. Thank you for being awesome!!!

Theresa Milstein said...

What a helpful list. Despite the few conflicting words of advice, this is one worth referring to as I polish my query.

Patti said...

You really need to research each agent to see what they look for in a query, which can be daunting, but worth the time.

middle grade ninja said...

Great stuff! Thanks for sharing.

Anne R. Allen said...

Wow. You did some serious research here. Superb post. Thanks!

rissawrites said...

Wonderful post! Thank you so much.

Chuck said...

These kind of posts take time to put together and are awesome to see.

Remilda Graystone said...

This was wonderful. Even though some of the advice was conflicting, at least we know which agent feels a certain way about this and which agent feels a certain way about that, which is mighty helpful.

Thanks for this post, Suzette!

kimysworld said...

It seems that they all basically say the same thing - good writing, good hook, good spelling/grammar, professional behavior. Makes sense and its good to see that recurring theme!

Emily Casey said...

Thank you, not only for putting this post together, but for getting helpful, relevant posts from prominent agents.

Suzette Saxton said...

Thanks for your kind words. I enjoyed putting this post together, especially linking to all the interviews. There's so much information out there!

Deb Salisbury said...

Thanks for the great post, Suzette. These are very helpful tips.

Lydia Kang said...

Great list! It was helpful reading through all the different comments.

Nichole Giles said...

Thanks for all the tips. Keep them coming, since I have a goal to reach!

Matthew Rush said...

Great tips! Thanks so much for gathering them together here Suzette.