Updated: Aug 10, 2021
For those of you new and aspiring authors, the first step to getting a book deal from a traditional publisher is to hit up a literary agent, who are essentially the gatekeepers of the industry. Publishers nowadays (with few exceptions) do not.
Most writers assume their work will speak for themselves. However, the quality of your writing doesn’t matter a lick if the agent never sees it. Your query letter must be just as good, if not better than, your book. This might sound simple. You’re a writer, right? If you can write an entire book, a one-page letter should be a walk in the park.
Except it’s not that easy.
Writing a great query letter is an art in itself, one that leverages different writing skills than writing a book. Your letter is essentially a sales pitch, convincing an agent why you’re worth their time. Most writers aren’t great salesman, they’re creatives.
And the truth is, the vast majority of them don’t know how to make anyone besides themselves interested in their book. Literary agencies get queries up to their eyeballs. And this is why agents won’t give 98% of them the time of day.
YOUR QUERY LOOKS UNPROFESSIONAL
I saw it all during my time working at literary agencies in New York City—from a series of notecards covered in near-unintelligible chicken scratch to a five-page letter written mostly in caps.
The quickest way to get an agent to disregard your query letter is to write it in a non-standard format. Standard means Times New Roman, 12-point font, black, 1-inch margins all around. No Comic Sans or wacky colors.
You may be wondering why. After all, you want your query to stand out from the crowd, and you had the perfect uber-elegant font picked out. Not adhering to the standard tells an agent that you aren’t professional and that you aren’t to be taken seriously.
Not to mention most agencies blatantly request this format under their submission guidelines and not adhering to it tells them you either didn’t bother to read their guidelines or blatantly ignored instructions. Either way, it conveys that you are not the type of author they want to work with.
YOUR QUERY IS TOO LONG
Queries should be focused, concise, and engaging. Some authors mistake a query for a synopsis and summarize every scene in their novel, leading to a letter that’s ten pages long. Your query letter should give the agent a taste of your novel and leave them craving more.
The goal is to get across the premise of your novel. Just the premise. Not the ending, not your favorite scene, not that cool bit of dialogue between your two best characters, just the premise.
It might be tempting to pad out your query with lots of fluff to make it “long enough,” or seem more “serious” but that will only result in an agent’s eyes glazing over. Your query should be one page, no more, no less, no exceptions. Making it longer than that leads to the next problem on the list.
YOUR QUERY IS BORING
Agents decide if a query is even worth reading within thirty seconds. You need to engage them quickly and keep their attention all in a way that accurately and colorfully spells out the premise of your novel. As I mentioned earlier, you want your query to be focused, meaning axe any irrelevant details.
An agent doesn’t need to know a thousand years of history from your fantasy world, or the story behind why you decided to write your book. A query should be made up of a hook, then a paragraph or two explaining the premise of your novel, and perhaps the events of the first 50-100 pages, then one paragraph containing some information about you, the author.
The hard part is presenting the information in a way that engages the agent and makes them feel as though they have to read your book. You have to let your voice and style as an author shine through your query. If you’re funny, show off your sense of humor (though please no inappropriate or cringey jokes). If you’re writing a thriller, give your query a sense mystery and urgency. You can learn more about how to write a great query letter with my free download Want To Get Published? The #1 Tip to Improve Your Writing Fast.
YOUR QUERY IS TRYING TOO HARD
I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Flowery prose or cryptic turns of phrase does not a good query make. Agents can tell when you’re trying too hard to sound “serious” and “literary” and it doesn’t gain you any brownie points. In fact, it actually has the opposite effect than intended. I also recommend staying far away from gimmicks.
Do not write your query using your own made-up fantasy language, or in the voice of your main character or presented as a redacted CIA document. They don’t work, it makes it harder for the agent to glean the important elements of your novel, and it looks immature and unprofessional.
Finally, there’s the stalker-author, who tries to convince the agent they’re worth taking on by being unintentionally creepy. Such as the man I mentioned earlier who sent an agent I worked under hand-written notecards, or another solicitor who claimed that he and an agent at my firm were destined to be together because their auras were aligned. This is more likely to result in a restraining order than a manuscript request.
YOU COME OFF AS HAUTY AND ENTITLED
Your query should not be all about you. It’s about your book. Whether it’s because they’re afraid agents won’t pay them attention if they don’t seem like a VIP or they simply have a vastly overinflated sense of their own talent, some writers approach agents with their nose in the air.
I’ve read queries where the author says things such as: “it would be your honor to represent my book” or “if you play your cards right, maybe we can work together.” An agent choosing to take on your book is an honor and a privilege, not the other way around. Disrespecting them by implying that they’d be lucky to have you will send your query right to the trash.
Singing your own praises will also get you nowhere, and makes you look either very naïve or an ego-maniac. Refrain from calling your book a “sure-fire bestseller” or the next “insert very famous author here.” Who knows, perhaps your book will be a huge hit, but keep in mind that every author thinks they’re Charles Dickens reincarnate and declaring so is the definition of counting your chickens before they hatch.
Agents also don’t want to hear about how great your friends or family or beta readers thought your book was. At the end of the day, unless those people were editors or work in the publishing industry, their opinions mean nothing to them. The last place where people tend to go off the rails is on the paragraph(s) about themselves. Some authors can go on and on about their writing history, their life story, and how great they are.
It’s supposed to be a brief author’s bio, not an entire biography. Mention your education, where you live, your employment, any previous publications and a fun tidbit about yourself. That is truly all they need to know.
Query letters are very difficult, and sometimes no matter how hard you try you can’t get it just right. I’ve studied what makes query letters fail or succeed for the past four years, and use this expertise to craft a query that is sure to grab an agent by the lapels and can result in more requests for your manuscript. See my Services page for more information on my Agent Prep package.