When You Query an Agent By Barbara Doyen
This article was originally published in 1990 in The Writer magazine. Although slanted towards fiction queries, it also is informative for nonfiction.
“An agent’s first impression of the author’s writing ability comes from the query letter. . .”
“Agents are always on the lookout for good writers as they scan the piles of mail each day. . .”
YOU’VE WRITTEN THE GREAT AMERICAN BESTSELLER. You think you need an agent. How do you get an agent interested in you?
Rule #1: Write, Don’t Call!
Incredible as it seems, agents get an amazing number of pointless calls from inarticulate would-be clients. A typical phone call goes like this:
PROUD AUTHOR: “I’ve written a novel I’d like to send you. . .
AGENT: (Wondering why he didn’t write a query): “What kind of novel is it?”
PROUD AUTHOR: “A fictional novel.” (Unfortunately, this conversation is verbatim!)
Approach an agent by phone only if there are compelling and unusual reasons for doing so. (For instance, you are a big celebrity.) An unwarranted phone call is likely to be met with irritation. And irritation doesn’t get you the representation you seek.
If you do feel justified in calling on the phone (or in person), have an organized outline of what you’ll say in mind (or better yet, on paper as you speak) so that you don’t waste the agent’s time.
Rule #2: Send a Well-Written Query Letter
An agent’s first impression of the author’s writing ability comes from the query letter. Too often, those first impressions leave much to be desired. As an agent, I’ve read lots of poorly written letters that usually bring a hasty “thanks but no thanks” response and are quickly sent to the Dead File.
To avoid the Dead File Fate, a query letter should include:
- Who you are.
- Why you should be considered as a potential client.
- What is the basic idea/theme of your book (preferably summarized in a single sentence, followed by further elaboration in the same paragraph.)
- Why your book is different from or better than the others in print on the same or similar subject.
- Any qualifications/hobbies/experiences that qualify you to write this book. Don’t be modest and don’t give your life history. Details should be relevant to the book for which you are seeking representation.
- Your writing credentials (previous publications and awards) putting the most impressive one first. Elaborate on your publication credits if your book sold well, were picked up by a book club, reprinted, translated, made into film, earned a big advance, were well-reviewed, etc. Also specify your membership in any professional writers organizations.
- SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) please! It’s standard practice. Have the postage affixed, not loose. (Obviously, this does not apply to email queries.)
Ten Query Letter Pointers
1) Make the query brief and to the point.
The letter should be one page (two maximum.)
2) Make it friendly and lively.
Talk naturally. Get the agent excited by your style as well as your content. Humor, if appropriate, is a real plus, but don’t be flip.
3) Make the agent want more. Show that your idea is sound and marketable.
Make the agent believe in you.
4) Be as business-like as possible.
- The paper. Don’t rush out to order blatant “author” letterhead stationery; it is the mark of an amateur. A good quality white typing paper (20-lb. with rag content) is fine. And always type a query letter with single spacing, double-spacing between paragraphs. Never submit handwritten material.
- The return address. You’d be amazed at how many people forget to include their return address!
- The salutation (tips follow)
–Address your letter “Dear Agent.” This gives the impression that you are sending out form letters, or that you haven’t done your homework. Find a name, which should be easy research online.
–Address the agent by first name. It is a breach of business etiquette, and is unprofessional. (This might be a bit more relaxed now, over two decades after this was originally written.)
–Assume the agent is a man or woman when you don’t know. Invariably, you’ll guess wrong.
–Cover all gender bases. (“Dear Mr. or Ms. . .” or worse yet, “Dear Mr., Mrs., or Ms. . .”)
–Misspell the agent’s name. SOLUTION: Use the agent’s full name in the greeting, correctly spelled, ignoring gender. (“Dear B. J. Doyen:”)
5) Write a powerful, compelling first sentence
Real-life examples of first sentences and my reactions:
“For the past three years, my assignments for the international press included coverage on many of todays (sic) hottest celebrities.” (Great, except for minor errors. It gives me information about the author and leads into his book’s topic, which involves celebrities.)
“I have recently completed a children’s novel entitled My Great Children’s Novel, for which I am seeking representation. (Not inspired, since many thousands send me letters opening this way each year. Other problems include: saying things that don’t need to be said and querying me for something I no longer represent.)
“Except for stories and poems written for my college magazine and a brief venture into the greeting card industry writing verses, I am an unpublished writer.” (A weak opening. Start strong, on a positive note.)
“Perhaps we can get together, whereby your professional services may be mutually beneficial.” (This fact is so obvious it doesn’t need to be stated, particularly in such a wordy fashion.)
“As you’ll probably be able to tell, I am no English major. As a matter of fact, that was my worst subject. The only reason I write at all is because I get bored and have nothing else to do.” (If English is your weakness, get someone competent to proof your copy, even if you have to pay for it. And agents are looking for clients who are serious about their literary careers, not writing out of boredom.)
6) Tips for the content of the letter.
If you do not have previous publication credits or strong writing credentials, talk about the book first:
–Describe it. What kind of book is it? (Young adult, romance, spy thriller, etc.)
–Include the plot and theme, but don’t necessarily identify it as such. Be brief.
–Possibly compare your book to some already published novel. (“Written in the style of Stephen King,” or “in the vein of Arthur Hailey.”) Be careful not to overstate it–you’re emulating Stephen King, not copying him.
–Do not describe your manuscript in subjective terms (My book is well-written/wonderful/enthralling/better than Gone with the Wind; all my family and friends say it’s great; you’re going to love it, etc.) unless the description comes from a good outside source.
For example, one of my clients has an endorsement from a major author, another client has a glowing letter from a Pulitzer Prize winner–and an agent would be very much interested in what these notables have to say about a potential client’s book. You can also mention if someone referred you to the agency–but be careful not to say another client recommended you unless you have their permission to do so.
7) Other tips
–Errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage are no-no’s!
–Delete as many “I”s on the page as possible. Rephrase sentences to avoid repeating “I” this or that.
–Show some personality and writing style.
–Don’t sound desperate (I’m going to lose my house if you don’t represent me”) or defensive (“As this is my first attempt at writting [sic], I apologize if I have not done it right.”)
–If you’ve previously met the agent, briefly mention where and when.
8) Things you should never say.
“My novel is really VERY good!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received this claim. Sometimes authors write back (or even worse, call) to argue about how great their book is after I have read and rejected it.
“I have sent this story to 159 other agents, but they all rejected it. Would you like to see it?” (This is an exact quote from a letter arriving in my office last week.)
“I’ve never been published, but I know about writing because I have a college English major.” (Degrees do not necessarily make a writer.)
“I need an objective opinion of my work. Would you read my story and give me constructive advice so I can send it on to a publisher?” (Note there is no expressed desire to become a client—and this kind of person always expects free advice! Legitimate agents do not criticize non-client work, so if you do get a written paragraph or two, be grateful for the help.)
9) End with a polite call to action.
–Offer to send the partial or complete manuscript and include SASE for response. (Obviously, SASE is not needed for email submissions.)
I received the following from an otherwise likely prospective client: “I have never sent SASE to someone trying to sell me something. . .” He’s got it backwards; he should be selling me. And this author claimed to be a published pro. Needless to say, we turned him down. Some people are more trouble than they are worth.
10) Be sure to say thank you.
It’s only good manners, but you’d be surprised how many people forget these simple words.
Post Query Letter Pointers
If you get a positive response, but the agent writes a poor letter, or one with several typos, grammatical errors, etc., hesitate. Just as an agent assesses what the quality of your manuscript will be by the quality of your query letter, so should you judge the quality of the agent’s professionalism by the response letter; that is an indication of how you’ll be represented.
If you get a professional, positive response, your query letter was successful! Do exactly as instructed: If you are asked to send the first 50 pages, send the first 50 pages, not the first 25 and the last 25, and not all 823. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped postcard so the agent can acknowledge receipt of your manuscript (if sent by snail mail.)
Agents are always on the lookout for good writers as they scan the piles of mail each day, hoping to discover an exciting letter. A ho-hum query almost always means a ho-hum manuscript. A sparkling, well-written query letter doesn’t guarantee that an agent will take your book. But it does guarantee that he or she will be eager to give it full consideration.
And you’ll be certain that your letter will never end up in the Dead File!
Copyright 1990, 2006, 2009 by Barbara Doyen. All rights reserved.