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Query Letters and Literary Agents, The Basics


This is a quick course describing the query process for beginning authors and a nice refresher for you old pros.  This is not a complete list, just a quick reference.


Why write a query letter?
Unless you already know a literary agent, book publisher, famous author, or are extremely lucky, a query letter is your best chance to get your foot into the publishing business.


What is a query letter?
A query letter is a ONE PAGE professional letter describing your book and yourself to a literary agent.  If the literary agent is interested in your book, he/she will typically write back and request that you send a portion or completed manuscript, which he/she will then read and evaluate.  If he/she likes the manuscript and thinks it has potential to sell, the literary agent may offer

Some literary agents may request that you include the first few pages of your manuscript or a separate synopsis with your query, but that is strictly up to the individual literary agent.


What goes into a query letter?

  • Your manuscript's title.
  • Word count.
  • Genre.
  • A short synopsis.
  • Any writing related credits you may have such as previous publications or contest awards.
  • The reason why you have chosen to query this particular literary agent.


What does NOT go into a query letter?

  • How much your mother, brother, uncle, neighbor liked the book.
  • How often you have queried.
  • Never mention you have never been published (they probably know that already.)
  • Never mention this is your first book (they know that, too.)
  • Don't tell them how great the book is; let your writing speak for itself.
  • Don't tell them how much money your book is sure to make; it's their job to determine that.


What is the perfect query letter?
No one knows.  Every literary agent seems to have their own idea of what makes a perfect query letter.  Some like quirky and clever, some like professional and reserved (most lean towards professional and reserved, so use quirky sparingly).  But even the literary agents who have very specific ideas of what they do or do not like will often highlight and praise a query that breaks the rules they themselves set down.  So, what does this mean for you?  It means there is no easy answer.  Your best bet is to read as many sample query letters as you can find, pick the style you like best and give it a try.


Some very informative articles about writing a query letter.


There are many literary agents who keep blogs and will often post examples of good or bad query letters.  Here are a few of them:


Why do I need to research an agent?  Can't I just pick one?
You research a literary agent for a few important reasons.

  • To make sure the literary agent is legitimate and not one of the many crooked literary agents out there just trying to steal your hard earned money.
  • To make sure the literary agent is a good match for you and your book.  If you write fantasy, you don't want to query a literary agent who only represents true crime novels and How-To books (hopefully these do not describe the same book).  You want to find a literary agent who has shown interest in the type of books you write.
  • When querying a literary agent, it is a good idea to mention previous clients or books that the agent has represented, and explain why your work is similar to theirs.  This tells the literary agent that your book is something they will like since they liked the same thing in the past.  So, while researching a literary agent, you should be on the lookout for this sort of thing.

 

How do I research a literary agent?
There are many very useful resources online for researching literary agents, but my advice is to never trust any single one of them, and that includes QueryTracker.  The information changes too fast for any one site to keep up with it, and any site that says they do are either lying or they just don't understand.  That said, there are a few very good websites that should always be checked when you are researching a literary agent. 

  • Of course, QueryTracker.net should be your first stop, but that goes without saying.
  • The website of the literary agent.  Not all agencies have their own websites, but many do.  Any information posted on an agency website takes precedence over anything you've read anyplace else.  Again, this includes QueryTracker, but I would appreciate being informed if you should find an agency website which disagrees with QueryTracker so I can update our information.  If available, QueryTracker's agent pages will contain links to that agent's website.
  • AgentQuery.com contains very extensive information about literary agents, and is a must for agent research.  For your convenience, QueryTracker has provided a direct link from the agent's page on QueryTracker to that literary agent's profile on AgentQuery (when available).
  • Publisher's Marketplace will contain information about the literary agent, previous sales, and current deals. Again, QueryTracker will preload the search for you so all you have to do is click the Quick Research link on that agent's page.
  • The Association of Author's Representatives.  Find out if the literary agent is a member.  Membership means the agent is held to a strict Canon of Ethics.  Not all legitimate literary agents are members of the AAR, but if a literary agent is a member you can relax.
  • Preditors and Editors.  This is an industry watch group.  They list thousands of literary agents, good and bad.  What you want to do here is make sure the literary agent is not listed with a "Not Recommended" flag.  A dollar sign next to an agent's name means he/she has a track record for selling books for publication.

Each literary agent's profile on QueryTracker contains Quick Research Links for each of the above websites. The search information is already embedded in the links so all you have to do is click and go.  


How best to send my query? E-Mail or Snail-Mail?
Each individual literary agent is different.  Some only accept E-Mail, some Snail-Mail, and some both.  Some will even have submission forms on their websites where you enter your query letter into their form for immediate delivery.  See the agent's website, QueryTracker, and AgentQuery.com to determine the submission preferences of each literary agent.


How do I avoid being scammed by an unscrupulous agent?
First rule is never pay a literary agent.  Money flows towards the author, not away. No matter how much the literary agent tells you that you'll be a famous bestseller, don't believe him.  If the literary agent says you'll get the money back right after publication, don't believe him.

Another rule is that if the literary agent has to advertise (either online or in print) they are more than likely a scam.  Real literary agents have so many submissions already they do not need to advertise.

You should also become very familiar with everything said on Writer's Beware,
Preditors & Editors - a comprehensive list of literary agents
and read through this topic on the QueryTracker forum - How to spot a scam literary agent.