During my years as a literary agent for both screenwriters and book authors, I received query letters by the thousands. Even small literary agencies are so overwhelmed by the influx that young, inexperienced interns weed through query letters from prospective authors before the agents even see those few “diamonds in the rough” with a chance at getting published.
So how do you become one of those agent-represented diamonds (or, at the least, get agents to request your full manuscript)? I could advise you at length, and will in the future, but for now here are ten query letter tips--some dos, some don’ts--to get you on track toward the representation and publication of your manuscript. These apply to letters directly to publishers, too--but make sure the publisher accepts submissions that don’t come through agents.
1) Leave out the bells and whistles.
Your words count, not your ability to suck up. (That counts only in person.) Your query letter should appear professional and mature: It should not be on pink stationery covered in hearts and flowers. It should not include candy--would you eat food mailed to you by a complete stranger? If you include a chapter of your manuscript (and don’t include more unless they ask), refrain from binding it in any way. The agency will only get annoyed when they try to photocopy it. Put that effort into the prose of your letter, and agents will want to see the prose of your book.
2) Proofread it.
That does not mean use SpellCheck. It means you and your friend and your friend’s friends should read it for typos and incorrect grammar. A single mistake will land it in a literary agent’s recycling bin.
3) Include a SASE (stamped, self-addressed envelope).
Why not make it as easy as possible for them to respond? It’s common book industry practice, and you’ll appear unprofessional and/or cheap if you don’t.
4) Include a synopsis, but keep it brief.
If an agent is going to represent you, they’ll need a pitch to throw at potential publishers. Both species have short attention spans. Give them the important and unique stuff about plot and characters, not a scene-by-scene rundown.
5) Do your homework.
Consult the "Jeff Herman Guide," the agency’s website, or any other reference that tells you what types of books they’ve sold. If they specialize in chick lit and romance, don’t bother pitching your political thriller--or, if you do, play up the love story within it.
Seems obvious. But you’d be amazed at how many people handwrite query letters. Perhaps they think it’s more personal and will make them stand out. It isn’t, and it won’t. It’ll just make the agent doubt your professionalism and strain his/her eyes trying to decipher your handwriting.
7) Get the agent’s name right.
You’d also be amazed at how many letters I got addressed to someone at a different agency, or with my name spelled wrong, or the name of my agency spelled wrong. Carelessness is not impressive. And while agents know you’re pitching your manuscript to other agents, they don’t want to feel as if they’re getting a form letter.
8) Don’t make it a form letter.
Sure, it takes time to personalize, and you don’t need to go overboard and ask how Literary Agent Smith’s three daughters are, but this is another way homework can help. Find a book they’ve represented that’s similar to yours and tell them you truly enjoyed it. One sentence--then go into the form letter part.
9) Don’t compare your manuscript to bestsellers.
It’s not "The Da Vinci Code" meets "The Devil Wears Prada." It’s not the perfect vehicle for Harrison Ford and Nicole Kidman. If you want, mention other books by way of genuine comparison, or suggest an actor to help paint a picture of a character. But leave out the overblown marketing predictions.
10) If you’ve written 18 unpublished manuscripts, don’t say so. That’ll only make agents ask why none of the 18 have been published. On the other hand, if you’ve had as much as a short story published in your college’s literary journal, mention that. Published = good. Unpublished = irrelevant.
Lisa Silverman works in the copyediting department at a legendary New York book publishing house. She is also a freelance editor, ghostwriter, and former literary agent. She founded http://www.BeYourOwnEditor.com
to provide free advice to aspiring authors on both writing and the book industry.