How to write a query letter for a literary agent

Since I had the benefit of Penguin’s WriteNow insight day in Newcastle last week, including dissecting query/cover letters with literary agents, I thought I’d share what I learnt. I’m not claiming this is a definitive summary but I hope it’s useful.

The biggest lesson to take away was: agents are people too. You might think that’s obvious, but it’s easy to elevate them into some godlike figure in your mind, as you sit there redrafting the synopsis for the eightieth time. They’re gatekeepers, yes, but they’re also dedicated, enthusiastic readers who (bear this in mind as you press send and immediately start getting impatient for a response) read manuscripts in their spare time, at evenings and weekends when they might prefer to be with their family. They have their off-days, they’re subjective, and they respond well to politeness. Don’t be rude, don’t waste their time, and remember that a rejection only means they couldn’t see themselves championing your book in the face of indifference, it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.

Before you even get as far as writing that letter, you need to have finished your manuscript. If they love those first three chapters and ask for the rest they don’t want to be told they can have it just as soon as you’ve finished. It could take you a year (you might even run out of steam and never get there) and the space in their list has been filled in the meantime, or their needs have moved on.

Take the time and trouble to check the agent’s name, don’t address your letter to the long-deceased person the agency was named after in the fifties. Be polite but (British authors take note) not too humble or self-deprecating; under-selling yourself is as big a turn-off as over-selling and arrogance. Don’t try to be funny, quirky or cute – think of it like a job application.

Write a mini-synopsis like a back-cover blurb in your letter, to hook them into wanting to read your sample chapters. Remember you’re pitching one particular book at them, don’t cloud the issue by listing future/half-baked projects.

Tell them a tiny bit about yourself, particularly anything relevant such as a job that feeds into your novel, or that you’ve had stories published in anthologies or magazines. You can give them your social media and website details, but don’t expect them to go look there (it’s not a substitute for telling them the necessary stuff in the letter) and think about whether you want to point them at a Twitter account full of ranting. If you’ve self-published a book say so, but don’t try and twist it to make it sound like someone else published you.

It’s fine to say you’re approaching a particular agent because of who else they represent, particularly if you can say your novel fits well alongside them. However, be sincere – when you say you love the work of Client X, remember the agent loves the work of Client X so much they took them on and touted their book around editors, so will understandably be cheesed off if they find out you were lying.

Do not stalk the agent on social media.

If you haven’t heard anything after 8 weeks or so, a polite email is acceptable. Agents spend their working lives chasing editors so they understand that authors need to chase them sometimes. Do not phone them, or turn up at their office building.

They expect you to have sent your submission out to a handful of agents at once, but make sure you keep them updated (again, a polite email) if another agent requests the full manuscript or offers representation.

The Penguin WriteNow webpages have got some useful information, including the cover letter that a (now) bestselling author used when she landed herself an agent. An author I spoke to on the day recommended Miss Snark’s blog, discontinued in 2007 but still accessible as a searchable archive, it’s kind of an agony aunt format where the anonymous literary agent Miss Snark answers questions about manuscripts and submissions. This week on Twitter, a couple of useful links have been doing the rounds too: Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, shares her successful cover letter here and her agent Juliet Mushens writes about how to approach an agent here, and why you don’t get an instant response here. There’s another cover letter, from Louise Jensen, here.

Good luck, and thanks to the agents at WriteNow for sharing their time and expertise.

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