Tackling The Problem of the Agent Query Letter

I agree Charlie, I completely agree...There are no guarantees in the world of writing.

You may feel after completing that dream novel that you are standing in a packed football stadium ready to kick the field goal. And this should be an easy one! You already did the hard work bringing the ball this close down the field, right? That was those hours writing and outlining and planning until late in the morning. And in all of your dreams, this part of the writing career was easy. It always is. The field goal is right there!

The sad thing is that in reality the holder with the ball is a little bit like Lucy from Peanuts. Which makes you something akin to Charlie Brown.

Now before you lose hope with that analogy, let me remind you that Charlie Brown actually did get to kick the football once or twice. Granted, one of those times was in a TV special and he was invisible thanks to Snoopy and some happenstance magic. But that is how things sometimes work in the world of literature as well. Sometimes you need that bit of luck… or a dog with a magic wand.

The first step to achieving your dream, the field goal, is getting that agent. They are the gatekeepers to the big publishing houses. Here are some suggestions to consider before you start running up to the ball.

Follow Their Instructions!

Some agency sites are a little too “marketing,” some a little too grand, and a few are just a simple page. Whatever the case, agents have joined us on the web; and agents, just like everyone else, don’t want their time wasted.

I mean, stop for a second and consider the amount of query letters/e-mails they get a day! It’s got to be monstrous, exhausting. And I’m sure at times that all of the requests must blur together into one big mess of a story (I’m guessing that literary soup would be about a romantic vampire with mother issues who just wants to prove himself in the world).

So one of the great things about the internet is usually on their sites (or via an author support site like agentquery.com) agents will tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for. They might even state when they are considering submissions and when they are not.

Also, to make it even easier, they might have a form to fill out (as compared to preparing a letter or e-mail), or they might breakdown in detail what they want in the query (for example, synopsis, ten pages or so of the beginning of the book, etc.). Whatever the case- listen to them!

The agent went to the trouble of explaining their interests and putting those instructions on their page for a reason.

Yes, your writing instinct may be to do something that sticks you out from the mass of other writers, be cute, scream that you are awesome! You are not alone in this desire and it won’t work. You are not the writer that is going to convince them to check out a genre they have no interest in. Throw cute aside and give the agent exactly what they want if you can.

Think of these instructions and explanations as the first part of a test. Did you follow the instructions correctly? Good, you passed. Your query might be read.

If you want the agent to work on your book, show that you will work with them.

You didn’t write Ulysses…

…nor do you want to.

The literary world's great torturerTrust me, as important as Ulysses is, even James Joyce would have trouble finding an agent or a publisher for that opus today. Before people look at that as a complaint of our current readers and publishers, remember he had trouble publishing it even in his day!

Your book may be filled with literary greatness, chock full of things that English majors love (like symbolism, I love symbolism). But what an agent wants to read in the query letter is not the hyperbole but a brief description of the story. This is not the back cover you imagine (even though that might be a good starting point). This is a description in a few sentences. Capture the journey of your character. Don’t hint or tease, just break it down simply.

The query letter is just that… a query. If they decide to read the book after the letter, they can discover Ulysses then.

Don’t oversell, just give them the heart of your book.

Compare… but not too much.

While we like to imagine publishing offices filled with fellow writers and readers looking for the next great novel to share, we need to turn that daydream down a little bit. The fact is publishing is a business, and many times the decisions are made by those looking at the bottom line.

Of course, they might make an occasional publishing deal for the sake of recognition and bragging that they published a certain award-winning book (keep a certain artistic quota); chances are, their everyday focus will be more on books that can bring in money.

Agents know this about publishers, and most of the time their decisions are made on what they can sell. An agency is a business too. And while some know what publishers are looking for at a given time, chances are they are looking at the same bestselling lists that we are, seeing what is catching the public’s fancy.

(On a side note: I wish the literary world wasn’t like this. I really do. I wish it was run by artistic merit and the groundbreaking books were the bestsellers, lining the airport bookstores. But we have all been to airports, we know what is selling in paperbacks and on Amazon. I’m not saying anyone needs to “dumb” down their work or do something “pop,” I am just recommending a grain of salt especially in deciding what is the right path for your book if you want to go down the more traditional paths. Realistic expectations. But don’t worry, there is a place for all kinds of book, odd to even genre-focused, you just need to research where and who might be best to represent it.)

One trick writers will do in query letters is compare one’s book to a popular one already out. This is a good idea and a bad idea.

  • It is a good idea because it will help an agent see what you are aiming for in a story and also the potential for it in the market.
  • It is a bad idea, because it immediately burdens your work with expectations that your work may or may not achieve.

So what’s my advice?

In describing your work, discuss the readership that might like it (think about the book you might compare your work to as a starting point), maybe talk about influences or inspiration. Make your work special but also in your introduction, consider the market, and hint on other works like it…. and do NOT do the “It’s like this book meets this book” description.

In the end, your book needs to stand on it’s own.

Build your resume.

Getting an agent is like applying for a job.

How do you get a job? The simplest answer is you convince an HR person on your resume that they should pay attention to you. Which means you have you the experience and education for the opening available.

Same goes for writing.

Yes, we all know the holy grail story of the unknown discovered and then made into a literary superhero. But that is honestly rare.

Get the degrees, enter the writing competitions and win a few, get some short stories published! (The last one is easy to do in today’s world, as long as you don’t expect to get paid. Numerous short story supplements are now online and looking for stories. Heck, I had a collection of short stories published just last year- Upon The Ground.)

Everything you can add to your resume will convince the agent you are worth their time. You are something more than just a great pitch. And when you write your query letter, you need to present this background material there in a paragraph about you. Make them realize you are worth their time.

More than your book is looking for representation!

Are you online?

The fact is if you have a good website, a strong presence on Twitter or other social media sites, an agent will see you as a lot less work than a writer who doesn’t. You are obviously a writer already fighting for their career!

Social media has become an extension of the query letter. And if you have that presence it should be mentioned in your letter. How many followers? How many people read your site? What are the numbers? Etc.

Also, social media could give an agent an insight into your writing style, your hopes, your personality, your interactions with readers, especially if you have a popular blog.

A Jane Austen DaydreamA well-run blog, for example, can tell them a lot, make you more than just another few paragraphs in a letter. Heck, there are some writers whose careers were built out of blogs! You never know who might read one of your posts! (Hello, have I told you about my new novel Permanent Spring Showers that needs representation? Or my recently published novel A Jane Austen Daydream? You see what I mean?)

Now there is no guarantee that an agent will be interested in you when you send in that query. A writer has to expect negative responses, many of them. But that doesn’t mean your writing career has to wait. Start a blog (this post can help with some writing ideas), get on Twitter. All of this will help sell you in the letter and could give the agent something to discover if they go online for more information.

Your writing career can begin before the agent sends the contract.

There are many writers who will tell you today to skip agents and traditional publishers. They will argue that the future is in self-publishing (some will call it “indie” but they are using the term incorrectly; self-publishing is not indie publishing). That may be true, but we are not there yet.

How do I know?

Try to get a self-published book on a bookstore shelf, schedule a reading at your local store, or convince your library to stock it. Trust me. You will learn the truth pretty fast.

When you self-publish all of the marketing falls on your shoulders, and usually the only places you will be able to find to market your book are sites that focus on just self-published book. So, chances are, you are just promoting your book to other writers who are only getting the e-mails and notices because they used the service in the past themselves. That is no guarantee that they will read your book.

Take the time to try and get an agent, and take the time to write the best query letter you can. When done show it to some fellow writers for their input. And really, after all of the work you put into your opus, doesn’t it at least deserve a chance at the big time?

Try for the agent! Kick the pigskin,Charlie Brown!

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

6 thoughts on “Tackling The Problem of the Agent Query Letter

  1. Pingback: Do you need an agent? | The Proof Angel

  2. Pingback: Looking For a Literary Agent… | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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