Part 2: How to Query an Agent
If you’re an author who’s decided to go trad instead of indie, you will first need to compile a list of likely agents to represent you. To find out how, see Part 1 of this article, How to Find an Agent.
After putting together your list of agents – and after researching them – you will need to send a query letter. This letter tells the agents about your work and asks them to represent you to publishers. This is called “the query-go-round.” It’s a long process, so if you have your heart set on traditional publishing, prepare to be patient. Before you embark on this ride, have ready a complete, polished-’til-it-shines manuscript in case an agent asks to see it. If you get a “request for full” and you then have to admit that your novel isn’t quite finished, don’t expect to be taken seriously as an author because you’ve just wasted everyone’s time. And by the way, please do not refer to your work as a “fiction novel” (a novel is by definition fiction.) This is a neon sign to the agent that you’re an amateur.
How to write a query letter. The one thing every agent expects to see from you is a query letter. Agents do not have time to read anything other than the basics:
- If you can, mention anything that will explain why you chose her/him to query (e.g., you follow his blog, read an article about him, met him at conference, etc.;)
- The title, genre, and word count of your manuscript;
- A brief description (i.e., the hook) of your novel;
- Your writing credentials, if any (e.g., previous published work, a degree or experience in journalism, etc.) and anything that uniquely qualifies you to have authored your book (e.g., perhaps it’s set in Japan where you grew up, your short story won an award in the mystery category of Big Deal Contests magazine, etc.)
- Close by thanking the agent for his time, adding that you look forward to hearing from him.
- Send exactly what the agent wants to see of your writing by following his submission guidelines (that we spoke about in Part 1.) Don’t exceed one page. Don’t be cutesy with elaborate font changes or adorable emoticons. Don’t use gimmicks like, YOU could have an EXCLUSIVE, ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME-CHANCE to represent the NEXT JOHN GRISHAM, but you MUST ACT NOW! Agents simply do not have the time and won’t put up with the aggravation. Besides, you want them to spend their time reading your query and asking for more.
- That’s it, other than your name, address, and phone number.
- Note: if you are querying an agent who prefers snail-mail submissions, be sure to enclose a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope). An email query should have “QUERY:” in all caps followed by your book’s title.
Many sites have advice on how to write a query letter. I recommend Agent Query’s information because it’s comprehensive and includes samples of actual, successful queries. Another good source is author and former agent Nathan Bransford’s site.
An invaluable source for query-letter Do’s and Don’ts, among other goodies, is the inimitable literary agent Janet Reid, a/k/a the Query Shark. The first link contains bountiful advice and observations based on her considerable expertise and experience in the publishing industry. The second link, Query Shark, is where she critiques your proposed query letters (yes, really!)
Although composing a query letter to a literary agent may seem simple, it’s really an art (some would say a dark art.) Take plenty of time to sculpt this work. You have this single chance to impress an agent enough to want to see the full ms right away, or at least a partial. That’s a tough job because some agents can receive hundreds of queries a day. Actually, it’s common for agents to have assistants cull through the query tsunami first. Let’s put it another way: you’re competing to be noticed in an ocean of clamoring wannabes. Be the one who stands out as a professional whose query and accompanying writing sample are crafted as works of art.