Here’s how to write a query letter that is good enough to get a literary agent’s (The Query Shark Janet Reid’s) attention. These 15 tips for pitching your book idea or manuscript are from the agent who created a whale of a blog called Query Shark.
I first met literary agent Janet Reid at the Surrey International Writers Conference, way back when we were dodging dinosaurs. Reid sat on a panel of book publishers, editors, and literary agents; I sat in the audience. They discussed the most important things writers need to know about getting a literary agent and becoming a published book author; I took copious amounts of notes. I summarized their conversation in 17 Reasons Manuscripts are Rejected by Book Publishers and Editors
In this article, I share 15 little-known tips for writers who know successful query letters are (usually) the first and most important step to getting their book published. Here, you’ll learn not only on how to get a literary agent, but how to write query letters that sing like a stuck pig.
These query letter writing tips are from a podcast called DIY MFA, founded by writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed word nerd Gabriela Pereira. I was mesmerized by her conversation with Janet Reid (henceforth the “Query Shark”) on how to write a query letter – and how to get a literary agent – that I listened to it not once, but twice. And I don’t even want to write query letters or get literary agents! I just love to learn, and I love sharing tips that help writers succeed.
Here I summarize the best tips from the Query Shark herself. This is not a transcript of the entire discussion; to listen to the full episode, go to Gabriela’s How to Write a Killer Query – Interview with Janet Reid.
The Shark’s Advice for Writing Query Letters to Literary Agents
A query letter is basically a cover letter to your book, designed to get a literary agent’s attention and make her curious enough to ask for the full manuscript (fiction) or book proposal (nonfiction).
1. Know the purpose of your query letter
“Your query letter is an introduction of both you as the writer and your manuscript,” says the Query Shark. “It’s the place where you tell me what your book is about and a little bit about yourself. The purpose of the query letter is twofold: 1) to entice the literary agent to read the first couple of pages of your novel; and 2) to demonstrate that you the writer are serious about writing and getting your book published.”
Elements of a query letter:
- The category or genre your book falls into.
- The word count.
- A little bit about you as the author, such as your credentials for writing the book (if it’s nonfiction) and whether you’ve been published before.
The query letter is a brief one-page introduction to both you as the author and to the work you are submitting for publication.
2. Learn why good query letters are important
The reason writers can’t just send literary agents their full novels or book proposals is because the manuscript doesn’t have your biography, word count, or genre.
“A novel doesn’t tell me if you’ve been previously published,” says the Query Shark. “It doesn’t tell me anything about you as a person. I need the query letter as a prelude. It’s the overture in a Broadway musical….correctly done it’s very helpful. Poorly done, a query letter can really sabotage you as a writer because if it’s poorly done a literary agent won’t read your manuscript. You really want an agent to read the first 3 to 5 pages that you’ve included with your query letter, and ask to see the rest of the manuscript or novel.”
She adds that her purpose with Query Shark (the blog) is to help writers get out of their own way. She critiques fiction queries online, out there in public for the world to see. How does this help a writer learn how to get a literary agent? By showing them exactly where and how they lose the agent’s attention.
3. Know that a query letter is more than just getting a literary agent
Despite all the books and blogs and articles on how to get a literary agent, there are some basic things that most writers don’t know about submitting query letters to literary agents.
Not only is the goal of a query letter to make the literary agent want to read the full novel or manuscript, it’s also a good foundation for the publication of your book. A good query letter is used far beyond the query stage.
According to the Query Shark, a good query letter often serves as:
- The backbone of the literary agent’s pitch letter to editors at a publishing house.
- The cover copy when the book gets sold and published.
- How writers talk about their books when people ask what they write about.
So then, what advice does this literary agent have on how to write a good query letter?
4. Quit looking for a formula for writing a “good” query letter
“It’s almost impossible to define a good query letter because each one is individual,” says the Query Shark.
“On [the blog] Query Shark, I teach writers how to avoid making the most common mistakes that writers make when sending query letters to literary agents. Often, writers tell me how much they like to write and give me background into their own history. Really, though, all I need to know what the novel is about, where it sits in a bookstore shelf, and what category or genre it’s in.”
She adds that query letters are as different from each other as books are. “You need to know what the rules for writing query letters are so you can break them on purpose,” says this literary agent. “There are a lot of really good queries that don’t follow the model demonstrated on the Query Shark blog. But if you know what the model is based on – such as the fact that you have to get some plot on the page – then you can do that without following an exact template.”
5. Be creative only after you know the rules for writing queries
This is one of the oldest writing tips in the book: only when you know the rules for writing can you successfully break them. An astute literary agent can tell when a writer is trying too hard to be creative to get her attention, versus a writer who actually knows how to write a query letter and how to break those rules.
“Only by knowing the fundamentals can you actually exercise some creativity,” says the Query Shark. “The fundamentals are: what the book is about, who the main character is, what problem the main character has or what that main character wants, and what’s keeping her from getting it. What’s at stake? That’s how a reader creates tension. You want to entice a literary agent to read the rest of the book. The question you want an agent to ask is, ‘What happens next?’”
You don’t want to reveal the entire plot, and you don’t want to reveal too little. This isn’t just a good tip on how to get a literary agent, it’s also keystone to writing good books, articles, blog posts, etc. Give just the right amount of information so that the reader (or literary agent) is curious about what happens next.
6. Omit needless information
Your query letter doesn’t need to tell the agent that you’ve been in love with writing since you were six years old. The Query Shark assumes that you love to write because you’ve written a novel! You don’t have to include information about your pets unless your main character is a shark – in which case this literary agent wants a picture.
Your query letter does not have to be formal or overly businesslike, but it has to be professional. Learn what you need to know about how to get a literary agent, and don’t let your emotions or creativity get the best of you…or you’ll show your worst in your query letter to the agent.
7. See yourself as a valuable member of the publishing community
“I really want writers to feel like they have value,” says the Query Shark, “because if they don’t feel like they have value, then they’ll sign with the first literary agent or publishing deal that comes along. They won’t ask any questions because they’ll feel so grateful to be published. None of those are good business choices, so part of my job as a literary agent is saying to writers that everything you do has value, so try to treat it like that.”
One of a literary agent’s biggest problems is writers who demean themselves and query letters. They say things such as, “I know how busy you literary agents are,” or “I’m sorry to bother you,” or “I know I’m just an unpublished writer, but…”
“Writers, don’t assume that a literary agent is too busy to read your query letter!” says this agent. “Literary agents make their living reading queries and getting your books published – they make their living off the sweat off your brow!
You as the writer are the most important person in the publishing triangle, so don’t demean yourself in your query letter. The entire publishing industry rests on your work, so you must see yourself and your writing as valuable. Writers often see themselves as the bottom of the barrel, but they’re not. They’re the top of the barrel! Writers are valuable and significant in the publishing industry.”
8. Use your query letter to provide pertinent details
The biggest problem the Query Shark is currently seeing is lack of information in the query letter. Writers will describe the book’s setting, character arc, events…but there is no sense of plot or what’s at stake for the characters in the book.
What do your characters want? What can’t they get? What are they blocked from getting? What is the reason they’re blocked from getting it? Writers seem to have a hard time getting that in the page of the query letter.
9. Learn how to get a literary agent
Go to writers’ conferences. Attend online or in-person query writing workshops. Join a good writers’ group. Learn how to give and accept thoughtful critiques of your and others’ writing. Practice writing query letters, both for your book and other novels.
“Writing a good query letter is definitely something you have to practice,” says the Query Shark. “At my Query Writing Workshops I often suggest writing a query letter for a book that is already been published. It’s sometimes easier to to pick a book you love and figure out how – if you were the author – you would’ve queried that novel to get the plot on the page.”
You might also practice writing queries for nonfiction or fiction articles. Here’s the pitch that won me my first article in Reader’s Digest magazine: Sample of a Successful Query Letter to Reader’s Digest.
10. Know your novel’s (single) specific genre or category
According to this query letter, many writers tend to list all the possible categories or genres that a novel can be in.
“For example, writers will describe their novel as a Western with romance plus an element of suspense and it’s also thriller!” says the Query Shark. “That kind of mishmash is not helpful to a literary agent. If anything, it tells the agents that the writer does not understand what category means and he or she certainly doesn’t know what category the novel is in. A novel can’t be a suspense, thriller, Western, and romance all at the same time. You can have elements of all of those categories, but you have to think about where the book is going to sit on a bookstore’s shelf.”
If you don’t know what genre your novel is in, you may need to read more books in each category. One of the Query Shark’s benchmarks is 100 novels.
“You shouldn’t write a novel unless you’ve read 100 novels in the category that you think your book fits,” she says. “That way, you understand the rules of the category. This isn’t to say you have to follow the rules – you can break those rules with grace and style – but you have to know what they are. Libraries are a great place to find booklists in your category or genre. Libraries are even better than bookstores because they contain books that aren’t published anymore, aren’t bestsellers, and aren’t in bookstores or on Amazon.”
11. Reveal your novel’s category at the end of your query letter
Some literary agents ask writers to name the category at the top of their queries. The Query Shark has different advice on how to get a literary agent’s attention…
“Even if a literary agent’s instructions say to put the category in the first sentence in the query letter, I think the category should be in the very last part of the query letter,” she says. “Why? Because if you get the genre wrong and the literary agent doesn’t represent that category, then she will stop reading and reject your novel. But, if she reads your query letter without knowing the category, she may decide for herself the proper category based on your plot, characterization, and story arc. She may then consider your novel to be something she actually represents. But if you’ve already identified your book as a genre that she doesn’t represent, you’ve given her a reason to say no. So, identify the category or genre of your novel, but don’t tell the literary agent until the end of your query letter.”
12. Make sure your query and novel have the same tone of voice
If you’ve written a lighthearted humorous satirical novel on how to get a literary agent, then your query letter should have lighthearted humorous undertones.
If your novel is about the demise of the publishing industry, then your query should have serious and even sombre overtones. The Query Shark reminds writers that comedic or humorous writing can backfire, so be very careful about approaching literary agents with a lighthearted tone. Writing a funny professional query letter may not be the best approach for newbies who are learning how to get a literary agent.
And, fellow scribes, be humble. You may think you know a lot about writing queries, but you may be making new and previously undiscovered mistakes.
“Writers come up with new ways to screw up their query letters every single week,” she says. “It’s absolutely hilarious, except not really. Ten years of talking about query letters [on my Query Shark blog], and writers are still getting them wrong!”
13. If you get a literary agent, be prepared to wait…and wait…and wait…
What happens if a query letter is successful? A lot of writers talk about rejections they get from literary agents, but what happens if a query letter works and your manuscript or novel is requested? And – even better – what happens if the literary agent loves and wants to represent your novel?”
But wait, there’s more.
“It’s not a straightforward line from the literary agent reading your novel to the book getting published,” says the Query Shark. “The first thing that happens is the literary agent will request the full manuscript. Or, if it’s a nonfiction book, the agent will request the book proposal. Then oftentimes there is a delay of up to a year as the agent and writer work on revisions to the proposal or novel.”
She adds that it can also take a couple of months for an literary agent to actually read your full novel – even if she requests and is eager to read it. The Query Shark described how one of her clients sent his query over 1.5 years ago – and she just this week signed him with a publishing house for his book! That was a very long process from query letter to book manuscript to landing a publishing deal. Patience is an important quality for writers learning how to get a literary agent. In that case, agent and writer did about 15 rounds of revisions on the book proposal before the Query Shark decided it was ready to be pitched to editor at a publishing house.
14. Pay attention to literary agents’ blogs and writing contests
“The last novelist I signed was a much quicker process, but even that took close to four months for me to read his novel,” says the Query Shark. “That novelist had a terrible query letter – one of the worst query letters ever! But, that writer had a little ‘in.’ He had won one of the writing contests I ran on my Query Shark blog. He had mentioned it, so I knew he could write.
So even though his query letter was terrible, I knew he was a good writer so I read his manuscript. His book and writing was amazing, and I am glad he mentioned that he won the writing contest on my Query Shark blog. Even so, it took four months of back-and-forth before I offered him representation.”
15. Know that the publishing industry is extremely competitive
The more literary agents you have interested in your novel or book proposal, the faster the material will be read. The higher the interest, the faster things will move (but it’ll still be mostly glacial). If three or four agents have requested your novel or proposal, then it will get read overnight or over the weekend. If there is less interest, then it can take longer for an agent to read it.
“After you get an offer and sign with a literary agent, the glacial process towards publication begins again as she begins to assemble a list of editors and pitch the book to the publishing houses,” says the Query Shark. “They glacial silence ensues as you wait for the editors at the publishers to read the book proposal or manuscript. The publishing industry is run on patience. If you don’t have patience, if you don’t learn how to wait patiently, then publishing is the wrong industry for you.”
Fellow scribes, what say you about the Query Shark’s advice on how to get a literary agent? Comments welcome below!
Here’s another way to improve your queries: ask your fellow writers for feedback. That’s what I did when I posted How Can I Improve on This Query Letter to Literary Agents?
Help Getting a Literary Agent
In Get a Literary Agent- The Complete Guide to Securing Representation for Your Work, Chuck Sambuchino describes how to secure literary representation, get the best possible deal with a traditional publisher, and see your book in print on the shelves (and Amazon!).
Filled with practical, straightforward advice and insider tips, Get a Literary Agent is a one-stop resource for writers of both fiction and nonfiction.
You’ll learn how to:
- Research literary agents and target the best ones for your work
- Navigate the book proposal and novel submission process – from best practices to possible pitfalls
- Craft a polished query letter and pitch your work effectively
- Assemble a book proposal like a professional writer
- Form a lasting partnership with your literary agent
You’ll also gain the advice of more than 100 “Query Sharks” who share their secrets on how to get a literary agent. If you’ve ever wondered what an agent can do for you – and why you need one – this invaluable guide provides the answers.
Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published is a great resource for writers who are ready to look for an agent and need to know what to expect. Query letters, synopses, social media, beta readers – everything is covered – whatever genre your book is in.
The Writer’s Market also includes a comprehensive list of agents and a list of writers’ conferences. The authors and editors share up-to-date hints and strategies on how to get a literary agent – such as the most current ways to use social media platforms to build relationships with people in the publishing industry – as well as advice for fiction and non-fiction proposals, query-writing, synopsis-tweaking, and even how to build a good relationship with your literary agent, editor, and publisher