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15 Things Writers Need to Know About Literary Agents

Here’s what writers need to know about getting a literary agent and signing a book contract with a publisher. Finding the right agent to represent you and your work is one of the most important things you can do as a writer.

How do you sign with a literary agent who believes in you, loves your book, and will help you get published? These tips for finding the right literary agent are from Janet Reid, who runs the Query Shark blog. Learn how to write a query letter, approach agents, and submit your sample chapters or full manuscript.

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 find a literary agent. 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.

15 Questions Writers Ask About Finding Literary Agents

A query letter is a cover letter that describes your book. It’s 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. What is the purpose of a 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. Why do writers send query letters to literary agents?

Writers send queries – instead of complete novels or book proposals – because the manuscript doesn’t contain the word count, genre, or your biography.

“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. What else does a query letter do?

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.

Are You Ready to Submit Your Sample Chapters to a Book Publisher? If so, then you’re ready to seek representation from a literary agent.

15 Things Writers Need to Know About Literary Agents
Tips From the Query Shark – Literary Agent

4. Is there a formula for 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. Can writers be creative when querying agents?

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. What information does not belong in a query letter?

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.

How do you know if your request for representation has needless information? Ask fellow writers for feedback. That’s what I did in How Can I Improve on This Query Letter to Literary Agents?

7. Are writers important to agents and publishers?

“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. What makes a query letter bad or unsuccessful?

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.

If you’re submitting a novel, tell the agent the most important things. 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. How hard is it 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. Why do novels have to belong to one specific genre?

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.”

The Query Shark’s Best Advice on How to Get a Literary Agent
I’m Not Scared of No Query Sharks

11. How do you start a 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. Do query letters have to be serious and formal?

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. For instance, 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.

“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. How long does it take to get a literary agent?

“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 who want to find 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. Do literary agents have blogs?

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. Is it hard to get a book published?

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.”

6 Tips for Submitting Query Letters to Literary Agents

The following tips for writing query letters to request representation are from The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent which I contributed to! Complied by freelance writer Laura Cross, and it’s packed full of tips and tricks, do’s and don’ts, trials and tribulations.

In The Nonfiction Book Proposal That Won Me a Publishing Contract I describe how I found a literary agent to represent me and Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back.

travel writing tips

1. Get to the point. This is a great tip for writing in general – not just query letters to literary agents. “Agents are busy people,” writes Cross. “They only have a limited amount of time to consider your project. If you ramble on about inconsequential things, such as ‘I spent two months crafting this letter hoping to get it just right after spending six years writing my manuscript…”

2. Write your query letter over weeks or months. A famous published author once said she spent more time on her one-page query letter to her agent than on her whole manuscript. She may not have been serious but her point is solid: before you submit your query letter, write it with care. This means edit, revise, edit, revise, and edit and revise.

3. Mention self-published books only if they sold well. Literary agents don’t view self-published books seriously, says Cross. “They may believe the book was only self-published because the quality was poor, it was badly written, or it was just not good enough to garner a traditional publisher.” It’s best to mention a self-published book only if it sold several thousand copies, received noteworthy media attention, or won a prestigious award.

4. Demonstrate the tone and style of your book. “If you’ve written a thriller, create suspense with your writing,” says Cross. “If your novel is a romance, deliver an emotional punch. If your manuscript is light-hearted, be sure to include humor in your query letter.” She also suggests using the present tense and active verbs to convey a sense of immediacy and immersion. Finding a literary agent requires thoughtful, strategic query letter writing!

5. Do not compare yourself to well-known authors. Positioning your book alongside other published works in style, subject, or readership is acceptable…but don’t compare the quality of your writing to established authors. “For example, ‘Similar in plotting to Clive Barker, but closer in style to Stephen King’ is fine. Stating, ‘My writing is as innovative as J.K. Rowling,’ or ‘I am the next Seth Godin,’ will make you appear conceited, not confident.” Your writing – even in a query letter to a literary agent! – speaks for itself.

6. Leave the agent wanting more. “End with a ‘teaser’ that leaves the literary agent wanting to know what happens next in the story,” writes Cross. Nonfiction writers can do this too; even textbook writers can tease their readers! Both publishers and editors have told me the want “edgy and quirky” writing – which includes leaving a trail of breadcrumbs through your writing, for readers to follow.

I’ve actually had two agents represent me over the past dozen years! Read How I Signed With a Literary Agent at the Irene Goodman Agency.

Help Submitting Your Work to a Literary Agent

In Guide to Literary Agents 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published, you’ll learn how to submit your best work to agencies and find the right literary agent to represent you.

Is It Hard to Get an Agent? 15 Tips From the Query Shark

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.

If you doubt your ability to get published (much less find a literary agent), read How Do You Stop Doubting Yourself as a Writer?


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5 thoughts on “15 Things Writers Need to Know About Literary Agents”

  1. I’m cleaning up all my old blog posts on writing, blogging, and getting published. Here’s a snippet from a blog post I wrote 12 years ago:

    Getting Your Book Published – Rejection, Perseverance and Timing for Writers

    Keep pitching your article ideas, book proposals, and manuscripts. Last Thursday my favorite Reader’s Digest editor turned down my feature article idea about green weight loss. She gently explained why she didn’t want to publish it and didn’t slash my writing confidence – but hey, a rejection is still a rejection. I shrugged it off as a bad idea for a feature article.

    The very next day, a Woman’s Day editor sent me a writing contract for that same feature article. See how you just never know? See how important it is to keep sending out your work, even if it gets rejected and even if you think it’s a bad idea? If you’re struggling with failure and disappointment, read How to Fail and Bounce Back as a Writer, Blogger, or Freelancer.

    Finding the Right Book Publisher (and Literary Agent!) is All About Timing

    It may not be your article ideas, plots, characters, themes or imagery that doesn’t work for publishers. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit between you and the book publisher, or it’s not good timing. There are so many reasons a book manuscript is rejected, and some are in your control (like the Query Shark’s tips on how to get a literary agent in the above article 🙂 )

    One possibility is that your writing isn’t good enough for some reason – but that’s one possibility. Other possibilities for rejection are: 1) your manuscript never reached the book publisher; 2) your book proposal or manuscript is buried in the slush pile; or 3) your manuscript was accidentally left on the subway.

    If you think your book was rejected by the publisher because your writing isn’t up to par, then you need to improve your writing skills. Take online writing courses, read as much as you can about book publishing and proposals, and network with other writers.

    Don’t take rejection personally, fellow scribes! It’s likely not an indication of your writing skills or ideas. It may just be the wrong timing for that book publisher, magazine editor or literary agent.

    Don’t give up if you want to be a published author. Find ways to enjoy the process!

  2. Thanks Laurie but I already own The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to become Successfully Published. It’s okay but the author said this and I quote:

    “Well-known writers such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Stephanie Meyer, and Dean Koontz all use literary agents to sell their books. Acquiring an agent can be easy. All you need to do is write a compelling and marketable manuscript or salable book idea, and follow the literary agency’s submission guidelines to be considered for representation.”

    Finding an agent is NOT easy. No matter how good your writing or book idea is it is exceedingly difficult to secure representation. I’ve been trying to get an agent for 15 years and have been unsuccessful. If you can tell me how to get published without an agent I would be grateful!

    Frank P. Campbell

  3. hi i’m currently writing a fictional text and ,believe it or not, i’m writing it at a very young age. I was wondering if maybe a literary agent would take me seriously even though my books are YA? I’ve been working on the query letter and the manuscript for four years.

  4. Hello Query Shark,

    Are genre and category the same thing? I’m writing a query letter stating my book is fiction (genre) and thriller (category). Is this correct?

    Thanks for the tips!


  5. Thank you very much for these tips on how to get a literary agent. I’m far from writing a book but this is good advice for my future as a writer!