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How to Write a Query Letter to a Literary Agent

These query letter tips are from a must-have book on how to find a literary agent – which I contributed to! The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent was written by Laura Cross, and it’s packed full of tips and tricks, do’s and don’ts, trials and tribulations.

“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,” writes Cross in The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent. “Acquiring an agent can be easy. All you need to do is write a compelling and marketable manuscript or saleable book idea, and follow the literary agency’s submission guidelines to be considered for representation.”

Fellow scribes, it IS as easy as that! It was a snap for me to find my literary agent…but that’s just the beginning of a long, long, long journey to publication. If you’re looking for an agent, I highly recommend The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to become Successfully Published.

Here are a few tips for writing query letters to agents, based on Cross’ book…

6 Query Letter Tips – How to Find a Literary Agent

By the way, I think the title of this book itself — hiring a literary agent — indicates how writers should approach the agent-writer relationship. Agents don’t hold the keys to the publishing kingdom, and they aren’t gods to be worshipped. They’re businesspeople with a job to do…and so are you!

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 – I can’t remember who – once said she spent more time on her one-page query letter to her agent than on her whole manuscript! She was being facetious, but her point is solid: write your query letter with care. The smartest way to “write with care” is to 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.” According to her, 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.

If you’re seriously thinking about a literary agent, The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to become Successfully Published is a must-read.

What do you think of these query letter tips? Comments welcome below…

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8 thoughts on “How to Write a Query Letter to a Literary Agent”

  1. Yes, a literary agent will take a query letter from a young person (teenager or even a child) seriously, if the letter is well-written and describes an awesome story!

  2. i have story non-fiction but its very difficult to trust all pulish you never know that people and you dont have some agreement i cant just send my story some email i never know i dont even know that email is right emails so that’s why i keep my story

  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. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Marla ~ Thanks for your comment and great question! My first thought is that a teaser in a nonfiction book proposal depends on the content of the book (or book idea). But, that said, I bet there are “formula teasers” that may work for any type of writing. I need to research and think, so stay tuned…my next post, next Tuesday, will be about writing teasers.

    How’s that for a teaser? 😉

    George ~ I like the “noticed” versus “no dice” quip. Well done!

  5. Yup,

    These are the kinds of solid tips that can make the difference between getting noticed and getting “no dice”. I like the tip especially about keeping in genre voice for the query. I need to work on that one a bit.


  6. Great post–very informative. I like the tip about the teaser. Do you have an example of a teaser you could use for a non-fiction proposal?