The Agent Query Letter

Sitting down and pounding out 60,000 words or more is hard enough.

Sure, you can simplify the process by pounding out the same word, but the market for such works is limited. Hey, dinosaur porn is a thing, so I'm not saying the market for 'Repetitions of Oatmeal' is nonexistent -- I'm just saying pitching the book is going to be a vertically uphill climb.

As hard as writing a novel is, writing an effective agent query letter is harder.

You've got about five paragraphs, maybe 300 words, to distill your wit and wisdom down into something that will lift you above the other 30 or more query letters the agent will slog through with bleary eyes during their first cup of coffee. Every word is crucial, every sentence must be a glimmering thing of rare beauty. There is no room for error, even of the tiniest sort.

Writing a good query letter is akin to walking through a minefield. 

Are you scared yet, Grasshopper?

Well, don't be, because I'm here to help. 

Now, you're a smart egg armed with 'the Google' and years of experience in the publishing industry (i.e., you drink a lot). So you've already perused a dozen or more articles with titles such as 'How To Write An Effective Agent Query Letter' and 'Query Letters That Made Slugs Just Like You Rich' and even 'How To Briefly Conceal Your Towering Incompetence Behind a Throne of Lies.' You've made notes. The latest version of Word is open, blank page beckoning. The voices in your head are even silent, largely in anticipation of the delicious screams of agony they know are imminent.

Even so, may I offer a final few words of advice, gained at great personal cost?


Here are a few suggestions concerning tactics NOT to employ in your agent query letter.

  • Bribery is a no-no. Especially if your sole remaining financial asset is a powder-blue Chevrolet El Camino. I don't care what they go for an eBay. Strike that sentence, and you've got an extra 35 words to play with.
  • Claiming you are the next Harry Potter is a dumb move, because A) Harry is a fictional character, thus ruining the metaphor, and B) the agent started crying ten letters ago after seeing that six times already. Show some imagination. Game of Thrones is the new black.
  • Sly insinuations that the agent will spend their golden years kicking themselves out of remorse and chagrin if they pass on your project just won't work. You're the one tooling around in an El Camino, remember? Stick to writing fantasy, and leave the financial planning to people who doesn't consider 'under the couch cushions' a retirement fund. Just saved you another 60 words.
  • Your offer to appear at the agent's office and present the theme and story arc of your novel through the magic of interpretive dance must be omitted RIGHT NOW. Yeah, okay, the leotards set you back eighty bucks, but like the manager at Golden Corral said as he was tossing you out, 'this is a family restaurant, sir.'
  • Comparing your book to the latest best-seller by claiming to have ghost-written the latest best seller is bold and audacious. It's also fraud. Stop that.
  • Animated fonts, while clever, are seldom appreciated. Save that for correspondence with the IRS. 
  • Don't follow up your initial query with a query query, especially after a five-minute wait. Agents are busy people, and she may require up to an hour to reply to you.

The points above aside, below are a few suggestions and tips which will help you compose a sure-fire query letter.

  • Stick to standard business letter format. Place your name and address in the upper right hand corner, being careful to use a name which won't trigger any FBI fugitive search engines. 
  • Use the proper salutation and complementary closing. Never refer to a  potential agent as 'Bitsy Bookums.' Never end a business letter with 'Best, Georgia Correction Facility Inmate Number 2345235' even if that is legally correct.
  • Keep the tone formal and polite. Remember, the agent has a job, and an office, and expects a certain modicum of professionalism. You're a writer, which -- stop laughing! -- look, you should be able to PRETEND to be a functioning adult for ten minutes. Channel your inner Yoda and get to work.
  • Try to incorporate something of the tone of the book in the letter. But do NOT extend this thought to writing the query letter in the viciously belligerent persona of the book's villain. She got that letter already, and it wasn't funny then, either.
  • Be sure to include a word count. In plain old base ten arithmetic. Showing off your knowledge of hexadecimal by stating your book is 1396A pages long when it's really 80,234 words may be literally accurate, but is not going to win you any points.

Once you've sent the query letter, there's nothing to do but wait for a response. Lay in a sufficient stock of writer's foods -- Hot Pockets, oversized cartons of big box store Ding Dong knockoffs, and pure grain alcohol -- and wait. Experts agree that hitting refresh on your email page speeds responses by up to 9F# percent, and shaving is a socially-mandated form of oppression designed by the Lizard People to keep humanity bound to a crippling regimen of time-consuming personal hygiene.

It is never acceptable to follow up on a query by leaving voice mail messages which consist solely of muted sobbing. Hiring private detectives for clandestine observation of the agency is also a waste of money. 

You may be plagued with visions of the agent reading your query aloud to other agents, where the reading is met with gales of derisive laughter. These visions are entirely true, and the laughter is happening RIGHT NOW. Have another Ding Dong.

Next week, a two-part entry -- how to write an effective novel synopsis, and dealing with self-inflicted blunt-force trauma.

Keep writing, fellow writers.

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