The Rundown on Query Letters

The first step in getting an agent is to write a good query letter. This is the first sample of your writing that any potential agent will see so you have to make sure that it’s professional and yet shows some of your personality. This might seem hard to do but it’s actually not that scary. The average query letter should be no more than a page and a half. Any longer and the agent (unless they’re really really hardworking) is apt to toss it just because their eyes hurt. A professional query letter can really improve your chances of getting an agent (especially if you’re a young writer) because the agent can see that you are responsible and that you take your work seriously. If they see that, they’re much more likely to request to see your work. Now, some of you might be saying, well all right, we know it’s important, how do we write one? First you should know that there are many online guides on this subject and sample letters written by people with much more expertise than me but I’ll give you the basics anyway.
Generally, you should only query an agent after you completely finish a project, editing and all. Never send your manuscript as an attachment since with all those computer crashing viruses circulating around, agents are understandably a little wary of any emails containing attachments. In fact, don’t send your piece with your query letter at all. I learned the hard way that that is not a professional thing to do (I still haven’t quite figured out why but you know grown-ups, what can you do?). In the subject line of your email write “Manuscript Submission Request” or something similar and only send the manuscript if the agent agrees to it. For the body of the email, briefly introduce your work. You’ll want to include the genre, approximate amount of words and your “working title.” (Needless to say, you will need a lot of commas.) Then have a small paragraph outlining the major plot arc. No matter how tempting it is (and trust me, it is tempting because you’re afraid that if you just give a general summary, no one will understand what you mean (see, that was a perfect example)) do not go into too many details. If possible, also include a sentence or two about what kind of audience the book (or short story or whatever it is) would appeal to. This saves the agent the trouble of trying to come up with the basic marketing information his or herself. End with a simple “I look forward to hearing from you.” Do not beg (yeah you guessed it, it’s also unprofessional). Finally, remember to give your contact information, including your email address (which I think is a bit redundant if you’re sending the query letter by email anyway but hey, who am I to argue with the experts?)
-Alda

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Categories: Essays / Personal Narratives

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5 Comments on “The Rundown on Query Letters”

  1. Alexa
    December 31, 2009 at 9:16 pm #

    What a great and detailed outline of how to write a query letter! I have been sending querys out for a while and my query seems to have everything that you have so kindly included! How long did it take you to get a yes? And where can you find a legitimate list of agents since there are so many that are phony!

    • Alda Yuan
      January 9, 2010 at 3:54 am #

      It took me several months before I finally got a yes. It’s definitely a long and tedious process but it’s worth it.
      As you pointed out, there are indeed fakes out there. Often, literary agents will enter themselves into databases so there is no definite way to ensure that every agent you get off a certain website will be reputable. A good idea is to see if the agent has a personal website and do a search to see what other books they have helped to get published.

  2. Elena
    January 5, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    I have not submitted any query letters, so I am trying to get as much info as I can. What interests me is that Alexa mentioned “phony” agents? What does she mean by that? Have you met, queried, or emailed any of these agents?

    • Alda Yuan
      January 20, 2010 at 12:31 am #

      “Phony” agents are basically con artists who try to take advantage of new authors in order to make a profit for themselves. Common ploys include charging a large up front fee just to read a piece and then rejecting it without ever bothering to read it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all agents who charge an upfront fee are fakes, merely that this is a popular trick.
      That said, it’s always a good idea to do a “background check” on agents before you query them.

  3. Alexa
    January 29, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    Hi Elena,

    Yes! In fact I have… I had queried a bunch of agents and I got a response back that said that she wanted to represent me as well as have me sign a contract for my next two books. There was not a fee (yet at least) but after doing research, my parents and I found out that she was a scam. We were fortunate to have done research instead of giving her my writing because who knows what she could have done with it! Although it was disappointing at first, it was worth it in the end. I’d rather wait to have a legitimate agent rather than one that is going to keep me in a contract and hold my book in isolation rather than helping me get it to where it is supposed to be.

    Be careful while you look for agents. Make sure that, like Alda said you see if the agent has a personal website. Check message boards and blogs because many things are posted about phony agents there as well.

    Good luck!

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