Let’s say you’ve written a novel, edited it to the best of your ability, and are now ready to send it out. Most novels in the U.S. are sold through literary agents, so your first task will be to find an agent to represent you. I’ll be posting another article on just how to go about that little task, so check back soon. Meanwhile, buy one of the guides to literary agents available in the writing sections of large bookstores. It’s a worthwhile investment, since this book will be your agent-search Bible. Look for one that lists not only agents’ names and addresses but also their preferences in genre and methods of querying. I like Writers Digest Press’s GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS, updated yearly.
It’s well known that agents reject a large proportion of the material offered them, but the good news is that the great majority of submissions they receive are non-starters. If you submit a good query letter and a professional-looking manuscript that's as polished and perfect as you can make it, you'll put yourself in the much smaller pool of contenders. One of my former students received offers from four different agents on an excellent first novel, which reinforced my belief that, despite the tortuous process of submitting, quality is recognized and rewarded.
But before you can sell agents on your novel, you have to convince them to read it. That is where the query letter comes in, and you need to write a good one, because that letter will determine whether or not your work will get a chance to speak for itself.
A query letter should be one page long, single-spaced, and contain the following basic ingredients:
Publishing credits. No lies, but you can fudge a bit. If your only published work is a couple of articles in the local paper about lawn mower repair, you can say you've had non-fiction work published in local periodicals. If you have no publishing credits at all, don’t despair. There’s nothing agents love more than fresh blood.
Your profession or other life experience if relevant to book: if, for example, you’re a lawyer who’s written a courtroom drama, a cop who’s written a gritty crime novel, or a call girl who’s written about politicians she has known.
A few words about the book, including genre. (Don’t say you’ve written literary fiction; the literary quality is for others to judge, and the term is a synonym for “Won’t sell above 5000 copies.”) Don’t tell the story. Summaries are inherently boring. Four sentences is the outer limit of the average literary agent’s attention span. If you can write a good hook of one or two sentences, do that.
Word count. (“Complete at --------- words.”) If your novel’s not complete and edited to within an inch of its life, you shouldn’t be submitting.
Why you're submitting to that particular agent. This is essential, and too few writers do it. The best possible reason, the one that will move you to the top of the pile, is that you’ve been referred to them by a client or an editor. If you’re not that lucky, there should be another reason you can cite, because there should be a reason for every agent on your list. (See my upcoming article on “Writers and Agents” for tips on creating that list.) It may be that she represents some writers you admire, or that she’s particularly active in your genre, or that she just launched her agency and may be open to new writers. Don’t forget an SASE, unless of course you’re querying electronically.
The overall tone of your letter should be respectful but not obsequious, confident but not boastful, businesslike in that it is short and to the point, but conveying a sense of the person who wrote it. Brevity is good. Agents receive dozens, even hundreds of queries each month. They’re grateful for short letters and wary of natterers. Writing credentials are good. So are life credentials, if they relate to the book. Being a celebrity doesn’t hurt, but if you haven’t managed it yet, you may not want to wait. Giving a reason why you chose that particular agent is very good—it means you've done your homework and are unlikely to waste their time.
Now that we’ve talked about what should be in your query letter, let’s talk about what shouldn’t be. What should you avoid doing?
Praising your own work is bad. I can't tell you how many letter I received as an agent telling me that the proposed ms. is thrilling, heartwarming, beautifully written, and more commercial than Grisham. This is a total turn-off for agents. Real writers don't talk about their work that way; they understand that the work must speak for itself. The only acceptable comparison to other writers is in terms of the market your novel seeks to address, as in "This book, with its strong female sleuth, will appeal to readers of Sara Paretsky.”
Stalking is bad. Some writers—not you, of course, but some other writers—get obsessed with finding an agent. Don’t send gifts or haunt the agent’s lobby or trap her in elevators. Don’t jump out at her from behind trees. Use the mail.
Dear Agent" letters are bad. Anything that looks like a mass mailing will get tossed. (Likewise "Dear Jane" letters: if you don't know the agent, do not call her by her first name until she calls you by yours.)
Grammatical or spelling mistakes in the query letter are very bad. If you can’t write a proper letter, the agent will assume you can’t write a book, either.
Overly personal, emotive letters are bad as well. The agent doesn't need to hear that you spent ten years writing this book and plan to shoot yourself if it doesn't sell. He probably has enough neurotic clients already.
It’s never pleasant to be turned down, but it comes with the territory. Writing is a tough business, and if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll need to develop thick skin and fanatical perseverance. When you do get turned down, bear in mind that an agent’s decision is based on many factors that are totally beyond both his and your control, including the state of the market. The right fit is also a factor; just as you need an agent who genuinely loves your work, so do agents need writers they can feel passionate about.
There’s also, always, the possibility that your work is not yet where it needs to be. If you’ve been turned down by 40-odd agents, it’s appropriate to consider whether the novel might not need another edit or two. But don’t rush to that conclusion after just a handful of rejections, because that is par for the course. Not every book speaks to every reader. There are plenty of other agents out there, and it’s good to remember that they’re as eager to find terrific new writers as writers are to find them.