If you’re a first-time author with a manuscript you’re excited to publish traditionally, you’re probably wondering how exactly that manuscript makes its way from your computer to print. The answer: through a literary agent. Since you’re an emerging author, the best way to find the right literary agent to represent you is through an amazing query letter.
Query letters are crucial in the publishing world. Frequently, an agent will request a query letter upon first contact with you. The main purpose of these letters? To convince an agent to read and pursue your work. The perfect query letter should tantalize an agent into requesting your full manuscript.
That may seem like a lot of pressure right now, but don’t worry—with this guide, you’ll be able to craft a professional, persuasive query letter.
Step 1: Research
The first step to writing this letter is conducting research on the literary agents best equipped to represent your work. Make sure you know what sort of work these agents have represented before, as well as how well-established they are, and cater your query accordingly. Keep in mind that, in every literary agency, there are agents who deal with different genres. Therefore, it’s crucial to never mass-mail all the agents at an agency; instead, specifically send your query letter to those agents who represent your manuscript’s genre.
Before proceeding, be sure to thoroughly read the agent’s/agency’s submission guidelines; some agents are very particular, and won’t consider a query letter that doesn’t adhere to their standards. You may come across agents who accept attachments, as well as those who will delete any emails with attachments; some may ask for the first five pages of a manuscript, while others ask for ten pages or just a one-page synopsis. Other literary agencies even instruct authors to not email more than one agent at a time. The takeaway message here? Do your homework.
Step 2: Personalization
Once you’ve researched the agents best suited to represent your work, start drafting your letter. Personalize your query to the literary agent you’re sending it to; a rookie mistake you should avoid at all costs is sending a letter with the wrong name, or a generic greeting like, “Dear all.”
Personalize the letter with their name; a simple, “Dear Ms. ____” will suffice. Elaborate on the personalization in the first line of your letter by stating clearly why you’ve chosen to contact this particular agent—for example, “Hope you’re doing well! As you have an established history of success in the sci-fi genre, I’m excited to introduce you to my novel, ____.”
Step 3: Introduce Your Manuscript
Continue naturally from this personalization by briefly introducing your novel. The key here is brevity; you want to hook the agent, not bore them. Take this as an opportunity to hone in on the heart of your novel—what is it really about? What is the story you’re trying to tell? Think about your novel as a product, and ask yourself what makes it commercially viable.
Then, zero in on these qualities and highlight them in a concise, compelling overview. Every novel can be “sold” this way; it doesn’t make your work any less literary. Not convinced? Consider this summary of Pride and Prejudice, which Jane Austen may well have written in a query letter to an agent were she writing today:
Pride and Prejudice is the story of Elizabeth Bennet, a young woman living in Regency England. One of five sisters, her mother is determined to marry her daughters to eligible bachelors. When wealthy bachelors Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy move into a nearby estate, sparks fly between Elizabeth and the proud, handsome Darcy. The novel follows the evolution of their relationship, as miscommunication, pride, and prejudice threaten their burgeoning romance.
Step 4: Important Details
Once you’ve sold the literary agent on the premise of your novel, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. Make sure you mention the genre/category of your manuscript, its target audience (is this a middle-grade novel targeting twelve-year-old boys, or a romance novel targeting middle-aged women?), its word count, and its title/subtitle.
If you feel there are any other important details the agent should know, be sure to include them here. For example, if this is the first book in a series you’re planning or have already written, definitely add that in this section. Once you’ve touched on these details, try to weave a broader, “why this novel matters” aspect into your letter. If you’re writing a sci-fi novel, for example, tie in the universal themes in your book that render it relatable and accessible to readers—consider something along the lines of: “Young readers will identify greatly with my protagonist, ____, a plucky young girl who loves to read and daydream.”
Step 5: Wrap It Up
Finally, include a short bio. Don’t ramble here; the meat of the query letter lies in how well you sell your manuscript, not your personal accomplishments, but it’s nice to give agents a sense of who you are. Consider including your school or university, whether you’ve been published before (and if so, where), and what you do professionally.
Wrap it up with a brief but polite concluding statement; “Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you!” can never fail.
Step 6: Press Send!
Once you’ve covered everything here, you’re good to go! So press send—what are you waiting for? The literary world is yours to conquer. Good luck, writers!