The Do’s and Don’ts of the Query Letter

by Lin Kaatz Chary

According to Miriam Altshuler, one of the top agents for literary fiction and young adult literature in New York City, it takes only a brief glance at the subject line and salutation of most of the query letter emails she receives for her to know whether or not she is going to continue reading. This is a critical skill for someone who receives, on average, three- to four-hundred queries a week. In a session titled “From Pitches to Platforms: How to Enlist an Agent” at the recent Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Altshuler discussed the “do’s” and “don’ts” for writing a successful query letter.

The “Do’s” are summarized in the following five essential points:

  1. Do Your Research and Follow the Guidelines! – Know the agent you are querying and make sure they represent the genre you write. This seems obvious but Altshuler said it was astonishing how many people ignored this. Check out the agent’s website to see if she offers guidelines and tips for how to do your letter.
  2. Mention any connections or references you have. If you’ve met or heard her speak at a conference, if you know one the writers she represents, if you’re in an MFA program or have studied with a particular writer, or have attended any other writers conferences or retreats, mention them right at the beginning.
  3. Make your subject and salutation lines specific. “Heard You at Kentucky Writers Conference” or “Joe Smith [one of the agents writers] suggested I write to you” in the subject line will set you apart – avoid generic “query” in the subject line if possible. Never address the agent as “Dear Sir or Madam” – that tells them immediately you didn’t do your homework and it’s unlikely they’ll read further. Always use his or her name.
  4. Grammar and spelling are very important. Agents assume that if your letter contains typos, poor spelling and grammatical errors, it is likely that your manuscript will be sloppy as well. She told the story of one famous agent who if he found one typo or mistake in the query letter stopped reading it then and there. That was extreme, she said, but it is taken very seriously.
  5. Treat all the agents you query with consideration. If you query multiple agents and get a positive response from more than one, and send your manuscript to more than one, let everyone who asked for your manuscript know that there are others who are also looking at it. If you decide to go with one agent, tell the others immediately!

When writing a query letter, Altshuler suggested one page with three paragraphs:

  1. A brief introduction – who you are, what you are submitting, and why you are submitting to her/him. This is not the author bio. This is where you briefly introduce yourself and your book in your own authentic voice.
  2. The pitch. This is the most important paragraph. It should be 5-10 solid sentences including a synopsis/overview. This is where you bring the story together and show its heart. The pitch is more than just telling what the story is about, although you want to mention key plot points and key complications that drive the plot forward; the pitch is all about the voice of the book, and leaving the reader where she is curious to know more, or as Altshuler put it, “I want to read the query and fall in love!” You can also mention titles and authors within the genre for comparison to show what market you see yourself in.
  3. Author bio. This is where you put anything relevant to your book – any publication credits, etc. (see #2 in the “Do’s”).

Many agents want the first 5-20 pages (there’s a wide range) of your manuscript along with your query, and they want those pages in the body of the email rather than in an attachment; this is where it is crucial to read the guidelines!

In addition to the major gaffe of sending out bulk queries addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam” – which is certain to get you a rejection if you get any response at all – there are two other common pitfalls to avoid. The first is asking about more than one book in a single query, the “hey, I also have another book if you’re interested…” syndrome, which is guaranteed to turn off an agent. The second is the tendency of many first-time authors to sell themselves short, apologize, and be generally negative in their tone and approach. Is it necessary to say that you should always project confidence and excitement about the opportunity share your book with the agent and you look forward to hearing from them soon!

The reality is that most first-time authors send out many tens of queries before they get a positive response from an agent for reasons that often have nothing to do with the quality of their manuscript. Finding the best agents to approach, and sending the best query you can are two of the best strategies for getting a successful response as early as possible.

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