The right way to query a literary agent about your book

By Roz DeKett

Janet Reid, the literary agent who runs QueryShark, gave a thorough and helpful overview on how to query (and how not to query) at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City, July 31-August 2, 2015.

Here are my notes from Janet’s talk on the right way to write a query letter.

Most queries are by email. Follow the guidelines provided by the agent on their web site. And then do this.

How your email should read
The subject line of your email contains only the following:

“Query: Title, by Author”.  That is, the word “Query,” followed by your book title, followed by your name.

The body of the email contains, in this order:

  • Dear (Agent’s Name)
  • A 100-word paragraph that answers the question “What is this book about?”
  • The genre and word count
  • A few “kind words”
  • A thank you for the agent’s time and consideration
  • Your name and contact details: email, phone number, Twitter, blog, LinkedIn, etc.

And then, if the guidelines say to include pages (one, five, ten, whatever it is) – paste them in the email. Agents don’t open attachments.

Here’s why Janet recommends this structure.

Using the agent’s name
You must put the individual name of the agent. As Janet pointed out, when you’re sending an agent an email, the email address usually includes their name—so putting “Dear Agent” (or perhaps worse, “Dear Sir/Madam”) is going to send you straight to the rejection pile.

The story
Your paragraph, in 100 words, is the name of the main character, what he or she wants, what’s stopping him or her, and what’s at stake. That’s all.

The genre and word count
People often put this first in a query. But, Janet says, people are also often confused about the genre of their book. The agent may be reading your query on a phone, and if the genre is wrong, swipe. They don’t get to your description. Even reading an email on a computer, they might not get to it.

But if they like your 100 words, they may want more, even if the genre doesn’t sound right. So put it after your description.

A few kind words
Perhaps you saw the agent speak at a writer’s conference. Or you met them there. Or you have another personal connection or thought. If so, a few kind words are welcome. But keep it brief.

Thank you for your time and consideration
Some people say, why put this? But the agent is reading perhaps hundreds of such query emails a week. You’re trying to start a professional relationship with somebody who’s going to be as committed to your career as you are. And you’re thankful they’re giving you some time and consideration out of their busy day. So tell them!

Your name and contact details
Make sure the agent knows where to find you. Put several options. People transpose even their own phone numbers; perhaps you typoed your email in your contact information. Make it easy for the agent to track you down.

Also: don’t include the actual links. The agent may have an email setting that sends emails with links to a spam folder. Include the URL but disable the hyperlink.

Track your queries and follow up
Keeping track of who you submit to and when. Use the agent’s name in your tracking system; some have more than one email and you don’t want to send duplicate queries. If you haven’t heard back within 30 days, follow up. That’s the industry standard. You can do this up to three times.

Examples of query letters
For great examples, go to the web site that Janet Reid runs, QueryShark. And good luck!

© Roz DeKett


About rozdekett

Roz DeKett has short stories published in The Nottingham Review (May 2018); Bedford Writing Competition anthology (due in 2018); and Fish Anthology 2017, as well as a short memoir piece published in the York Literary Review (2016) and non-fiction in the children's literary magazine Cricket. She is querying a novel and writing another. She is writer and former journalist with a background in newspapers and BBC radio (known then as Roz Kay) and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She's English.
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One Response to The right way to query a literary agent about your book

  1. Pingback: Query letters to literary agents: Don’t be weird | Roz DeKett

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