How to rise above the slush pile.
I had the pleasure of working with the Corvisiero Literary Agency team as a literary intern and then as a literary agent apprentice. I was immersed in not only the marvelous culture that is a literary agency, but also the query box. I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of the query box, but what I can tell you is—agencies get a LOT of queries.
And agents, as some of you know, are incredibly busy people—from interacting with current clients on manuscripts, to coordinating book launches, to managing contracts (and humans), to attending conferences. Answering unsolicited queries from unagented writers is often the activity that agents do at the end of a long and arduous day or it is what they do in between meetings or while on the go.
Moreover, many agents often have another job in addition to their job as a literary agent, which means they are even more pressed for time.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Every word on your query should count. You get precious little time in front of an agent, so make those 30 seconds (or less) count (as well as give the best impression you can during that time).
For those of you who aren’t intimately familiar with the term “query letter,” it is a one-page professional letter (300 words or less) where you endeavor to woo a literary agent into falling head over heels for your story. Only… the wooing is ideally done in a very specific, very strict format.
Consider the following dos and don’ts of querying.
1. Research which agent at an agency would be a best-fit for your manuscript.
Not all agents accept manuscripts in every age group and genre. Some may only accept MG or YA manuscripts (in all genres), while yet others may limit the submissions they will accept to adult fantasy and horror manuscripts.
One of the biggest mistakes I see writers making is sending a certain type of manuscript to an agent who is not accepting it (or isn’t accepting any unsolicited manuscripts whatsoever). This is the quickest way for you to be declined by an agency.
Note: Most agencies will only allow you to submit your manuscript ONCE to an agency (this means only to one agent). If that one agent rejects your manuscript, the entire agency also will not accept it. This also means that if you edit your manuscript (even if you totally rework it and edit it like crazy), you still cannot resubmit your manuscript to anyone at that agency.
Kind of stinky, right?
To avoid this common pitfall, make sure you go to the agency’s website and review not only the main guidelines for submitting a query to that agency, but also to the individual agent’s page on the agency’s website to determine how that specific agent expects to receive their submissions (and what they’re asking for). Don’t waste the one submission you’re allotted!
2. Address the agent directly in your query.
This goes along with do #1 in that you want to address the agent you are querying to directly. “Dear Agent” makes it look like you haven’t done your homework or like you are sending out mass emails to agents (which agents don’t like).
One way to help you woo an agent is to show you’ve done your research on the manuscripts they are interested in and that you took the time to learn how to spell their name correctly.
As an editor of a magazine, I can’t tell you how many misspellings of my name I have seen:
- Dear Mr. Meg Snyder
- Dear Mr. Synder
- Dear Meq
- Dear Megan
- Dear Professor Snyder
And while I will not automatically fault the writer for something as simple as the misspelling of my name (and title), it certainly leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the proposal—as it also does for agents reading queries.
3. Specify why you are querying this agent.
Every agent—like every reader—has preferences and things they love in the stories that they read. They might be partial to stories that take place in another world, realistic fiction, quirky protagonists, first-person narration, and so on. Agents may even rave about these things on their social media accounts or on their about page on an agency’s website. If they do, take the time to read what they say and give a reason in your query as to why you think your manuscript suits their tastes.
4. Paste your query into the body of your email.
Like a job application or a cover letter you send to a potential employer, a query is a professional letter. It is the form of communication in which you will convey the reason you are reaching out to an agent. Because of this, the query should always be pasted into the body of your email and NOT included as an attachment.
Furthermore, when you paste the query into the body of your email, make sure to check the following:
- That your entire query is in a single font size (11 or 12 is standard)
- That your entire query is in a single font style (Times New Roman or Calibri are the standards these days)
- That your entire query is in black font color (no reds, blues, or other fancy hues, you artistic minds)
- Include a signature at the bottom of your query, listing your full name, email, website, and Twitter
5. Follow the submission guidelines.
This may sound obvious, but bear with me.
If an agency says they want a query letter and the first five pages of your manuscript (as an attachment), then you should paste your query into the body of your email and include an attachment of the first five pages of your manuscript. If an agency says they want a query letter, synopsis, and the first five pages of your manuscript (no attachments), then you should paste all of those goodies into the body of your email.
The catch here is to refer to the main agency’s submission guidelines (as to how they would like to receive submissions). However, if the specific agent’s page on the website has conflicting submission guidelines, go with what that specific agent requests.
6. The file names of your attachments should be the title of your manuscript and the type of content that it is.
Rather than naming these files as “First Five Pages” or “Synopsis,” the files should be the title of your manuscript.
Game of Thrones_5 Pages
Game of Thrones_Synopsis
7. Always check the formatting guidelines for what to put in the subject line.
Instead of putting “Query” in the subject line of your email to an agent, I recommend first to review the agency’s website and see if they have guidelines. If they don’t, I recommend including the following in your subject line: “Query: [title of your manuscript in all caps], [age group, genre] (Attn: [agent name]).”
Query: A Game of Thrones, Adult Fantasy (Attn: John Smith)
8. Be brief.
Agents are busy people, so it’s best to get right to the heart of your story. You want to woo them with your story and not with a lengthy introduction about your cat or how awesome your spouse is. (Though, I’m sure both stories are darling to hear in person.) Instead, get to the meat of the query and save the story exchange for if/when an agent replies back to you and engages you on your story and interests.
9. Include the age group, genre, and word count of your manuscript—and all in one place.
The age group (picture book/MG/YA/NA/adult), genre (mystery/thriller/fantasy/romance/etc.), and word count should be listed at the beginning of your query as you introduce your work or immediately following the story snippet. All of these elements should be listed together (i.e., My completed manuscript, A GAME OF THRONES, is a 115,000-word adult fantasy manuscript…). This information is critical and should be easy to locate.
- Don’t forward emails from one agency to another.
- Don’t include attachments if the agent or agency says they don’t want attachments.
- Don’t include your query letter as an attachment to your email.
- Don’t be rude if you don’t hear back (right away or at all). Being a nice person who’s awesome to work with will get you a long way! Stay positive!
- Don’t attach your full manuscript unless specifically asked to do so.
- Don’t skip doing your research prior to clicking send on that query.
Other Random Tips
Don’t ask me why, but there are some standard procedures that have developed in the book publishing world as common practices—and agents expect that you know and adhere to these… even if you’ve never heard of them before.
What are these weirdo practices?
- Your manuscript title should be in all caps in your query.
- Queries should never exceed one page.
- You should only ever pick one genre that your manuscript fits into. For my genre-benders, you can say “thriller with elements of paranormal fiction” or something to that effect. However, you can only choose one genre. (The same goes for age groupings—you book can only be an MG, YA, NA, or adult. Not multiple.)
- In a synopsis, the first time you mention a new character’s name, that name should be in all caps.
- Typically, a synopsis should only be one to two pages in length.
- One space (and not two) should be included between sentences.