How to Write a Query Letter (and Not Piss Off the Intern Reading It)

A blunt, unprofessional guide to how to be a fucking professional and send query letters that don’t upset the interns who are in control of your slush pile destiny.

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1. Follow the agency rules. Follow the agent rules.

I don’t know how to make this clearer to many of the authors who are querying: the interns (aka the ones who read your queries) know the rules. We know how our agents like their queries formatted, we know how many pages they request. Deviation from the rules can sometimes work out––but more often than not, if you ignore agency rules, if you don’t listen to what our agents want, you come across as rude and disrespectful and hard to work with.

What is says to me is that you looked up a list of agents somewhere and you’re sending out your queries based on that, not based on actual knowledge of the agent. Every agent has their submissions guidelines posted on their websites: it’s not inaccessible or hard to find, so when you send in a query that does not care about the agency guidelines, what it means is that you don’t value our time or care about what we want.

Your writing might be good enough to make me overlook this, but TBH I wouldn’t count on it.

2. This is a business partnership.

Please don’t get all chummy-chummy. Be professional. Be lighthearted if you want, have an attitude if that’s the tone of your manuscript, but please remember that your relationship with the agent––should you have one––is one that is outlined through a contract. You may ultimately end up becoming friends with your agent (that’s often the case), but it’s primarily a business partnership. Your agent gets you the highest advance and best contract as they are able, and in return they get 15% of your advance.

3. Don’t put the wagon before the horse.

I can’t count how many queries I’ve gotten who have said that their manuscript “is going to be a bestseller,” or that they think their MS has “film potential.” Don’t do this. It’s presumptive, and also up to the agent to decide. And by the 50th query letter that claims this, frankly, it’s a bit obnoxious.

4. Don’t put down other agents.

Yes, it’s a competitive business, and agents are often vying for the same authors or platforms, but publishing is a small world. You have friends in competing houses. You are friends with competing agents. Putting down another agent in an email to the one you’re querying to doesn’t reflect highly on you, and if you’re comfortable shitting on one agent in an email to my agent, what makes me think that you won’t shit on my agent to other agents? It’s not a cute look, don’t do it. The one exception is if you’re telling me that you had a bad experience with a former agent, but even then, keep it professional.

5. Black font. Size 12. Tahoma, Georgia, Times New Roman, Helvetica.

Unless specified by an agent, please don’t use Comic Sans or Papyrus or a novelty font. I don’t care if you think it suits the vibe of your MS. It makes you look unprofessional and nothing will make me take you less seriously faster. I know that Comic Sans was something that was developed for people with dyslexia, but if the agent does prefer that you use it, it will be in the submissions guidelines.

Addendum: just do one last spelling and grammar check before you send things out. One or two typos and I can put it down to you not having caught it. 6 or 10 typos just means you didn’t care enough about how you came across to us that you didn’t bother. I know it’s annoying, but it really helps.

6. Don’t try to cut deals.

I had a query the other day that promised that, in exchange for signing the author, they would pay the agency a higher fee. First off, if you have ever queried an agency that charges you a fee, DO NOT SIGN WITH THOSE AGENTS. That is not a reputable agency. Reputable agents work on commission, which ensures that they have a financial impetus to secure you the highest advance they are able, as they get 15% of that. DO NOT PAY AGENT FEES.

Secondly, publishing is a business, but it’s fairly unique in that it’s a passion driven business. At the end of the day, yes, much of it is about profit and losses, but if an agent does not like your manuscript or is not sold on your idea, they’re not going to sign you. Offering money in exchange for them signing you on feels an awful lot like bribery.

7. Attach requested materials as documents or PDFs.

Don’t forward someone to a website or to a Google Docs. Especially not the second one, because there are sometimes legitimate reasons to link people to your website (however, if you’re linking to your website in lieu of introducing yourself, don’t do it, if you’re linking to your website in lieu of attaching your writing, don’t do it), but a Google Docs link is never not sketchy.

Also don’t tell the agent to buy your book off Amazon (this has literally happened to me more than once and I don’t understand why). Don’t do sketchy links or downloads or weird extensions in general. I’m not clicking on them. I’m not infecting the office computers with a virus. I need my boss’s reference for my next internship, thanks.

8. Be patient.

It sucks to wait, I know. But my agent gets 10-20 queries a day (including weekends), so things pile up fast, and we can only read so quickly. Slush piles are generally at the bottom of the list of priorities, and though it’s the majority of what we do, sometimes we get assigned to more immediate projects, reader’s reports, research, mailing, printing, filing, coffee runs. And if you have an agent like mine, not only can you not go ahead and reject/request more on your own, you have to report back to their assistants so that they have the final say on queries. And their assistants are incredibly busy with more important things.

Don’t be shy about following up, but be aware that the response rate is incredibly slow. So if you’re following up within two weeks, you’re overestimating how quickly this industry moves.

Your manuscript is the most important thing to you, and I get that, but also? Other people have manuscripts that are important to them, too. And we’re going through 50 page samples every day. Even skimming, it takes a while, and that’s not adding to the fact that there are other responsibilities that do take priority.

It’s disheartening, I know, but most established agents already have impressive client lists. Of course they’re always looking for new talent, but it’s the rare success story that found its way through the slush pile. If you want faster turnover, newer agents looking to build their client list might be the answer, but newer agents also may not have the contacts you want or the clout you desire. It’s a risk assessment thing. Again, it sucks, but I’m the unpaid labour, and there’s jack shit I can do about it beyond slowly chipping away at the endless, endless inbox.

9. Be confident, not arrogant.

There’s nothing wrong with a plainspoken assessment of why you think your MS should be published. This is why you are querying an agent: because you have a story you think is worth telling, and you want other people to read it, and you want money for it. That’s okay. Self-confidence is a good thing.

But don’t be the guy who makes the claim that his writing will make him immortal. Or that he is a genius. (I say he because most of the people sending in queries like this are men.) Or that they will for sure be a bestseller. Look, the query is the face you put on for the person combing the slush pile and if you want to manspread your way into the inbox, you go right on ahead, but if you actually want to be taken seriously? Don’t.

10. Don’t put down your genre.

Don’t act like you’re the only decent author in your genre. The agent you’re querying to represents that genre because they enjoy reading that genre. You’re not going to get places by putting down something they like.

On a similar genre note, don’t send manuscripts that aren’t in line with the genres the agents ask for. It’s not just that the agent likes that genre and is more receptive to it, it’s also a matter of who their contacts are with which editors at which imprints at which publishing houses. And it’s not even why would you do that to the agent––why would you do that to yourself?

You want to give your MS the best chance it has, and that doesn’t lie with an agent who has negotiated successful deals for authors who have nothing to do with your genre! It lies with an agent whose expertise is in your genre. If my agent sells inspirational memoirs, what makes you think that that’s enough to wrangle you a good YA sci-fi deal? Most of the time, they wouldn’t know how to sell it better than an agent who does that as a specialty, so don’t sell your novel short.

11. Get to the point.

Don’t wax poetic about yourself. You’re selling your story, not yourself. You can introduce yourself, but keep it succinct, because I’m not referring you to my agent because you have an MFA from Columbia, I’m referring you to my agent because you have a good story.

Speaking of the story, don’t play coy with it. It’s not cute, and it’s not flap copy. Don’t do the shit with “if you want to find out what happens next, read the MS to find out.” Fuck that, there are six thousand other queries in the inbox. Tell me exactly, with concrete details, what your MS is about. If you don’t, then how am I supposed to assess my interest in it? It’s not a packaged novel that’s been edited and processed through the printing press. It’s a whole manuscript you’re trying to sell agents on.

12. Don’t try to be precious.

Do what you want with your query letter, but personally, I’d play it safe. A direct, professional query letter is a blank slate w/r/t how people’s attitude is towards you going into the work. Because a query letter really is a frame for your work, and you don’t want that frame dragging it down. Again, risk assessment. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. It depends on who you are and who the intern is and how you write, but if you aren’t at least 98% sure that you can pull it off, don’t do it. The worst that can happen if you don’t try to be clever is that you have an unexceptionable query letter that introduces a really good story. The worst that can happen if you try to be clever is that you come off as douchey and you overpromise.

Similarly, address the query to the agent, not “dear intern.” You might think it’s a Cute(TM) Edgy(TM) Self-Aware(TM) thing to do, but what if I actually like your MS? Am I supposed to forward it to my agent with “Dear Intern” attached?

13. Do NOT send out mass emails.

In a similar vein: no “dear agent” or “to whom it may concern.” You are querying a specific agent with a specific palate. Tailor it to them. My agents have been included more than once on a mass email chain with 60 or more agencies, and all it does is show me you don’t value the specific agency, that any one will do, that you don’t really cherish the people you want to work with. And I get that it’s annoying to continue to rewrite the first paragraph or so of your query letter (hi, I’m an intern, I’m practically a professional cover letter writer), but it really does make a difference if you personalise it.

14. In the 21st century, all the millennials are tech-savvy.

This means that all the interns know how to use Google. This isn’t a real deal-breaker, tbh, and it’s good life advice for anyone, but make sure your social media shows what you want it to show to potential professional contacts.

15. I just wanted a good, solid number like 15.

Please remember that you want to give your MS the best chance of representation it has. Please think about how you’re coming across to other people. Remember that your query letter is the only face you have to meet the agent with. They don’t know your history or your story–they only have your word.

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