6 Dos and Don’ts of Querying Literary Agents
Updated: Aug 16, 2018
Just as manuscripts are unique, so are the query letters representing them. There are numerous ways in which an author can pitch his/her work to a literary agent, and finding a way to stand out from the pack is essential. The following tips are some basic dos and don’ts that will ensure you’re putting your best pitch forward.
1. DO your research
Be sure to check the agent’s website for specific submission guidelines. They vary by agency. Some agents may only want a query letter. Others may ask for a certain number of pages or chapters to be included. Also, check whether an agent prefers an electronic submission instead of regular mail.
For a helpful list of reference books and sites that can aid you in your agent search, visit my resources page.
2. DON’T query multiple people within the same agency
The main objective of doing your research before querying is to ensure that you’re choosing the agent you believe can best represent your work. When an agent receives your query, it’s with the assumption that you have chosen him/her specifically based on qualifications and genre preferences. Querying multiple agents within the same agency is discouraged, as you don’t want to put that agent in an uncomfortable situation in which he/she is competing with colleagues for projects, should they show interest in the manuscript.
Also, if an agent thinks your manuscript has potential but doesn’t believe he/she is the best fit to represent it, he/she will often refer your work to a colleague in the agency who does represent that genre and is better suited to evaluate it for consideration.
3. DO begin each query with a personal salutation
A generic salutation such as “Dear Literary Agent” is not only impersonal but it communicates a lack of preparation and consideration. It may appear to the agent that you’re sending out queries at random or en masse just to see who will respond. If you don’t appear to take great care in the process and pay attention to the details when querying, the agent is likely to go into the evaluation of your manuscript with the impression that your writing may be just as inconsistent and unpolished.
Additionally, make sure that you’re spelling the agent’s name correctly. Including a sentence or two about why you’ve chosen to query him/her will help your pitch, as well. First impressions matter, and it’s important to start off on a positive note.
4. DON’T send unrequested items with your letter
Be sure to check the agent’s website for specific submission guidelines. They vary by agency. Some agents may want only a query letter; others may ask for a certain number of pages or chapters to be included. Also, check whether an agent prefers an electronic submission instead of regular mail.
For electronic submissions, only attach what is requested. For regular mail, in addition to adhering to the manuscript guidelines, don’t send gifts or place gimmicky objects (such as glitter or confetti) in the envelope. You want to be merited on the quality of your writing as an author and not appear to be buying the agent’s favor. Also, no agent wants to open a letter and be bombarded by a confetti explosion. You want to make it easy for the agent to say “yes” to your work, not grumbling for the rest of the day about the utter mess that his/her desk and clothes have become via glitter bomb (yes, I have heard of this actually happening!)
5. DO be specific and concise in your pitch
Querying is essentially your “elevator pitch”—a succinct and persuasive sales pitch. Agents lead busy lives, and their submissions stack—aka “slush pile”—is never-ending. Time is of the essence; sometimes, after sorting through hours of queries, they can all start to blend together if the letters are too vague or use common phrases. Agents need to see the most important, detailed information about your manuscript and your bio upfront.
Be sure to include:
· Manuscript basics: title, genre, word count, target audience, hook
· Comparative titles
· Unique yet concise summary (about one paragraph)
· Multiple submission status (whether you’re querying other agencies at the same time) or self-publishing status (whether you’ve already published through another platform)
· Succinct bio explaining your writing background, expertise, platform, awards, etc. (Tip: avoid personal stories or details unrelated to the pitch of your book)
6. DON’T burn bridges
If you’re constantly facing rejection with your manuscript—all authors do at one point or another—it can be natural to feel disappointed or frustrated. At times, if an agent gives you critical feedback, you might feel the urge to respond in defense of your work and creative choices. Whatever your response, always be polite and thank the agent for taking the time to review your work (many agencies have a general template for rejection letters, so if you get detailed feedback, it’s actually a positive and quite helpful for any revisions you may need to make for subsequent submissions).
Even though your current manuscript might not have been a good fit with that agent, your future work could be. Practicing good manners and professionalism is always a plus, especially if you want to query again. In addition to your manuscript, agents also want clients with whom they can foster a positive working relationship. The tenor of your interactions matter and will most likely affect any future relations with this agency.
So remember, don’t burn bridges. Keep building them and eventually you’ll make it to the other side of success.