Literary Agents: Part Two

Literary agents are a principal avenue to becoming published in the traditional fashion—through a publishing house, as opposed to self-publishing. Last week I wrote about how to identify agents who may be receptive to your manuscript. I suggested using QueryTracker or a similar service to do this. Let’s assume you’ve compiled a list of agents that are receptive to submissions in your specific genre. In the interest of keeping that list manageable, you’ve also filtered it by location (USA, for example) and query method (such as email). You probably still have a very lengthy list.

My initial list had 239 agents on it. Some of them were closed to submission at the time. Many were with the same literary agencies, and agencies are clear that they don’t want more than one of their agents queried at the same time. As a result, I ended up with a list of 59 prospects. So, how many should I query at any one time? There are arguments against doing more than a few at a time. I don’t subscribe to that position. J.K. Rowling—yes, the Harry Potter lady—had over 250 rejections before a publisher took a chance on her. I take two lessons away from that experience: expect rejections; thus, query as many agents at a time as you can.

Alright, you have your list of agents. Now, you need a query letter, but agents get dozens to hundreds of them a day. As an unknown entity, the odds are against you, so you must have an attention-getting query letter. You can Google “query letters” and find immeasurable amounts of materials. After sorting through a lot of it I learned that the subject line of your email should start with “QUERY” followed by the title of your book (in caps) and the genre. You should be querying only agents who are looking for books in your genre. The subject line tells them you’re not trying to waste their time by pushing a book in a different genre. Consequently, they probably will move on the body of the letter.

Start by addressing them as “Dear (Mr./Ms.) Whoever:” Hold the content of the body to three SHORT paragraphs. In my query letter, the first paragraph identifies my protagonist, the peril he must overcome, why his success matters, and the challenges that stand in his way. The second paragraph states the number of words in the book, why people would want to read it, and identifies bestselling authors whose books are very similar to mine. The third and final paragraph is biographical. It mentions how many books I’ve written and published, what my sales numbers, reviews and ratings are, and that Lee Child was very complimentary about my latest novel (he was).

I signed off by thanking the agent for his or her time and consideration. Finally, I made sure to list my pen name, four earned degrees (also for biographical reasons), mailing address, phone number, email address, and website.

There is one more thing you need to know before you fire off that query. Go to each agent’s website and read what they require in addition to the query letter, if anything. Some want a SHORT (read, 1-page) synopsis, some want your first 5 or 10 pages. Some want the first 1, 2, or 3 chapters. Some want the first 25 or 50 pages. CAVEAT: whatever they ask for they will want it copied into the body of the query letter, NEVER attached. Agents have learned the hard way not to open attachments. They’ll simply delete your query letter—unread.

© John Wayne Falbey 2017 All Rights Reserved