How To Write Great Queries Without Resorting To Threats, Bribery or Coercion
By Wendy Keller
Keller Media, Inc.
Imagine you are a literary agent sitting beside a box brimming with queries. You
lift your letter knife high and the sun glints off its blade, illuminating your evil grin.
"Whose dreams can I dash today?" you chuckle as you pluck the first victim from the pile.
Or try this: an agent waits by the mailbox, checking her watch for the tardy mail
truck. Nervously twisting her hands, she finally sees the truck come reeling around the corner, and her heart skips a beat. Perhaps the ideal query letter will
Neither is true, but you could never tell that from the query letters agents receive!
Writers hear the horror stories, obsess about query writing and STILL botch it up so horribly that only the most tenderhearted, patient, brand new agent will
even look at their material.
YOU can do better! Here's how to get noticed: Pick 30 agents from Jeff Herman's book "The Insider's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary
Agents." Choose agents who advertise sold material like yours and who specialize in your subjects - people who MAKE THEIR LIVING SELLING
BOOKS LIKE YOURS.
Write a personalized letter to the top 15 of them. If you must use a form letter, at
very least personalize it in the same type font as your letter.
In the first paragraph, clearly state your book's primary feature and define its
category. If it's fiction, call it by one genre, not four genres all mixed together. (If
you don't know your genre and its rules, you shouldn't be writing.)
For nonfiction, mention your primary credential as the author or identify/quantify
the target audience. The author must answer the agent's first question, which will
become the editor's first question, "WHO IS GOING TO BUY THIS BOOK AND WHY?".
Your second and third paragraph can either describe your plotline (fiction) or your subject (nf) and further elaborate on your credentials. Agents dislike fiction
queries which meander all over the plot and nonfiction proposals written by people who don't know their subject.
Close briefly, simply and professionally. Do not threaten, bribe, try to placate,
grovel or make grandiose claims. (If I see one more claiming it's better than Grisham, or touting "all the girls at bridge club loved it" I'm going to scream!).
Instead, end with "I look forward to your response. A SASE is enclosed. Thank you for your attention to my query."
Wait six weeks for responses. Some will ask for your manuscript immediately. Some will ask for money (think hard before you pay). Some will demand an
exclusive (which means the writer waits while manuscript collects dust). Wait the
whole 6 weeks, for all the responses. Anyone who hasn't responded isn't worthy of your time or doesn't have any time to spare.
Send your manuscript to those who ask, particularly those who ask nicely, on good quality letterhead that represents an image you'd like to be associated with.
If at the end of their readings you don't have a contract with a proven agency you
feel comfortable with, repeat the process with the final 15 agents. Wait for everyone to respond before you sign any contracts.
If NO ONE offers you representation, there's either something wrong with your query letter or your manuscript. Figure it out and fix it. At this point, it isn't about
sending out more query letters in desperation. These are people you personally hand-picked who make their living selling books like yours. Chances are good they know the market for your book at least as well as you do, or better.
To evaluate an agent, look for Credibility and Personality. Credibility is proven
sales of books like yours. Any real agency will be glad to tell you which books they've sold, but probably won't give you the phone numbers of their authors.
Read the acknowledgments section of the books they mention if you're still skeptical.
Personality means, "Can you work with this person?" Returning phone calls, for instance. The agent should be willing to speak with you before you sign a
contract (but is not likely to want to chat before one is offered). Your allegiance
as an author will likely be to your agent, not your publisher. Agents invest in authors' careers. We want to sell your first book and your tenth. Find
whose personality meshes with yours - whatever that means to you.
Once you've got an agent, a signed contract, and your hopes up, don't quit your day job. It can take a while for the best of agents to sell a book, but as long as
you're getting rejection slips, you'll know that at least it's out there circulating.
Good luck, and I'll see your name on a book jacket soon!
Addendum from Webmaster:
I asked Ms. Keller a few additional questions. Here's what she said:
How should a writer approach an agent?
Contact an agent by the method they prefer, as stated most often in the directory in which you found their name. In the event you don't have a preference, mail is always preferred. NEVER by phone.
What should a writer include in their initial
Only include a query letter initially, unless you are writing fiction, which would require a completed ms. be at your house and a few chapters (1-3) be sent to the agent. For nonfiction, include your credentials in summary in the query. I
personally prefer email queries very much over all others.
When should a writer follow up on a query?
NEVER. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope with a mailed query, but as for email, assume the agent got it and didn't like it and is too rude to respond personally if you don't hear from them. Remember, talent for us is like a needle in the haystack - most agents reject 99.5% of everything they are offered. (This agency gets close to 250 queries a month in various forms!) If someone were to call about a query they mailed, I would most assuredly tell them it was rejected or have my asst. do so, simply because an author who calls to follow up on a query shows they know so little about the industry that they cannot possibly be professional enough to get published.
Those are my opinions, but I guess after 11 years as an agent, they count for something. I believe most of my colleagues would agree, even if they were less willing to say so.
Wendy is the agent for more than 300 books since 1989, and is herself the author of 21 titles under a
variety of pseudonyms. The Agency prides itself on representing only the most qualified nonfiction authors in
the categories of Business, Self Help, Popular Psychology, How To, Cookbook and Consumer
Reference, and a very limited number of other subjects. E-mail queries preferred.
Keller Media, Inc.
Literary Agency & Speakers Bureau
23852 West Pacific Coast Highway, suite 701
Malibu, CA 90265 USA
Sign Up For Online Publishing Courses, or just check out the site: www.KellerMedia.com
E-mail Wendy at: LiteraryAg@AOL.com
Copyright © 1997-2000 by Wendy Keller. All rights
reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Page updated with new
contact information on 05/30/2007.