The first steps to getting a literary agent by Roland Fishman and Kathleen Allen
Crack the champagne or mineral water! You have finally finished the manuscript of your novel, having written numerous drafts, ideally had it assessed by a professional editor to ensure it is the best story you are capable of writing and are now ready to put your creative baby out into the world. This article looks at key steps to getting your novel published.
If you have decided to go down the traditional publishing route, you will need to engage with the business of writing, especially when seeking representation from a literary agent or publisher. This requires a very different mindset from the one that created your novel.
Jane Friedman has twenty years of experience in the publishing industry, expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers and is also an author and award-winning blogger. She offers the following advice.
“Writers talk about their work in many ways: as an art, as a calling, as a lifestyle. Too often missing from these conversations is the fact that writing is also a business. The reality is, those who want to make a full- or part-time job out of writing are going to have a more positive and productive career if they understand the basic business principles underlying the industry.”
In this article, we explore one of the business essentials required – the query letter.
Writing the All-Important Query Letter
A query letter is a vital document for writers seeking a traditional publisher or representation from a literary agent.
It is a short covering letter that includes critical details about your book – genre, word count, title, synopsis — as well as demonstrating your awareness of the market and communicating your novel’s unique appeal.
Jane Friedman said, ‘For some writers, the query will represent a completely different way of thinking about their book – because it means thinking about one’s work as a product to be sold … and to see its saleable qualities.’
Writing a strong query letter is the best way to grab an agent’s or publisher’s attention and compel them to read your synopsis and, hopefully, request your manuscript.
Most agents require a short synopsis in the query letter and others will also require a one-page synopsis.
It is vital you do your homework on what the agent or publisher requires before writing your query letter. They will usually have this information on their website. It is up to you to find out exactly what you need to submit and how and also what genres they are looking for.
Make sure you deliver your best work. In the publishing world, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
• Here is a list of worldwide Literary Agents including Australia from Reedsy.
• Below you will find a list of Australian Literary Agents and Publishers.
Please note, you will need to sign up and pay A$24.95 yearly subscription to access this site. It used to be in book form and cost $50. So this is quite good value and the site has lots of interesting links.
Every agent and publisher will have their own submission guidelines. However, as a general rule, your query letter should include:
- The title of your book, genre and the word count.
- A compelling brief synopsis of your novel in 150 to 300 words.
- Something about yourself in 50 to 100 words
- A thank you and a closing sentence
The Writers’ Digest Guidelines for Writing a Query Letter
1. Personalise: Address the agent by name. By using an agent’s name, you not only personalize your message but also show you’ve done a little research – and agents take writers who do research a little more seriously than writers who do not.
2. Where your story fits in the marketplace in terms of genre, the length of your novel and what other books it is similar to. That is, where would it sit in a bookshop or an Amazon category or best seller list? It can be useful to compare your novel to other successful novels of the same genre as this helps agents see where it fits in the marketplace.
3. Cut right to the chase. Don’t waste the opening paragraph of your query letter introducing yourself. Save that for later. Much like a book, you want to hook that agent with your first sentence. The best way to do that is to introduce the hook of your manuscript right away.
Note: if you have a personal recommendation to a particular agent, you could mention that first.
4. Sell your manuscript. The synopsis of your book will ultimately make or break your chances of landing the agent. Write this section the same way you would write the copy that would appear on the back of the book jacket – one or two paragraphs that sell the heart and soul of your book. Remember, this is the most important part of your query. Spend the most time on it.
5. Explain why you’ve chosen to query this specific agent. When salespeople go out to make a sale, they attempt to learn everything they can about a client before making their pitch. The more you know, the more likely you are to target the right person and find success. When pitching to an agent, it’s important you know a little bit about that agent – namely, what other books they represent. In your query, be sure to mention one or two of these books and briefly explain why you think your book is a good fit in that group. (NOTE: If your book isn’t similar in genre or scope to others the agent represents, you’re likely pitching to the wrong agent.)
6. Mention your platform (if you have one). Basically, having a platform can only enhance your opportunity to reach an audience of readers—which enhances your opportunity to sell books. If you don’t have a platform, don’t worry (and don’t mention it). But consider starting to build a platform now.
7. Study other successful query letters. Spend time studying actual query letter examples that other writers—many of whom had no previous writing credits or platform—have used to land their literary agents.
A Literary Agent on the Secret to Writing a Successful Query Letter
Literary agent Andrea Somberg from Harvey Klinger Inc says, “I love receiving queries. There is such a wonderful sense of unlimited potential—perhaps this is the next manuscript I’ll fall in love with! Perhaps this will be my next bestseller! Of course, my excitement is somewhat tempered by the fact that I receive a lot of queries, and I can’t fall in love with all of them. But over the years I’ve noticed that there is a certain type of query letter that really grabs my attention. Whether it’s for literary or book club fiction, young adult or middle grade, romance, fantasy, thriller or cozy, the queries all share one thing in common—they leave me intrigued. And I cannot wait to read the manuscript.’
She received the following email from Kim Hooper, author of People Who Knew Me. She fell in love with her query letter and, soon after, her manuscript. The book went on to auction and was just published by St. Martin’s Press, receiving rave reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Booklist, Library Journal and elsewhere.s
I am seeking representation for my novel, People Who Knew Me, and wanted to reach out to see if you’d be interested in taking a look.
On September 11, Emily Morris is lazing in the bed of her lover, playing hooky while he goes to work at the World Trade Center office they share. When the towers collapse–along with the affair she’s been using to escape her unhappy marriage–she sees an opportunity. By September 12, everyone in her life thinks she is dead. By the next week, she is living a new life in California, pregnant and alone.
People Who Knew Me weaves back and forth between the present–fourteen years after 9/11–and the past. When Emily is faced with a devastating diagnosis, she must revisit the past and make peace not just with those in her current life, but with the people who knew her in the life left behind.
I am a 34-year-old novelist residing in Southern California. After completing the Masters of Professional Writing program at USC, I went into a career in advertising, writing fiction in my off hours. I have been a contributor to DimeStories, was selected for the America’s Next Author anthology, and was a featured author at the West Hollywood Book Fair. You can learn more at: www.KimHooperWrites.com
I look forward to hearing from you!
The agent’s response
‘This letter does something that every successful query letter should do – it tells us about the manuscript while simultaneously creating questions in our minds. I’ve read many query letters over the year – hundreds of thousands of them. And 9 times out of 10, they provide too much information that is the wrong type of information.
So here is the secret to writing a perfect query letter, one that will make literary agents and editors sit up and take notice:
1: There are three things you absolutely need to include in your query letter. They are the following: (1) Who is the protagonist? (2) What is the conflict? (3) What is at stake?
2: It’s not enough to tell the editor or agent what your book is about (i.e., the protagonist, the conflict and the stakes). Every sentence you write should create additional questions in the editor or agent’s mind.3: Ask a friend who knows nothing about the manuscript to read your query letter. Ask them to write down the questions that occur to them after reading each line of your pitch. Does each sentence generate multiple questions? If not, go back and revise. On the other hand, if your friend is confused – if they can’t easily identify the protagonist, the conflict and the stakes – go back and revise as well.’
Other Examples of Successful Query Letters
Query got her an agent and publisher
Dear [NAME OF AGENT],
Please find enclosed the synopsis and first three chapters of my 67,000-word young adult novel ‘Yellow’. Set in a small sea-side town north of Byron Bay, ‘Yellow’ is a murder mystery with supernatural elements, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age tale about the redemptive powers of kindness. It’s ‘Puberty Blues’ meets Laini Taylor’s ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bones’ with a dash of ‘Jasper Jones’ for audiences 13+ although I hope the quality of writing and strength of story will allow it to cross over into the adult market.
If fourteen-year-old Kirra is having a mid-life crisis now, then it doesn’t bode well for her life expectancy. Her so-called friends bully her, whatever semblance of a mother she had has been drowned at the bottom of a gin bottle ever since her dad left them for another woman, and now a teenage ghost is speaking to her through a broken phone booth. Kirra and the ghost make a pact. She’ll prove who murdered him almost twenty years ago if he does three things for her. He makes her popular, he gets her parents back together, and he doesn’t haunt her. Things aren’t so simple however, and Kirra realises that people can be haunted in more ways than one.
I’m 30 years old and work in TV news production at the ABC, although I’ve previously worked as an in-house script story-liner and script editor for the Seven Network TV drama ‘Headland’ and for the Emmy nominated ABC children’s series ‘Dance Academy’. I’ve also worked as the assistant to the head of ABC Drama, where one of my roles involved assessing incoming scripts. I have had stories published in the Sydney Morning Herald, produced and aired on ABC radio and I was published in the 2010 UTS Writer’s Anthology ‘I Can See My House from Here’ – a collection of works by Australia’s pre-eminent emerging writers and editors. My writing awards include winning ‘The Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year’ and ABC Radio’s ‘Heywire’ short story competition. I received runners up in the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards (SOYA) words section and highly commended for the Northern Territory Literary Awards. I also received a script development grant from the Northern Territory Film Commission for a feature film screenplay and have co-written a television series ‘Significant Strangers’ which we’re currently pitching. In 2002 I was asked to be a guest panellist at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, discussing what it was to be a young writer. The other panellist was an up and comer called Markus Zusak.
I’m currently working on my second novel ‘The Build-Up Season’ and look forward to hearing from you,
2) THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY
21 requests & 5 offers of representation & publication
Dear [NAME OF AGENT],
I am sending you my query for THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY, a young adult novel complete at about 60,000 words and set against the backdrop of an actual black mark in Malaysian history.
By the time school ends on Tuesday, Melati Ahmad’s mother has died 17 times.
On the way to school, she is run over by a runaway lorry. During English, she is caught in a crossfire and hit by a stray bullet straight through the chest. At recess, she accidentally ingests some sort of dire poison. And as they peruse their geography textbooks, Melati’s mother is stabbed repeatedly by robbers.
Melati knows she isn’t to blame. It’s the Djinn, scratching at her mind with his wicked, clawed fingers, squeezing the air out of her lungs and pounding urgent tattoos on her heart. It’s only through an intricate web of counting and tapping rituals that she’s able to tame the beast within her and keep her mother safe. That’s the sacrifice the Djinn demands, and one she’s happy to pay.
But it’s 1969, and on May 13th, the already percolating melting pot that is Kuala Lumpur boils over. As the Chinese and Malays wage war, Mel and her mother find themselves separated by a city in flames. And with a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take all of the courage, grit and Beatles songs in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and the Djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.
Since graduating from Northwestern University in 2007, I’ve put my journalism degree to good use with stints in copywriting, magazines and non-profit communications. My first book, GILA (published locally), is narrative non-fiction that explores the landscape of mental illness in my country, Malaysia – a topic that’s still sadly fraught with stigma. It’s because of my experience in writing GILA that I was inspired to write Melati’s story. As I don’t live with mental illness myself, I was careful to have both neurotypical and neuroatypical beta readers go over this manuscript, and it has been edited to reflect their feedback. The first three chapters are pasted below, as per your submission guidelines.
Thank you for your consideration.