How to Query a Literary Agent

I continue to be amazed at the amount of odd and unprofessional queries I sort through during my internship as a 'first reader' for a literary agency. Topping last week's reads: someone apologized for not following the professional guidelines but admitted to being "frankly" quite frustrated with and angered by each agency's specific requests. That tone, my friends, will get you nowhere.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the writer who underplays her expertise or abilities. One letter stated the author didn't intend to make any money and would be satisfied if only a handful of friends read his book--not quite the sales pitch that will convince an agent your book is worth fighting for! 

In the Writer's Digest online Guide to Literary Agents, Chuck Sambuchino featured different agents in his daily editor's blog during November. Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary + Media noted that a query letter is like a cover letter for a job application: "It is your chance to demonstrate that you’re smart, professional, and interesting." After sorting through dozens of unimpressive letters, I believe if you follow her list of dos and don'ts you'll be sure to stand out from the slush pile:
  
7 THINGS AGENTS WANT TO SEE IN A QUERY

  1. An entertaining but polite and professional tone
  2. Multiple forms of contact information
  3. Proof that you have researched and hand-picked an agent. (If you’ve got a connection, were referred by a client or met the agent at a conference, make sure to point that out early in your letter.)
  4. Especially for nonfiction: An author bio that demonstrates your platform and why you’re the right author for this project
  5. A quick, catchy hook or “elevator pitch”
  6. Making a case for the book’s built-in audience
  7. Especially for nonfiction: Showing why your expertise and media contacts make you the best author for your project

9 THINGS AGENTS DON'T WANT TO SEE IN A QUERY

  1. Asking what the agent can do for you, rather than demonstrating what you can do for him/her
  2. Asking for a phone call or in person meeting before the agent has requested one
  3. Querying for multiple projects at the same time
  4. Listing personal information unrelated to your book
  5. Giving references from people outside the publishing industry (such as saying your writers group, your congregants, or your mother’s next door neighbor’s cockerspaniel loved your book)
  6. Comparing your book to a commonly-quoted bestseller
  7. Making broad claims that you can’t back up
  8. A pitch for an incomplete novels. (It’s OK to query with an unfinished nonfiction project, as long as you’ve written a proposal, but novels should be finished before you start contacting agents.)
  9. Overly familiar, aggressive, or incorrect salutations

To read an example of a successful memoir query and Mollie Glick's analysis of it, click here.

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