Agents read hundreds of query letters every week, not to mention sample pages. It takes hours to get through them all, and it’s easy for the queries to start to run together. So how do you make your query stand out? A flashy font? A goofy intro? The truth is, the best queries are the ones that follow these five simple rules.
1) Follow The Guidelines
Let’s start simple. Every agent has a set of guidelines they ask writers to follow when submitting. Sometimes it’s about formatting your query, sometimes it’s about how many sample pages to include, sometimes it’s about whether they prefer attachments. Often it’s all three! These guidelines are almost always clearly stated on the agent’s (or agency’s) website, and yet many writers don’t take the time to find them! But that’s good news for you, because if you follow those simple guidelines, you’ll already be ahead of the pack.
ProTip: Make sure the formatting in your email looks good on the receiving end by sending it to yourself and viewing it on different browsers.
2) Do Your Research
Like readers, agents have preferences when it comes to the types of books they enjoy and want to represent. This might seem unimportant—“so what if they don’t like fantasy? They can still sell it, right?”—but it’s actually extremely important. Agents are first and foremost advocates, so it’s important that they are passionate about your project. It’s also important that they are knowledge about the market. But how does knowing this help you stand out? Here’s how: in the introductory paragraph, you have an incredible opportunity to show that you researched this agent, and that you’re querying them for a specific reason. Ex: Dear Agent, I understand you’re looking for a funny middle grade sci-fi set in the Pacific Northwest. I hope you’ll enjoy PLAID SHIRTS AND PLUTONIUM!
ProTip: Check out an agent’s website, their #MSWL tweets (Manuscript Wish List), their blog posts, and their book sales to find out what sorts of books they’re interested in. If you’re not sure something is a good fit, but you have a pretty good idea it is, then go for it! But if they specifically say they aren’t a good fit for westerns, then take them at their word.
3) Have Someone Read Your Book Summary Who Hasn’t Read Your Book
Ah, the book summary. This is the hardest part of the query. You have to sum up 200 pages in just 2 paragraphs! I could write pages and pages on how to best tackle this, but at the end of the day, some of the best help is going to come from readers who haven’t read your book. Why? Because they can’t subconsciously fill in the plot holes! Like an agent, they’re reading it with fresh eyes, which means they’ll catch things you (and the people who have read your book and are familiar with your story and characters) won’t. That’s priceless.
ProTip: Ask your readers to give you specific feedback (what confuses them, what they think the main conflict is, whether it was exciting). Otherwise you’ll hear “it’s great the way it is!” and be back where you started.
4) Include Thoughtful Comp Titles
Comp titles, or comparative/competitive titles, are extremely useful in a query. They not only show the agent that you’re aware of other books in your category, but that your book fits into a specific place in the market. There are two ways to approach comp titles. You can go with the “X meets Y” approach, which shows that your book combines two other books (or a book and a movie/tv show/etc.), OR you can say your book will appeal to fans of Author A and Author B. Both work!
ProTip: Unless the comp title is PERFECT, try to stay away from using bestsellers. Most books aren’t actually going to sell as well as TWILIGHT or THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Plus, anyone can namedrop Stephenie Meyer or John Green. Only a writer who is truly engaged with the market will know authors with less fanfare, but whose titles are truly good comps.
5) Be Polite
Last but certainly not least, a great way to stand out in a crowd is to be a polite human being. Agents are people, and they respond to writers who respect them and their time. Be patient, thank them for their consideration/time, and be gracious if things don’t work out. You might want to query them again in the future, and you can bet they’re going to remember if you were rude last time. At the end of the day, this is a small industry, and those who play nicely get ahead.
ProTip: Address each query to an individual agent, and be sure to spell their names correctly.
Do you have any querying tips to share? Leave a comment below, or tweet us using the hashtag #5onFri.