How to Write a Query Letter: 9 Tips from Top Literary Agents

How to write a query letter for a novel?

How to get a book deal?

Why literary agents reject a manuscript?

And, How do I find out what agents need from authors?

If you’ve been searching the answers to any of these questions, you’ve come to the right place.

Four years ago, when twenty-seven literary agents rejected my manuscript, I was scratching my head too. I also wanted to know the perfect recipe of pitching to literary agents and getting them to represent my manuscript.

Now, I have published my book. I have an idea about what sells and what doesn’t. I see so many young authors trying to figure out the how-to pitch their books.

Yes, I could talk about my experience and share advice. But could I ever give better advice than the literary agents themselves?

Of-course not. So, I decided to reach out to the experts and ask them one of the most important questions:

“What are the top 3 red flags that alert you a manuscript is not worth your time?” 

Fortunately, the literary agents I reached, were eager to share their experience. Some shared their pet peeves in bullet points, some wrote a couple of paragraphs explaining those red flags, and one of the agents even shared with me a 3-page excerpt on How to write a query letter for a novel.

I composed all of these points and wrote an article on 9 Pitching Mistakes Authors Make.

In this article, I’ve shared excerpt from my interviews with 5 top-rated literary agents of UK, USA, and India.

Now, using that same interview as the source, I’m creating a roundup of all the tips these literary agents shared on writing a successful query letter.

Since I’ve already written a detailed article on writing a query letter, I’ll keep this pretty much straightforward — bullet to bullet.

Know Who You’re Pitching

  • Call the agency if you need to, but don’t screw up your first impression. SPELL the agent’s name correctly. 
  • Know who you’re pitching. Read about the agent and the agency they represent, double-check the genre they’re looking for, and be original in your cover letter.

Proof-Read Your Query Letter

  • Re-read your query letter after you’ve done writing it. Take a break (probably a day), then re-read it. 
  • Sloppiness in a query letter suggests the author is not good at giving attention to details, and not the best person to represent.

Don’t Send Generic Emails

  • Never blast the web-copied letter. Don’t fire off submissions in hopes of getting a nibble. Generalities sink the cover letter; specifics make them swim up the surface.
  • Agents get tons of queries, their time is precious, and a well-crafted cover letter can help you stand out.

Share One Unique Selling Point of Your MS

  • Have a good sense of where your novel/book can be placed on the shelves. Streamline your thinking into an essential idea – the point you want your agent to buy into. 
  • Don’t undercut your pitch with decorous platitudes you don’t believe in. 
  • If you’re adding details about yourself, be brief and only put in the relevant information. If you’re big on twitter, send your handles. 

Make Sure Your First Chapter is the Best One

  • Your novel’s first chapter cannot be overestimated. It’s your first impression with the agent and an only medium to pique their curiosity. Make it a good one. 
  • Keep the narrative voice compelling. 
  • Anything different or unique about your storyline or character should show up in the first chapter.

Don’t Pitch Without a Market Analysis

  • Think of your query letter as your sales pitch to your literary agent. Instead of talking about your needs and wants, consider the needs of your agent or publisher. 
  • Review the past works of the agency and ask yourself why they should pick your book. Simply put, what pain points will your book solve? 
  • A strong marketing plan accompanying a book proposal will go a long way in helping to sell it.

Follow the Submission Guidelines

  • Do yourself a favour and go through the submission guidelines carefully. Often the literary agents will request specific information to be included within the query letter. 
  • The last thing you want is ignoring what they’ve asked for, and giving them a chance to assume you’re not detail-oriented. 

Sell Your Achievement, Not the Overconfidence

  • Save all the bragging till the end and cut right to the chase 
  • Focus on meaningful and authoritative writing credentials. The perfect query sells your achievements, not arrogance or overconfidence. 

Don’t Take Rejections too Personally

  • Your script may not have been right for a literary agent, but that’s your script. It’s not you.
  • Don’t let one agent’s rejection affect you personally and close yourself off learning 
  • Put yourself out there, grow your author network, and connect with your audience. 

I’ll conclude with two paragraphs from Peter Rubie’s book on How to write a query letter for a novel?:

“Your proposal should be tightly written, with style and verve. It should offer just enough information in an accessible and hopefully entertaining manner to convince an editor you know your subject and can write well about it. It should also be well organized in a logical progression of ideas and facts, and, ideally, reflect the tone and style of the final book.

The underlying philosophy behind writing a book proposal is to describe to the editor the book you want to write and provide the editor with sufficient facts and figures that will give her enough ammunition at an editorial board meeting to convince colleagues in both editorials, and sales and marketing, that this proposed book is not only a quality piece of work but it will also make money for the publishing company.”

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