Monday, October 26, 2009

Finding Consistency in Query Letter Advice

On Friday I took two classes at the SCWW conference with agents who have a very clear point of view on what they’re looking for when it comes to query letters. One was by FinePrint Literary agent Janet Reid (see also Shark, Query) and the other by Greyhaus Literary agent Scott Eagan. (I missed the session by Knight Agency's Elaine Spencer, but Chuck Sambuchino blogged about it here.)

What surprised me was when an agent would dispense a piece of advice (you know, from their oodles of business experience where they slog through hundreds of queries each week) and a few people would get downright fussy. They’d shoot their arm in the air and say, “but hey, so-and-so agent just said that they don’t like to have information about where I found them,” or point out some other such minor differing opinion.

The agent would often say something about this being an example of personal preference or style. They’d nicely remind the attendees that every agent has his or her submission guidelines on their website, and they probably blog a lot, or are on Twitter, and with a little surfing you can learn their style.

However, the questioner might sigh or huff about how hard it is to figure out what agents want when they all want different things. So I thought I’d collect a list of similar things that agents do say about queries.

Perhaps if we focus on the consistencies, we can learn 80% of the tricks, and stop feeling so lousy about the other 20% seeming like a big mystery.

Here are things both Janet and Scott said in their sessions:
  • A query letter is a business letter. It’s not the time to be creative. It’s the time to be professional. Your manuscript is where you get creative. Janet even said, “Formality is never out of place.”
  • A query letter must tell the agent what the book is about. This is the story’s premise, i.e., “A great white shark haunts a sleepy New England beach town.” Be specific.
  • Query letters should never ever be longer than a page. Janet said about 250 words.
  • When writing a query via email, you don’t need to include everyone's mailing address up top. But darn it, don’t forget to put your contact information at the bottom! And have a professional email that identifies you by name, not snookypants49@yahoo or awesomewriter@gmail.
  • Include the word count and title.
  • The query must sell them instantly. Scott gives about twenty seconds.
  • Best quote from Janet: “You can query too soon. You can never query too late.”
  • Best quote from Scott: “Your resume is your manuscript.”

Writing a query takes a lot of work. It might feel like it takes just as much effort as writing the manuscript. But there are tons of great resources on honing your query letter. If you haven’t yet, check out Query Shark, The Public Query Slushpile, the QueryTracker forum, and from Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford, this post and this series. Enjoy!


  1. I don't think it's a big deal to follow the individual agents' preferences. What gives me the shakes is comments like "Scott gives about twenty seconds" for a query to sell him on a book!

    Twenty seconds! I find it hard to believe anyone can make an educated decision that quickly.

    Nevertheless, what this really means is that agents have already made up their mind before they read your query letter. Each one is looking for a very specific book ... not just any book ... not just any GOOD book, even. So as a writer, it's my duty to query as many agents as it takes to find the one who's looking for MY book.

  2. Linda, I know, twenty seconds feels like a tiny amount of time. But that's just one agent's rule of thumb on a gut feel. So yes, query widely. But your book is fantastic and I'm sure it will find a lovely home!

  3. i understand your shiver of fear at 20 seconds, but do this: set a timer for 20 seconds. Or have a friend help you mark time. Read your query letter for 20 seconds. How far did you read? Probably most of the page.

    Don't confuse 20 seconds with slapdash or cursory.

  4. Hey Janet! Thanks for stopping by. I know you guys can spot what you like instantly. It didn't go unnoticed that the guy you slid your business card to after hearing his query during class was the same gentleman who walked home with an armload of awards at the ceremony later that night.

    Writers: learn agent's taste and trust their judgment. They are pros at this stuff!

  5. Forgive me, Janet, I didn't mean to offend. In rereading my comment now, I see I didn't make clear what I really meant. I can't imagine being able to make up your mind in 20 seconds. But I also understand that agents like you have "read it all" so you DO have the skill to instantly make a judgment. And like I said, you know what you want, and you know how to spot it in 20 seconds ... or less!

  6. I think the 20 second rule of thumb is helpful, actually. It means you have to put your hook front and center. If you get the agent's attention, said agent will keep reading to ensure that your hook comes with a plot, with a voice, and with writing that isn't abjectly terrifying. And if you've got all that, he or she will be more likely to ask for pages.

  7. Hey Michelle! I actually timed myself reading my query like Janet suggested. I got through plenty in twenty seconds.