Sample Literary Agent Query Letter

You want to know what a query letter should look like? Well, here’s an sample one below.

Just before we look at it, I should say that I am a real author describing a real book – and I already have an agent. So the letter which follows simply pretends that this book is a first novel and I have no track record in the industry.

The second thing to say is that I’ve assumed the agent has allowed to me to send a synopsis and opening chapters along with the query letter. (That’s standard practice in the UK, though things can be different in the US.) But obviously you need to check what the agent’s requirements are and follow them.

Third, this letter does NOT say anywhere, ‘I love Mr Angus Author, whom you represent, so I felt that your tastes and mine might have something in common.’ If you want to put that in you can. I’ve got mixed feelings about whether it’s helpful. (Most literary agents represent 2-3 well known clients and a huge chunk of their query letters will reference those 2-3 authors. It’s therefore questionable whether you do anything positive by doing likewise. Agents tend to vary in what they think about these kind of personalisations. I tend to recommend the lower effort option, but it’s no big deal. You can do as you please.)

OK. That’s enough preamble. If I were a total newbie, I’d probably write something like the following:

Dear Amy Agent

I’m writing to seek representation for my first novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD, a police procedural of 115,000 words.

The book opens with news of a murder: a young woman and her daughter have been found dead in a rough area of Cardiff. The house where they’re found is in very poor condition – a squat, with no power or working toilet – yet in the corner of the room is a platinum bank card belonging to a local millionaire. A millionaire who died in a plane crash some nine months previously.

Puzzling as this crime looks, it’s not the heart of the book’s mystery. It becomes rapidly clear that Fiona Griffiths herself is a very peculiar woman, who is withholding crucial secrets from the reader. Who exactly is her father? What was her childhood illness? And what is it with her and corpses?

I’m a [thirty-five year old lion tamer] and this is my first novel.

I enclose the first three chapters and a synopsis. I very much hope you like what you see and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,

Wrichard Writer

There! Simple, no?All the letter actually has to do is:

  • give a very brief 1-sentence summary of the book
  • a somewhat longer, 1-2 para, introduction to the book. (Not a plot summary – that’s for the synopsis)
  • a brief introduction to you
  • not be badly written

If you achieve those things, then the literary agent will turn with curiosity to your manuscript. That’s all you can hope for at this stage – the rest is down to your novel.

Oh, and if you get rejected 10 or more times, then don’t start stressing about your letter, or your synopsis or your star sign or anything else. You are being rejected because your book is not yet strong enough for commercial publication. That’s no big deal. All pro authors had to learn the game too. If you want to improve your manuscript (and you should want nothing more urgently than that), then get some tough honest feedback from a professional editor. Pro authors get exactly that (for free, from their publishers). You’ll need to pay, but you need the same service, the same devastatingly accurate insight. Novel writing ain’t easy – and getting help does pay.

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38 Responses to Sample Literary Agent Query Letter

  1. Pingback: How do you find a literary agent? | Writers Workshop

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  4. Derek West says:

    Still trying to find an agent. Are you sure they read all the submitted ms. ?

    (Incidentally, I spotted the deliberate typo in para. 3 of your Sample Literary Agent Query Letter above)

    • Harry says:

      They’ll look at every MS that comes their way – “look at”, please note, not necessarily read. If an MS is obviously not making the grade from a cursory inspection, no on will be bothered to read on.

      And agents are correct to be that brusque. Publishers are only going to take the best of the best, so a couple of awkward sounding sentences will strongly suggest that the author concerned hasn’t yet achieved the standard needed for success. The harsh truth is that authors do need to be perfectionist if they want to succeed – and that at least 95% of books that are rejected, are rejected because they just aren’t yet good enough.

      The only thing I would add: of course some agents won’t look at stuff because they’re just overwhelmed with submissions or their other business. So never just send your stuff out to 1-2 agents and think you’ll get a reliable guide from that. You do need to hit 8-12 agents, give it a few weeks (6-8), and then take stock. But if you approach a dozen agents and get nowhere, your MS is not yet strong enough. Which is where we come in!

      Oh – and thanks for alerting us to that typo.

  5. Maria Gloria says:

    Thanks, this was really helpful.

    Not sure if this is the right place to ask this question, but here goes. If your novel has been rejected by an agent say two years ago, but is now completely improved and re-written, is it okay to send it to the same agent again or will it just be automatically rejected?

    • Harry says:

      Fine to resend. But if so, just add a note giving the history. Any sane agent will look at the MS. If that’s good, no worries … and, as ever, don’t go nuts. If you get 10-15 rejection letters (with the current draft) you almost certainly need to start paying attention to the MS, rather than figuring out a new list of agents to send to. That’s what our Critiques service is for!

  6. Keith says:

    Hi,

    I had an agent for a year – I’m working on my first book, non-fiction, and the agent said that he really liked my work but he never submitted my proposal to publishers, so after a year I decided to initiate a parting of the ways as I felt I wasn’t going to get anywhere with it otherwise. He never told me why he didn’t submit it (even his PA was bewildered) but I think he was just busy with bigger projects and lost track of mine. Now that I’m writing to new agents, should I mention that I previously had an agent? Thank you.

    • Harry says:

      No, don’t tell them. It just raises a question as to whether you or the agent was the idiot here. Your proposal should be strong enough on its own.

      I do, however, think that behaviour of the sort you mention is totally unprofessional, unjustifiable under all circumstances – and far too common. Alas, however, there is no professional body to whom such things are reported, so nothing changes.

  7. Danielle says:

    Harry: you recommend above that an author sending queries should send out 8-12 queries to different agents. Do you mean at the same time? I had read elsewhere it was best to wait a respectable amount of time between each agent before pursuing others. Can you clarify whether agents would really mind. Is it something that should be mentioned in the query letter, that ones have been sent to other agents?

    • Harry says:

      You might want to send those letters in two batches with a gap (of 6-8 weeks?) in between, but it’s OK to do it all in one blast if you prefer.

      These guys aren’t endangered animals. They’re people who will, you hope, become important business partners and make a lot of money from you. So they ought to compete a bit, to fight for your business. Don’t worry about making them do a bit of work. It’s their job.

      Having said that, I’m strongly against badgering agents with questions, sending work to dozens of agents, and so on. That’s pointless – it doesn’t help you and it creates unnecessary work for agents.

  8. Pingback: How to find the perfect literary agent for your book

  9. Sonia says:

    Hello Harry,
    I have a few questions. Firstly, I am a teen writer, do I have to mention that in the query? Secondly, do you have to copyright your book and can there be a chance of a agent stealing your book? Im in Canada but I want to publish in USA, is that a good idea or do you have to meet the agent? If the agent likes your first 1-3 chapters, do you send the whole manuscript or can that be dangerous (in terms of the book getting stolen)?

    • Harry says:

      Hi Sonia, If you’re a teen writer, it’s probably better not to mention that: most agents will take your age as a sign that you will not yet have the maturity to write a saleable novel. So don’t say anything and let the novel itself make your case for you. And plenty of Canadian writers will have their agents in NY – no reason why not. And please, please, please just forget about the risk of your manuscript getting stolen. In the first place, I’ve never heard of a manuscript getting stolen. Never. Remember that the likely value of any individual manuscript is $0.00! And secondly, how are you going to get an agent if he/she hasn’t read your MS? You’ve got to trust these guys to do their job. Best of luck!

  10. Chloe says:

    Hi Harry, thanks for the great blog and for this post. I’m in need of a little advice…

    I had two full MS requests for my novel this week (I gave it to both agents non-exclusively). One of the agents has now offered to represent me. I plan to tell him that I’d love to meet up and discuss it etc. etc. I also plan to tell the other agency that I’ve had this offer (I think it’s polite and professional – is that right?). I’ve been trawling around trying to find out what agents expect in this situation and the etiquette. I don’t want to offend the agent that’s made an offer by looking like I’m holding out for another one, but I also want to make sure I’m with the right agent.

    Anyway, the bit of etiquette I can’t find an answer to is whether I should tell the three other agents I’ve submitted my partial to, or not. At the moment, presumably, my MS is sitting on their slush piles. Should I tell them that I’ve got an offer? Should I just tell them if/when I sign to an agency? They may well not be interested – I’ve had one other rejection already – but I want to be polite and do things “properly”.

    (By the way, although my book never went through WW, so you won’t consider it one of “your” books, I kind of do. My first attempt at novel writing was critiqued by you and, although I didn’t find an agent for that, I learned so so so much from the critique I totally consider WW to have been vital to my “success” (I know getting an agent isn’t the same as getting a publishing contract!) with this one. Thanks very much!)

  11. Pingback: Literary Agent Etiquette | Write Edit Seek Literary Agent

  12. Tony says:

    Your article/advice has literally saved me endless days of angst and stress. The agency I’m planning on sending my MS to have requested a synopsis, query and first five pages of the final copy. My MS is close to 160,000 words.
    In your opinion, should I include the ending and ‘Every’ plot twist, character, location etc. in my synopsis?
    Look forward to hearing your reply, if not, thank you for the simple and informative query example, you’ve saved one man from another night of migraines.

    • Harry says:

      Thanks for the kind words – on the synopsis, you should describe the whole plot, but not necessarily every single twist etc. Keep the synopsis to a couple of pages and do what you can in that space. There’s also more info on this site about synopses. Good luck! And if you get stuck with agents, we’re here to help …

  13. Christopher Jenkin says:

    I have written a religious memoir – my own story, hopefully interesting, thought-provoking, amusing, even moving, but definitely Christian. Taking what you say about agents being generalist, while he/she does not of course need to be a believer, some familiarity with the Christian book market would definitely be an advantage. Is there any way of seeking out a list of such agents in UK? (I found online a long list of Christian agents, but ALL in USA!)

    • Harry says:

      There isn’t really a Christian book market here, the way there is in the US. That is, books pitched specifically at Christians tend to sell in far smaller volumes and therefore attract much less attention from agents. I’m not aware of a list of the kind you mention, but if you find one, do let us know as you’re not the first person to have asked. Best of luck!

  14. Damien says:

    Harry Help
    Pleas help me out… below is the start of my query letter is it OK or just destine for the bin.

    I am seeking representation for a children’s fiction novel entitled Jacob Jones and the order of seven: The manuscript consist of 79,000 words, 14 chapters and has been professionally edited and formatted to industry standards.
    I am a self-employed animal behaviourist with a degree in psychology. I started writing as a press officer for an art gallery. My first press release was for the beetles’ photographer Bill Zygmant.

    Thank you Damien.

  15. milan says:

    this is my first non-fiction novel, which contains child abuse and molestation. It’s not very graphic or detailed. But I want to get a strong message across about sex abuse due to my childhood experiences.
    Is that something that i should mention in my query? Does most publishers stay away from that message when its dealing with sex abuse?

    • Harry says:

      If the novel is good enough, then your childhood past will actually help as a sales hook. But approach the matter cautiously in your query letter: no agent wants to read a novel that is really a work of therapy. They get too many of those!

  16. Pingback: Writing the Dreaded Query Letter | Danielle Taylor

  17. martine says:

    Hello Harry,
    I stumbled across this page and have found it so useful although it has left me with lots of questions.
    I have started writing a book, its basically about going from being married to single, and the fun journey that is had by the newly single lady going out drinking and meeting men and learning to have fun again, some of it is true (some of it is made up to make it more racy that I am) its a funny look at life, sex and drinking in your 30s
    I have let about 6 of my friends read it and they all love it and say they cant wait for the next chapter.
    I now wonder what i should do? should i finish writing the book before finding an agent or should I show what I have written to an agent and see if its worth me completing.
    Sorry lots of questions but I’m very new at this and am every excited that other people love my book and said they would actually buy it!

    Thank you for any advice that you could give me

    x

    • Harry says:

      An agent basically won’t look at something until it’s finished and in excellent shape. If you want feedback between now and then – probably a good idea – you’ll need to get in independent critique, of the sort that we can offer. See here for more info on what we do.

  18. Martine says:

    Thank you for taking the time to reply and for your advice.

    X

  19. Leonie says:

    This is such a helpful site! However, I have a query that I’m hoping you might be able to answer for me.

    I have a recently published novel, and I’m two thirds of the way through the first draft of part two. I did not self publish, but I’m currently published by an e-publisher.

    I’m Australian, and as you’re no doubt aware, attracting an agent in Australia, for a (soft) sci-fi novel is very difficult. I was rejected – by the only two agents accepting submissions in my genre – the year before last, so I’ve decided to try for an international agent. I have checked and rechecked the Australian Agent list a number of times, and there are still only the two I’ve already tried listed as accepting submissions.

    Is this the time to approach an agent for representation? Or should I wait until Book 2 is completed? And would it be acceptable to re-approach the previous two?

    Thanks for any assistance.

    • Harry says:

      No, don’t look for agents untl book #2 is completed, honed and polished. Then do reapproach the 2 Aussie agents, but also look for agents in the UK and the US. The best source for UK agents is our very own Agent Hunter. There are similar sources for the US market, and as an Australian writer of sci-fi, it’s OK for you to approach either market.

  20. Leonie says:

    Thank you very much for the advice. Much appreciated!

  21. Shawna says:

    Harry,
    Thank you for all the really great advice. I had a couple of questions that were not answered through here though. My first is how probable is it for a first time author to gain an agent? I hear that you should provide your background and credentials, but I’m a current graduate student with my studies concentrating in creative writing. I essentially have no experience publIshing. Also, I’ve read different blogs where some say to have a completely edited and publish ready book before seeking out an agent. Others however state that you want an agent before you even begin writing. What’s the story there?
    Thanks

    • Harry says:

      First question: newbies get agents and book deals all the time. Quality is what matters. Nothing else.

      Second question: yes, of course you need to have completed (and edited and polished) your MS. Aside from certain types of non-fiction, an agent will never offer representation if you don’t have a completed MS.

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