How to write a literary agent query letter

Query letters matter massively. A typical literary agent in New York or London will see approximately 2000 manuscripts a year, and may take on just 1-2 new authors. Of the 2000 manuscripts submitted, the majority – let’s say at least 1750 – will be rejected very quickly, because of errors in the query letter or synopsis. So here’s a checklist for how to write the perfect query letter.

1) No obvious errors
No howlers, no spelling mistakes, no saying it’s when you mean its, no calling your book a fiction novel when it’s just a novel. (All novels are fiction; saying ‘fiction novel’ makes you sound like an idiot.) But you’re smart enough not to make those basic errors, so I won’t say any more on that topic.

2) No bad sentences
A slightly different issue. Plenty of query letters don’t have errors as such, but they still give off plentiful indicators that the writer is a little clumsy in expressing themselves. Here’s what I mean:

This novel, which is the first one I have written, is called The Adventures of Crazy Jane and I would say it falls into the genre of fantasy, or maybe even chick-lit.

That’s a hideous sentence, absolutely awful. No literary agent will read any further than that – but the sentence doesn’t actually have any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in it. So it’s not just about avoiding howlers. It’s also about writing well.

3) Brevity
Keep your letter to a page. It doesn’t need to be longer than that. 2 pages absolute tops.

4) Introduce the book
I generally recommend a sentence or two at the start of the letter which summarises the key data: the title, the genre, the word count, the rough thrust of the story.

Then a longer paragraph about the book. You don’t need to summarise the plot – the synopsis will do that – but you do need to say what the book is about. That could be about setting, about theme, about period. Whatever matters most.

5) Don’t say much about yourself
No one cares about you – they care about the book. So a sentence or two is fine. Keep it short. If you’ve got a proper publishing track record, then say so – but it doesn’t matter if you don’t. If you’ve just published articles in the parish magazine, then shut up about it. No one cares. The one exception to this rule: if you are writing subject-led non-fiction and you are an acknowledged expert on the topic, then make that clear.

6) Don’t get cute
Most jokes don’t work. Lavish grovelling is pointless. ‘I will call you in two weeks to discuss’: you’ve gotta be kidding. This is a business letter. So keep it businesslike. In the US, you can be a bit more pushy, a bit more sales-y. In the UK, it’s better to play it straight.

7) Remember what the query letter is there to do
All the letter is actually there to do is encourage the agent to read the opening page of the manuscript. If that page looks good, the agent will read the first chapter. If he/she likes the first chapter, then they’ll read on.

But the query letter is just the very start. No one will make up their mind from a query letter. Your letter just has to get the agent interested enough in the project to make a start on the manuscript itself. It’s not hard to write a decent query letter. It’s VERY hard to write a decent manuscript. For more advice on securing a literary agent (and for sample query letters) then see the advice here.

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  • Taylor

    You posted some great advice about query letter writing. I’m a young American writer so I’m sure how to approach agents are slightly different, but I have to ask. Why does no agent want to read my letter? It’s been rejected about 24 times by now. Even if I did everything right, or wrote a good letter, why is an agent not interested? How do I know what area of the letter needs work? I know what my genre is so I know for a fact I’m sending a letter to the right agents… are there any general reasons it keeps getting rejected you could give me advice on? Thanks!

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  • jake

    There is an address you can send your quarry to, and they will give you notes. I havent tried it yet. . What do you mean rejected? Did you get no response at all, or rejection letters? Any rejection letter means, someone at least sort of read the letter.

  • Maya

    Hello. You’ve mentioned that we can comment on our query letters if we have published something in the past. I’m a translator so I have translated some books into English, however never any original works. Would it be a good idea to mention that? Thank you. (PS. The books were in a different genre from what I write, they were non-fiction and I write fiction.)

  • Harry

    Yes mention it – it’ll be taken as a positive sign by any half-sensible agent. Best of luck with those submissions.

  • Jem

    How can you play it straight in your letter if you’re writing a funny book? Surely if your query letter is devoid of any wit, agents will be unconvinced you have the skills to write it.

  • Harry

    Your letter is a business letter, so it should be businesslike. Your book is a comedy, so it should be funny. But keep the two things separate!

  • Karin

    Hi, I am writing a children’s book (novel for children aged 5-8) and wondered whether I should find an illustrator who may be interested in working on the novel with me? Or should I leave that to the publisher? What happens if they decide on an illustrator/style of artwork I don’t like or thinks suit the book?

  • Harry

    The publisher will consult you about illustrator, but they’ll make the final choice. That’s the way it works, I’m afraid.

  • Clare

    I’m an English writer, but my book is set in America. Would it be better to find an agent in the states and if so, should I write in American-English as opposed to English-English? Does it make a difference?

  • Harry

    You’re unlikely to get an agent in the US. A British agent is a much more probable route, and certainly the one you should seek.

    You haven’t mentioned genre, but in certain parts of the market, there’s nothing particularly bothersome about a British writer writing a US-set book. My own GLORY BOYS, for example, is set entirely in the US – but was never even published there. In crime/trhillers, however, it would be harder to persuade a British agent to take a chance on your book. Why have a Brit writing US-set crime when the Americans seem to be quite good at the same thing? That said, even that IS possible as RJ Ellory showed after, admittedly, a fair few attempts. But again: Ellory’s principal agent is British and I’m fairly sure his first book deal was a UK one too.

  • Khalid

    Hello, I must thank you for all the wonderful advice. Your posts have been very helpful.
    I have no where else to ask this simple question, and certainly have not found any article that has addressed it.
    I am and for the next 3.5 years studying in the UK, my nationality is Jordanian, I am about 70% through with completing my novel (fantasy), I am completely aware of how dim my chances to get published are and I acknowledge that fact in every second of every day, but that does not prevent me from writing.
    My question: Is it possible to secure an agent and possibly get published even though I do not have a UK passport? Assuming the novel meets all the requirements and they would be willing to take a chance on it, will the fact that I am not a UK citizen affect the outcome? I would really appreciate it if you give me insight on this or at least point out the right place for me to ask this question.
    Thank you for your time.

  • Harry

    Hi Khalid
    No, you don’t need to be British, or even an EU Citizen, or even be a member of the human race, for that matter. All that matters is that you write a wonderful book. As a UK-resident Jordanian, your best bet is probably to seek a British agent in due course. If you are back in Jordan when you come to seek an agent, you could approach agents in either London or NY – though London would probably be more natural since you know the country. Best of luck and happy writing!

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  • Can I submit my query letter (and novel) electronically or must it be printed as per your suggestion?
    I am in South Africa and electronically is obviously easier.

  • Harry

    Depends on which agency you’re submitting to. Follow their rules – but most agencies now accept e-submissions from overseas clients (or, indeed, all.) Use Agent Hunter to find agencies with e-submission.

  • September

    Really useful advice but in terms of talking about me would it be good to mention that:
    a)I am payed as an editor to a self-published novelist
    b)I submitted my novel previously to a manuscript advice service similar to the one offered by the Writer’s Workshop and got very positive feedback, along with some suggestion for changes which I then made?
    Thanks! 🙂

  • RiR

    Several years ago, the first three chapters and a full synopsis of my YA/NA manuscript was read by a commissioning editor from one of the top 5 publishers on a private writers’ forum. The editor chose it as one of three she would be interested to read in its entirety.

    Unfortunately, I had just had a baby and had a major renovation project on my house in full swing and was unable to give the novel the attention I felt it deserved for a full revision in order to submit it.

    Recently, I have fully revised the story. Should I mention any of this in my query letter, and if so, should I name the editor and publisher? Is there any detail I should omit?

    It feels a little like grabbing at straws, but if it’s a tool I can exploit, I’d really like to know.


  • Harry

    Definitely fine to mention it. It won’t help much, but it sends a useful signal. Good luck!

  • Hi Harry
    I’m an author of children books in Portugal and I’m currently writing my first novel.
    I want to send it to an UK agent. Can I send it in portuguese or should I look for someonoe to translate it first?
    Other question, will the agent accept to read my manuscript if my query letter (in english) has any error or weren’t well written once I’m not english?
    How can I find someone to revise my english before I submit my query letter?
    What should I do?
    Thank you
    Best Regards

  • Harry

    Sandra – of course you need to submit your material in English: agents can’t sell a portuguese language manuscript. You should also make sure that the query letter reads well in English – agents will assume that a poorly written letter equals a poorly written MS. We can’t help with the translation. We CAN offer a copyediting service that would cover the whole MS & letter. That way you can be sure the whole MS is reading well throughout. But really, you are MUCH better off getting a publisher in your local language (and there’s a huge Brazilian market as well as a small local one), then asking that publisher to sell world rights on your behalf. It’ll work much more easily that way!

  • Stacey

    I am in the process of writing my cover letter and synopsis. Although, I have a question, and if someone could please help me with this, it would be muchly appreciated.
    It’s to do with the actual genre of my novel, and seen as though I need to specify what genre I believe my novel falls under in the query letter, I need to get this right. Problem is, I’m not too sure where to place my novel. Not because I’m not confident that it is salable, but because my novel has a young protagonist (sixteen-years old) So, most of my novel does read as young adult. However, there are themes, and language in the book that aren’t appropriate for anyone under the age of sixteen to be reading. Things such as drugs, domestic-violence, etc. It’s really a thriller with a YA voice, but i’m not sure where this would fit. Can it just be labelled as thriller if this is the case? I’ve researched the genre of new adult, but that seems to only be for novels with a protagonist aged eighteen to twenty-five.
    Can you understand my confusion? I’m pretty sure an agent isn’t going to look twice at my book if I say ‘My novel will fit nicely in the ‘young adult, but not really suitable for anyone under the age of sixteen young adult, and thriller’ department =)

    If I go with anything, it’s going to be thriller. But, I guess I just wanted some advice on how a professional would see a thriller with a YA protagonist fitting into the market. Maybe I’m getting myself in a kerfuffle over nothing. =)

    Thanks in advance.


  • Harry

    Possibly a kerfuffle over nothing – the best advice is just to present your MS honestly and see what comes back. It should be perfectly possible to have an adult thriller with a teen protagonist.

  • Stacey

    Thanks, Harry, your words.
    I’m a feeling de-kerfuffled now =)

  • I am writing a novel for young adults and have used some bad language to make it sound more funny. Would this be excepted in to days novels and also for sex being told in funny ways as well .
    Many Thanks for your help Harry , in advance

  • Harry

    Depends on your exact market. Find some similar work and stay within the boundaries of what you see there. In principle, bad language is OK, but used sparingly only.

  • Connie

    I wrote a memoir. I live in Europe but want to find a publisher in the US because I wrote it in English and it is about my time when I lived in the US. Will the geographical distance make it more difficult to get my work published? Any advice for memoir query letters?
    Thank you!

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  • Harry

    Yes, there can be a little extra hurdle involved in the territory jump, but if the MS is really right for the US market and if it’s strong enough to sell, then a little persistence will get yuo what you want. Good luck!

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  • Thank you for your advice, I’m in the process of writing my first children’s novel and am really grateful for all the useful information available on the Internet thanks to people like you.

    I just wanted to point out that your last sentence contains a superfluous word (“then”), seeing as it keeps being drilled into us aspiring authors that you lose all credibility due to even the slightest grammatical errors.

    “For more advice on securing a literary agent (and for sample query letters) then see the advice here.”

    All the best and thanks again!

  • Klaudia

    Can you tell me how should I write my letter if I’ve got few books? I should talk about all of them? I think letter could be really long…
    Thanks! xx

  • Harry

    Focus on the specific one you want the agent to sell first. Mention the rest only in a short para at the end of the letter. Good luck!

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  • Stephanie Stephenson

    I’ve written a book, several in fact, linked together by common denominators, extraordinary coincidences, in my life, my family, involving current and historical affairs. It grew rather like an oak tree, from years of research. I am certain it is a Best Seller, it is so unique. Where do I go from here?

  • Justin

    I have a book that I have edited extensively and most people that read it say that it is great and give me credible feedback. My main problem is that I am very young – only fifteen. Would my age be a major setback in publishing?

  • Harry

    Age isn’t an issue; quality is. As it happens, we’ve never seen a novel by a teenager be taken on by agents. I think it’s just really, really tough to produce a work that’s mature enough without a tad more experience. What we DO see, often, is that people who start out as committed writers in their teens go on to get published in their twenties. Practice makes perfect. And, of course, one day we WILL see a novel by a teenager get published. And we’ll really look forward to that day. Good luck!

  • Justin

    Thank you for the advice. I plan on being the first.

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