The Perfect 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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18 Responses to The Perfect Literary Agent Query Letter

  1. Taylor says:

    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!
    Taylor

  2. Pingback: How do you find a literary agent? | Write Edit Seek Literary Agent

  3. jake says:

    There is an address you can send your quarry to, and they will give you notes. I havent tried it yet. info@writersworkshop.co.uk . 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.

  4. Maya says:

    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 says:

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

  5. Jem says:

    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 says:

      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!

  6. Karin says:

    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 says:

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

  7. Clare says:

    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 says:

      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.

  8. Khalid says:

    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 says:

      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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  10. Pingback: 9 ways to persuade an agent to take you on (the only ones that matter) | Write Edit Seek Literary Agent

  11. Hendrik says:

    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 says:

      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.

  12. September says:

    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! :)

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