Literary Agent Secrets — Query Letter Do’s and Don’ts from Laura Cross

Today, we have a guest post from Laura Cross, the author behind The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent.

Agents review thousands of queries each year searching for talented writers and material to present to publishers. Yet agents say they reject 99% of the pitches they receive because the writers fail to:

  • Show the agent that they are capable of quality writing
  • Create excitement for their topics or stories
  • Be succinct – providing the information in as few as words as possible
  • Convey that they are professional authors who understand what an agent wants

To help you achieve the 1% status, I have compiled a list of query letter ‘do’s and don’ts’ gathered from my interviews with professional literary agents:

  • Get to the point. Agents are busy people. They only have a limited amount of time to consider your project. If you ramble on about non-consequential things and cannot write a tight, pertinent pitch, an agent will believe you are incapable of writing a succinct and engaging book.
  • Follow the correct format and keep the letter to only one page. The format of your letter demonstrates you are a professional author who understands what is required.
  • Resist comparing yourself and your writing to other authors. Positioning your book alongside other published works in style, subject, or readership is acceptable but do not compare the quality of your writing to established authors.
  • Finish writing your manuscript or book proposal before submitting the query letter. An agent cannot evaluate a project if the manuscript or proposal is not complete and available to review. An agent wants to be able to shop the manuscript or book idea to a publisher immediately.
  • The query should fit the agent’s requirements for genre, word count, or format. Do not waste your time, or the agent’s, attempting to convince her to represent your 115,000-word fantasy novel if she does not represent that genre simply because you think it is a great book. It may be, but agents specialize in specific titles and have cultivated resources and expertise in selling those particular titles.
  • Do not pitch multiple submissions to an agent. Simultaneous submissions, querying more than one agent at the same time, are acceptable, but multiple submissions, pitching more than one project to the same agent at the same time, is considered unprofessional.

Your turn: Do you have any additional ‘do’s and don’ts’ about submitting query letters?

Laura Cross is an author, screenwriter, ghostwriter, freelance book editor, and writing coach specializing in nonfiction books and script adaptation (book-to-film projects). She writes two popular blogs, www.NonfictionInk.com and www.AboutAScreenplay.com, and teaches online writing workshops www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com/workshops. Her latest book is The Complete Guide To Hiring A Literary Agent: Everything You Need To Know To Become Successfully Published. You can download a free chapter, view the book trailer, read the full table of contents, and purchase the eBook at www.GetALiteraryAgent.com.

Laura is also providing us with a giveaway! The winner will be able to take one of Laura’s online writing workshops — your choice of which one from those listed on her site — for free. Just leave a comment with a ‘do or don’t’. I’ll randomly select a winner on Friday, February 19.

11 Comments

  1. Jodi   •  

    Not that I have that much experience but from what I’ve read I would say “Don’t be cute” I think of that movie with REese Whitherspoon where her resume is on pink scented paper. You might be thinking “memorable” but the agent is probably thinking “weird”.

  2. LuAnn Schindler   •  

    A writer needs to have a strong voice that comes through in all of his/her work. If that element is missing, creating a connection with the editor – and eventually, with readers – will be a difficult sell.

    Lora’s book looks like it offers practical advice. Thanks for the list of do’s and don’t’s.

  3. Faith   •  

    I’d love to take one of her workshops!

  4. Susan @ 2KoP   •  

    Been said a million times, but make sure you spell the agent’s name correctly. Don’t cut and paste your query letter and “forget” to change the salutation to the correct name. Tacky, embarrassing and bound to get a rejection.

  5. Laura Cross   •  

    Jodi, LuAnn, Faith, and Susan:

    All excellent query letter do’s and don’ts! Thanks for sharing.

    Best,
    Laura

  6. Iona McAvoy   •  

    DO: Keep the query crisp and clean. Think of yourself in their shoes, how would you like to have to plog through several paragraphs to figure out what the story is about? Also do make sure your query hits what is special about ‘your’ manuscript.

    Iona McAvoy
    Houston, Texas

  7. Julie   •  

    DO provide evidence of your existing readership and what natural networks you’ve already created to help promote your book if/when it’s published.

  8. thursday   •     Author

    Great tips! These are all worth remembering when we sit down to write query letters.

  9. Limari Colón   •  

    I recently read from a popular literary agent that writing your publishing credits on the query letter looks unprofessional if they’re not relevant to your book. He also stated self-published books don’t count as publishing credits.

  10. George   •  

    Thanks for sharing important do’s and don’ts. They will really help.

  11. Steve Baringer   •  

    In addition to the specific structure of the query letter, I think it important to remember that most query letters are rejected. Be it through an official letter/email, or a non-response, even your excellent query letter will probably not lead to success in the majority of cases.

    However, any statistician will tell you that the likelihood of success (even if from random selection) increases with each attempt. So, keep on plugging…

    Example of query letter for my book:
    http://roominsidemymind.blogspot.com/2010/05/room-inside-my-mind-query-letter.html

    And multiple examples of being rejected:
    http://roominsidemymind.blogspot.com/2010/05/getting-rejected-by-agents.html

    And a few notes from major publishing houses:
    http://roominsidemymind.blogspot.com/2010/05/search-for-agent.html

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