October 25, 2009

How to Query a Literary Agent. OK, One Way to Query a Literary Agent. OK, OK, This May Work For You.

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:14 am

Through an area writers network called MEWSIE I’ve met a writer who’s inspired a small group of us to start meeting, critique each other’s work, discuss the writing life. I haven’t done this in a while, and even though while on sub I don’t have anything to be critiqued, maybe I’ll start a short story or something. At the least being with other writers is inspiring (and soothing) and I can offer feedback to those at a different part of the process.

Anyway, this woman has written a memoir and she asked if I thought mass querying was the way to go. She’s already queried two agents and received rejections. What to do now?

So I thought I’d write up my own, idiosyncratic, warts and all, approach to getting an agent. It worked three times, and I had multiple offers each of those times, so hey, you probably could do worse than trying it this way. There are also numerous great books on how to get an agent, THE SELL YOUR NOVEL TOOLKIT by Elizabeth Lyons, Noah Lukeman’s work (he is an agent himself), and many agent blogs like Kristen Nelson’s, Jenny Bent’s, and others, so you might want to read those, too.

But here’s what I did. As opposed to Mass Querying, I call it Targeted Querying.

First, each offer I received was from an agent I’d queried cold. From time to time I wrote to an author who agreed to let me use his or her name when contacting his or her agent–Chris Bohjalian’s, Jodi Picoult’s–and although this usually resulted in a read, it never garnered an offer of rep. So it is possible to cold query and meet with success.

I found agents to query in the print bible of agents, Jeff Herman’s guide, and also online at Publishers Marketplace.

Another excellent way to target agents is to read the acknowledgments sections of books you like. Go to a bookstore–buy something–or a library–check something out–and spend all day browsing. Or look through your very own bookshelves. Any agent you find this way should know it. “I’m contacting you because I am a big admirer of Writer X’s work….”

My letter morphed over the years. As you know from this blog, it began as a big, boastful, bloated document that I’m still shocked got any offers. But I grew more realistic and humble as time passed–as author James LePore says, this process will bring a man to his knees, and that goes for women, too–and my query reflected this.

It always contained these four things: an intro line specifying why I was contacting this agent. It didn’t matter if I found the agent in a guide or online or screaming on a street corner that she was desperate for clients (OK, that never happens)–I came up with a specific reason why I thought Agent X and I would be a good match. They were always truthful. I worked backwards sometimes, finding an agent who seemed approachable, then looking up her client list or facts about her agency. But I always made it clear that I was sending a query to someone I particularly wanted to work with.

Mass mailings tend to get ignored in all walks of life. How closely do you look at the Dear Resident mail you get?

Then I would include a pitch paragraph in the body of my letter. This read like flap copy, describing my book. I set it apart in space on the page, bolded it–anything to make it jump out. In November I will be presenting a unit at a conference solely devoted to crafting this sort of pitch, then presenting it to editors from the majors.

Next, a brief bio. Of course, this should contain writing credits if you have them. But if you don’t, don’t worry. I didn’t have a single one for any of my querying efforts. I still would debate including what creds I have, since at this point they are for online pubs that haven’t had a chance to build up a reputation yet, and those are of debatable value to an agent.

(Note to self: future blog topic…)

But there are other things to say. Have you attended any writers conferences or workshops? Those show you’re serious about learning your craft. Do you have a second (first) career that is connected in some way to the topic of your novel? For instance, are you a cop or a PI and you’ve written a mystery? A doctor and you’ve written a medical thriller? A boarding school teacher and your book takes place in a prep school? Mention it.

Then a simple close about how your ms is complete, you’d be very pleased to send on either a partial or a full (depending on what the agent is requiring), and a thank you to Agent X for his time and consideration.

Click send, or drop in the mail (if so, include an SASE; debate aside, this will save you not hearing from those agents you’ve just made life harder for, and if it ranks you as an amateur…hey, you’re looking for an agent, you are an amateur whatever that means), then sit back and…wait.

At some point, I’ll write more on the waiting game. As much as writing, it’s the business of writers.

Hope this adds a bit to the terrific stuff out there on this subject! Please leave comments and questions…I’ll do my best to answer them all (or ask someone who can). And best of luck with querying!


  1. Jenny, what a brilliant and honest approach to querying for an agent. It should be personal, and there should be some kind of connection, even if it’s surface. The stilted, cookie-cutter query letters have got to be the bane of their careers. Can you imagine how refreshing it must be to read one where it’s obvious someone took time to see them as people?


    Comment by Peg Brantley — October 25, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Peg. Writing is such a small business in some ways–it’s amazing how people I queried appear and reappear in different ways in my (pre)career–I’m glad I took time to get to know them in some small way. The relationships only get deeper from there.

    Comment by jenny — October 25, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  3. I love this. What a fantastic blog entry. I couldn’t agree more about JEFF HERMAN’S GUIDE, and also about cold contact. I tried agents who had repped friends, agents I’d been recommended to: no dice. But cold contact worked for me. I also completely agree that people don’t often seem to think outside the box in order to give themselves credit for the histories they do have. I was a terrible querier, though, writing often literally hundreds simultaneously. Bad author! BAAAD author!

    Comment by sapphiresavvy — October 25, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  4. Hey, whatever works…Seriously. I should’ve included that in this post. Maybe this will work. But if it doesn’t, whatever furthers our efforts to play this crazy game–that’s the way to do it.

    Comment by jenny — October 25, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

  5. As an intern for an agent as well as a writer (I’m agented but have not yet started subbing) I think most of your post is spot on, Jenny. Never send a letter addressed to Dear Agent. At the very least, use the individual’s name. And make sure you check to make sure you’ve switched it since the last query you sent out. ;)

    A hook and a paragraph or two about your ms. (This is often a lot harder to manage than you think it will be, so patience is key!) and a pargraph about your pub creds IF YOU HAVE ANY. If you don’t, don’t worry. It won’t make or break your chances with most agents, I don’t think. If you have an MFA or you know someone or you have pub credits, by all means USE THESE PIECES OF INFO IN YOUR QUERY LETTER.

    State the number of words and the genre somewhere in there — they are helpful.

    Include ten pages with your query letter unless the agent says I will throw away your query letter if you send me ten pages. Send the very first ten pages, not some from t he fourth chapter because you think they are your best. Agents are (obviously!) big readers, so they will most likely read your ten pages even if they didn’t ask for them. This CAN make a difference.

    Do NOT send queries to agents who you know don’t rep. your work. Big waste of time for both you and the agent, will just garner you a rejection when you may be feeling low in the first place.

    Always, always be polite.

    Comment by Judy — October 25, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

  6. Great additions, from right in the trenches–thanks, Judy!!

    Comment by jenny — October 25, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

  7. Thank you for writing this, Jenny! It’s the most helpful piece I’ve read on querying and inspires me to try again. Brava!

    Comment by Christine — October 25, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

  8. Great post, Jenny. As someone who is about to dive into the query process, I found this quite timely. Everyone emphasizes the importance of the “hook,” but I think the personal touch is almost more important. It shows that you’ve done your homework.

    Comment by Jeanne — October 25, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

  9. I have everything crossed for you, Christine!

    Comment by jenny — October 25, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  10. Oooh, more querying, so exciting! I know it can be a hard process, but the good thing about looking for rep (as Sapphire points out) is that there are many, many agents. You can keep enough balls in the air that you’re nearly always getting nibbles and bites–and those can be so encouraging…

    Comment by jenny — October 25, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

  11. I sent 63 queries to agents when I was looking. I didn’t know any published, agented writers; I didn’t know anybody whose cousin’s wife’s best friend was an agent; I didn’t have much of a chance to see who represented authors who’d written works like mine. It was cold querying all the way.

    The Writers’ Market guide to agents gave me names and information, which I dutifully checked over; I sent queries only to agents who were interested in historical fiction and who were taking on new clients. After exhausting my list (about 40 agents), and getting perhaps 5 requests to see the usual first three chapters, which were all returned with refusals, I finally said, “Damn it, I’m going to query every agent in Literary Market Place who represents fiction, no matter what, starting at A and working down to Z.” Yes, a semi-targeted mass query (of course addressed to individuals by their names, not to “Dear Agent”).

    Some weeks later, I got an offer of representation from a top agent in New York, whose LMP listing said specifically “Not currently looking for new clients; represents very few new writers.” If I hadn’t gone for broke and ignored that note, who knows how much longer I would have been looking? (Thank goodness his name began with C…) I’ve now been with the agency for twelve years and have had four novels published, with a fifth on the way.

    The moral of this story is: be persistent, and don’t let yourself be held back by warnings that Agent X is exclusive and “never takes on new clients.” And, for heaven’s sake, if you’ve been rejected by two agents and are wondering if you should keep at it: believe me, you haven’t even BEGUN the process. Two is nothing. Grit your teeth and prepare to be rejected by fifty. But if you are talented and persistent, you WILL get a good agent.

    Comment by Susanne Alleyn — October 26, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  12. Judy, those were fantastic additions that everyone in the query process should know!

    Comment by sapphiresavvy — October 26, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  13. Some other hints you might have included: be direct, be short. A query letter should be limited to a single page if at all possible. Advice about honesty you gave is also good. Agents, like writers, talk to each other. If you are rude or a pain to one, you risk being labeled as a pain to all.

    Comment by carl brookins — October 26, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  14. Yes, I forgot to say keep your query letter to one page! Great point!

    Comment by Judy — October 26, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  15. Thanks for sharing your great story, Susanne–both inspiring and illuminating. What I take from it is think outside the box, and you never know which road might pay off, even if a ‘dead end’ sign is up on it. And Carl’s point about the small world of publishing is oh so true…

    Comment by jenny — October 26, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

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