Query an Agent: You’ve Completed Your Manuscript; What Now?

You’ve completed your book and are looking into trade publishing but how do you get them to pick up your manuscript? You have to Query an agent. Read on to learn more.

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You have written a fictional novel, gone through several editing phases to polish it, and gotten feedback from beta readers; now it’s time to seek an agent for publication if you want to go the trade publishing route. It’s a daunting task that fills aspiring and even veteran authors with dread. We are here to help alleviate some of the tension by giving you a step-by-step guide on how the query process works and what a query letter should look like. Here is a synopsis of what you can expect from this post:

  • What Is a Query Letter?
  • How to Build a Query Letter
  • How to Find Agents to Submit Queries
  • Resource Recommendations
  • My Query Letter is Complete; What’s Next?

What is a Query Letter?

In short, a query letter is a one-page document that you submit once your manuscript is ready to be submitted to an agent/editor seeking representation. It requires quite a bit of research. This document is sometimes harder to write than your manuscript due to the fact that there is A LOT of information in a finite amount of space. But, hey, you’ve just completed a book, don’t let this put too much fear into your writerly heart. Look at it like another challenge, a goal to be attained to finally get that coveted spot on the nearest bookseller’s shelf and into the hands of the next bibliophile lucky enough to purchase your book!

How to Build a Query Letter

The Setup

  1. 12 pt, Time New Roman, Left Justified
  2. (If sending through the mail) Upper Right Corner: Your Address, Phone Number, and Email Address
  3. (If Sending Through the mail) Addressee Information: Querying Agent’s Address, Phone Number, and Email Address
  4. Salutation: Dear Ms./Mr.; Always address the literary agent/editor by name. Going with a generic “Dear Sir or Madam” is not the best approach here. You need to get personal in your professional query!
  5. Paragraph One: Hooking the agent. This should be no more than two to three sentences, establishing a connection between you and the agent. If you’ve met at a conference, make sure to note that here. This connection can also be established through you being a fan of an author they represent(ed).
  6. Paragraph Two: Share vital info regarding your book. This information should include title, genre, and word count. This is the only paragraph that can be moved to a different location within the query. You can choose to place it here, establishing what your book is first or after the summary.
  7. Paragraph Three: Manuscript Summary. This is your most vital paragraph and should take the most time and thought to write. You’ll want to discuss your main characters, what happens, and what choices they’ll need to make. Do not give away all the secrets. Leave some mystery so that you leave the agent wanting more. Structuring this like a cliffhanger is a great option. This could be two paragraphs, but remember the query letter must not be longer than one page.
  8. Paragraph Four: Your Bio. This should be short, concise, and relevant to writing. No more than two sentences. Do you have a platform already? Did you go to school for writing? Have you already been published anywhere? In short, describe who you are and what you’ve done thus far. This will evolve as you become an established writer.
  9. Signature. Short and sweet, it should say: Sincerely, Your Name. Then indicate your preferred mailing method, whether email or SASE, if required.

Once you have your main Query Letter established, you’ll just interchange the information in setup steps 3-5 when creating your next letter.

example-of-a-query-letter
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Build a Query Letter Tracker

Because you’ll be sending out MANY queries, I recommend creating a spreadsheet in either Excel or Google Docs to track research information for each agent/editor as well as who you’ve submitted queries to and their responses.

The Setup

  1. You’ll need a column for each of these bullet points:
  2. Agent Name
  3. Agency/Firm
  4. Submission Rules, I recommend pasting the URL as well as anything of note for quick reference.
  5. Submission Email
  6. Does the agency/firm have a policy against querying multiple agents in the same agency/firm?
  7. Response Time
  8. Notable Information (what kind of response to expect; how to follow up; former/current clients and the books represented)
query-letter-tracker-example
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How to Find Agents to Submit Queries.

Here is where that spreadsheet tracker I mentioned will be most useful for you. There are many websites with databases that list an extensive array of literary agents looking for new authors. They’re far more helpful than searching individual agencies and surfing their sites. That sounds exhausting. Here are two sites that I recommend:

  • Poets and Writers: You can search for an agent that is specific to your genre/subgenre. It will give you a brief synopsis of who they are and what agency they work for. It will also tell you what genres they’re interested in representing and what authors they have represented in the past. Each agent will have contact information listed and a link to their company website with more in-depth information. This is an amazing way to filter through a massive amount of information and potential agents.
  • AgentQuery: Here, you can search with a bit more criteria than just the genre. You can also filter to agents who accept email queries (most do at this point), an agent who is a member of AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.), and an agent who is actively seeking new clients. Search results will pull up a quick synopsis of each agent/editor and their preferred genres. From there, you’ll be able to click a link that will take you to a full profile that details their professional career and what they’re looking for. These will also link you to the agent/editor’s professional web address and submission guidelines for query letters.

Research Tips

Always look at the prospective agent/editor’s website to be sure they’re taking queries. They may not, and that’s ok. Many times, they will recommend another agent/editor within their firm that is accepting queries.

Research thoroughly. Understand the person you’re sending the query to. Who they’ve previously represented and what books on that author’s backlist they’ve represented will be a huge indicator as to whether you have a shot of garnering their attention.

Resource Recommendations

These resources are geared to make the headache that is querying a little less worrisome. Not only do they provide examples, but many also help you perfect your query letter for a better shot at successfully snagging yourself an agent/editor.

  • The Query Doula, Courtney Maum, gives advice on the query process and understanding the publishing industry. She also has several helpful query packages available to get you where you need to be, whether it’s reviewing your current query letter, helping to elevate your manuscript and query letter or even developmental editing. Each package comes with a one-hour phone consultation after she reviews your work.
  • Jessica Strawser, the former editor of Writer’s Digest, has several package options to help elevate and polish your manuscript and query letter.
  • Jane Friedman has spent 30 years in the publishing industry and is here to help you! She is the editor of The Hot Sheet and a former Writer’s Digest editor; she knows her stuff. Her blog is an amazing resource on its own, with publishing industry tips and secrets every writer needs to know.
  • Need to see successful query letters? QueryLetter.com has 161 examples from famous authors for you to review and see what made them successful!
  • The Query Shark, Janet Reid, has been helping writers since 2003 by critiquing query letters. Not all letters will end up on the blog for all to see, but with twenty years of queries for you to research, she’s provided quite the master class on querying.

My Query Letter is Complete; What’s Next?

Now, it’s time to gather the letters and your tracker and begin submissions. At this point in publishing history, most submissions will be made electronically through email or a form on the agent/editor’s website. You will need to follow the submission guidelines to the T for submission acceptance.

Most submissions will require the following:

  • The Query Letter – This may be as an attachment or, more likely, within the body of the email.
  • A portion of your manuscript. Again this may be an attachment or within the body of the email, but always after the query letter. Each agent/editor varies on what they will accept. Usually, this ranges from a page number count to a certain number of chapters—this is why you leave them on a cliffhanger in the query summary.

Then, hit send and mark the submission date in your tracker.

Words of Wisdom When Feeling Disheartened

You’re going to be rejected — a lot. That’s ok. It’s happened to the most famous writers ever to touch pen to paper, and they’re lauded today. Many of those agents/editors kicked themselves in the butt for the rejection they sent. The rejection does not necessarily reflect anything negative in your work. The agent/editor could be overbooked; the genre isn’t quite the right fit for them, or they don’t think they could represent it in the best light.

So when you’re feeling down for the many rejections, just remember that Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times, Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 134 times, and Stephen King threw his manuscript for Carrie in the trash after he was rejected by 30 publishers. If they had given up, their names and books wouldn’t be what they are today.


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