For many authors who want to publish with a traditional press, the first stage of book marketing is to pitch to literary agents. While there are publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts out there, many will require representation by an agent. A literary agent makes the process simpler for both publisher and author — they ensure the manuscript is good quality and deliver it to interested acquisition editors.
Agents are important for publishing, so it’s no surprise that they receive stacks of query letters all the time. Given that, yours needs to be clear, concise, and persuasive, all in one, to stand apart from the rest. That’s why I’m here to go over some crucial tips that will help you put together a query letter that will capture the eyes of agents.
1. Follow the standard structure
Because literary agents constantly receive query letters from authors, the letter structure has been somewhat standardized to get to the meat of your book faster. This structure goes as follows:
- open with a captivating hook
- describe your project with a powerful synopsis
- confidently share your credentials
- then sign off with a thank you
Not only is this the industry standard, it’s also the most logical way to sell your book. First, you should pull agents in with something intriguing — to ensure they’re itching to read more. In other words, you need a hook, a short couple of lines that make your story’s premise sound irresistible. You may want to experiment with a few different versions, testing it on friends and seeing what draws the best reaction.
After you’ve achieved the first morsels of an agent’s attention, you can satisfy their curiosity and unveil the rest of the story. Through a synopsis, the agent should know about the plot, primary characters, and central conflict of your story.
To further convince them that your manuscript is the one for them, talk a little about yourself, your writing experiences, and whether you’ve published anything before. If you don’t have much experience, you can talk about your inspiration and compare your work to similar titles in the market (more on how to choose these later). Show that you’re a good writer and you know your market, and agents will be interested.
Each section of this query letter structure builds on the previous to strengthen both you and your book. By the end, all you need to do is thank the agent for their time and sign off.
2. Write a maximum of two pages
Query letters are meant to be short; because agents receive so many, they’re grateful for succinct queries. Ideally, you should fit everything on one page, in the standard size 12 Times New Roman typeface. If there’s no way to possibly keep it on one page, set a hard limit of two pages.
This equates to around 300 to 500 words. Since your time and space is limited, you can go into the book’s hook straight away.
Keep the synopsis short and sweet — agents will appreciate it, and it’s also a good way to see whether your book’s theme and concept is solid. If you struggle to put together a satisfying and concise synopsis, it may be a sign that big picture aspects of your book aren’t developed enough — in which case, you might need another round of revision (or the help of an editor).
For your credentials, make sure you’re listing just your most relevant experiences rather than everything under your belt. For example:
- If you’re pitching a young adult novel and you’ve published short stories as well as poems, highlight the prose publications as your relevant experience.
- If you don’t have that much book-writing experience, you can also reshape relevant experience to make it work. Have you got a background in archaeology and are writing an Indiana Jones-esque adventure novel? Mention that! As long as they’re essential in the case of this particular book, you can include them.
3. Emphasize the stakes for genre fiction
When you’re working with fantasy or science fiction, it may be difficult to introduce your book without speaking at length about the world you’ve built — which is understandable since worldbuilding is so important in SFF genres, and you’re probably still partly living there yourself! However, what really keeps readers glued to genre fiction books is the rising tension, and agents specialized in these categories will want to get a taste of that in your synopsis.
Of course, if you have a unique premise — like a trope-defying character or an intricate world — you will want to mention that. But as all successful query letter examples will show, special details should be integrated into your plot, rather than under a singular spotlight. The agent doesn’t need to know specific political structures or powers all too well at this point, but if you tie in a compelling plot progression, they will grow curious.
The same applies for romance, YA, and other plot-based genres. You want to show that your character’s personality and background not only are well-developed but also help propel the story forward.
4. Draw connections with recent comp titles
I mentioned previously that you can reference similar titles to your own to show that you know the market — these are called comp titles, and they can be incredibly helpful tools when pitching to agents, publishers, booksellers, and even readers themselves.
To someone who hasn’t had the chance to read your book, what better way to help them understand than to compare it to a title they may already recognize (and enjoy)? It’s also great for character-based books, which might not have a plot to anchor the synopsis. The keyword here is “recognizable”: you don’t want to pick something too niche that no one would know about.
Now, you may be tempted to list classics — if you do, it might be better to call them your inspiration than to compare your book to them. As well-appreciated as they are throughout time, classic-style books don’t necessarily sell well in today’s market. You want to be more up to date on reading trends, so make sure you read and choose recent titles in your genre too.
And you get an extra point if you can find a comp that the agent you’re querying has represented, which leads us to the final tip…
5. Be personal, but don’t gush
Personalization is an effective and essential technique to your querying endeavor. That said, you don’t want to overdo it.
It’s a given that you will address the agent by name. You can also mention any connection between the two of you — whether it is that you met briefly in a writer’s conference a while back, or that the agent has been recommended to you by an author they’ve worked with. Complimenting a book you know they have published is also a good move, but it’s best to limit it to one or two books. You don’t have to list out their entire back catalog or use only their books as comp titles — they know the books they’ve helped publish, after all!
In other words, you want to build a connection with the agent from the get-go, but you don’t want to cross that line into flattery.
Hopefully, these tips have helped you get a better idea of how to write a query letter that will convince agents. It’s always a challenging mission to find the perfect fit, but you’ll get there in the end. If you have any further questions, the internet is your friend, as you can find free advice on anything you need. Good luck!