When I first began querying agents and editors in the 90’s (Yes, it’s true–years ago, in certain genres, you could submit unsolicited manuscripts to publishing houses, AND, even more amazing, expect and receive lovely, personalized responses!), I was writing romance novels and I used something called the Romance Writer’s Pink Pages in my quest for publication. It quickly became my handbook, my bible. I highlighted the heck out of it, folded over page corners two and three times, scribbled in the margins and underlined, underlined, underlined.
By the time I had finished my fifth manuscript, I had almost memorized the exhaustive list of agents and editors that filled its petal pink pages. I had amassed (and still proudly own) many, many replies, almost all of which were typed or hand-written on letterhead. Some were for partial requests, more were gentle rejections, some even from a few incredibly generous agents who gave me pages (that’s not a typo) of notes, even though they didn’t plan to offer representation.
But with the dawn of email, the game changed a bit. Well, at least the field did, but not the rules. Whether writing to an agent using a typewriter and a SASE, or sending off an email, the basics of query-writing have remained the same through the years and the changing technology. And out of all the query-writing tips that so many other agents, editors and writers have put more eloquently than I will have here, these five have stood out the strongest for me.
1. Keep the query simple. In the old days of hard-copy, it was obvious if your query ran longer than a page, but some might think that email allows for more wiggle-room. Don’t let it. A page is a suitable length for a query and forces you to keep your pitch short and tidy. Always include word count and genre, and cut to the chase as cleanly and fast as you can. You want to entice your reader right away. This isn’t a first date. Feel free to open the closet and let the skeletons fall out as quickly as possible.
2. Make the query about the book. An agent isn’t particularly interested in how old you are, where you live, or how many instruments you play. Unless any of those facts are needed to give credibility to your story’s pitch, leave them out. For now, your product is your book. Focus on that.
3. Know your recipient. There’s no question that the internet makes it easier to learn about an agent’s tastes, and yet we read over and over about how agents are inundated with queries for genres they don’t represent. There’s no reason for it. Maybe you think your novel is so amazing that it will be the one to change an agent’s tastes. Doubtful. In the old days, you might not have dreamed of wasting a stamp on a “what the hey” pitch, but with email, a click is free. But before you click away, keep in mind that agents remember pitches, and why take the chance of looking uniformed when you might actually end up writing a novel that does fit within that agent’s tastes down the road?
4. Keep track of your submissions. And I don’t just mean a checklist, I mean notes. If you plan to write and submit more than one book, always keep a record of which agents requested a partial or full. It is perfectly acceptable, and highly encouraged, to make mention of this in another query for a different book; ie, You kindly reviewed my last manuscript, LOVING LOBSTER, and now I’d like to offer my most recent novel, THE LAST CRAB, for your consideration. Agents have good, good memories, and will usually remember work they wanted to see more of.
5. Be courteous. Agents and editors are as crazy busy as the rest of us. Always take the space to thank them for their consideration and be patient for their reply. Out of office replies are not an invitation to converse further. And as much as we are disappointed by a no, it’s never good form to follow up a rejection with a request for why the agent didn’t want to offer representation. Move on. Query on.
Now your turn: What tip or tips for query-writing have served you the best over the years?