Now that I’ve re-opened the agency to queries, I want to make good on a long-ago promise to write about what makes a query stand out for me. Many writers have told me that writing a query letter is harder than writing a novel and I can certainly see why. But it also forces you to think about your work in broad strokes, its themes and its subject matter, and gives you some sense of how to talk about it in a few sentences, which is something you’ll have to do anyway when you appear on Oprah!
A query stands out:
1. When it is well-written. This seems obvious, but in fact even if you are a good writer it is not easy to write a query letter that reflects your writing ability. Still, it’s important that the letter reflects how well you can write.
2. When the letter includes apt comparisons. Let’s face it, very few authors will write a book that will do as well as The Help or The Da Vinci Code so it’s better to be a little more modest – and more realistic – in one’s comparisons. But do include them, as they are extremely useful in situating your query in my mind.
3. When the synopsis is succinct and provides not only a brief summary of the story but also its themes.
4. When the bio gives an indication of why you are writing this particular book at this particular time. No need to include hobbies or marital status. I want to know who are as a writer, what led you to write this book.
5. When the letter gives me a sense of why you are querying my particular agency. I don’t represent everything, I clearly have areas of specialization. What do you know about my agency that makes you feel I would be a competent agent for your project?
6. When the letter demonstrates familiarity with publishing, its genres, its fads and trends and you give me a sense of how your work fits (or doesn’t) into them.
Hope this was helpful!
Dear aspiring authors,
I’m delighted to tell you that I’m once again reading and responding to queries. While I am interested in a broad array of projects, I’m particularly eager to find women’s fiction, YA and thrillers. Strong writing and a good story are a must, of course, but beyond that I am also looking for stories that will surprise me, provide a glimpse of an unfamiliar world, reveal the unexpected, contain characters who I am compelled to get to know better.
Thank you in advance for including my agency in your submission. Please read my submission guidelines for details on what your query should contain.
I’ve never done this before but I feel I have no choice. I am so behind on reading submissions that I have been carrying around a knot of guilt. I am keeping all you talented authors waiting much too long and it has to stop. So I am working very hard to get on top of my submissions. I do hope you will send me your queries when I reopen.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading queries these last few weeks and even though I try to be objective and reasonable and give every query a fair chance there are little things that irk me. I don’t want them to but they do. I’m afraid they probably bias me from the outset. Here are some of my pet peeves:
1. When the query letter is addressed to Dear Agent or, even worse, to Whom It May Concern. Forgive my fragile ego, but I would just so much prefer to be addressed by name rather than instantly know that I am one of hundreds this query was sent to in an email blast. Even though we all know that you are querying multiple agents, I guess we all want to be made to feel a little special.
2. When there are fifty other email addresses in the address field. See above for why this irks me.
3. When the first paragraph begins with “so and so thought you’d be interested in my book” and I’ve never met so and so or even worse, I have no idea who so and so is.
4. Similarly, when the query writer claims to have met a client who urged him/her to send a query to me. Of course I immediately verify this with said client only to find out that the supposed encounter never happened.
5. Similarly, when the query writer tells me that someone I have had a falling out with (and yes this has happened to even a peace-loving soul like me) has referred them to me. This is probably not a guaranteed way to get your query read.
6. Grammar mistakes, spelling errors, typos. These induce anger, I don’t know why and I can’t help it. I know that many very wonderful writers do not spell well and so I still read the entire query but I do so while gritting my teeth.
7. Listing multiple projects in the same query. While I’m always eager to know what other projects authors are working on, I would like to be sent just one for consideration. If I like it, I will ask about the others.
8. Five query letters in a row for five different projects – from the same author. See above. While it is impressive to know an author has written multiple works, it’s not entirely confidence-inducing to know that none has as yet been published, so it’s better to keep this information to yourself until a dialog has been established.
9. No biographical data. I’d like to know a little bit about previous writing experience and what led the author to write this novel.
10. Queries sent to the wrong email address; queries sent without the five sample pages; queries for projects that are entirely outside my sphere of interest. I feel grateful and honored to receive so many queries but it puzzles me why someone would not do a simple check of my submission guidelines before sending. It’s a simple but effective way of ensuring that your query will be read.
11. Nasty vicious retorts to my standard rejection. I get hundreds of queries a week and while each one is read with great care it is truly impossible to respond to each one individually. While I am fully aware of the amount of work and commitment that has gone into writing an entire manuscript and into crafting the query letter, I believe it’s essential that that commitment extend to professional and courteous conduct throughout the querying process, painful though it may be.
Next week: What makes a query stand out.
My wonderful intern Vina Castillo attended the Agency Interns Networking Toolbox, sponsored by AAR and came back with this report:
Brimming with eager interns alert to any advice and words of encouragement, The Agency Interns Networking Toolbox consisted of a panel of top notch publishers including Amy Einhorn, Jonathan Karp, Sarah Crichton, Julie Strauss-Gabel, and was moderated by agent Gail Hochman. After the esteemed panel members provided an insight into their successful careers, agent Hochman was curious as to what is the best possible relationship publishers look for with agents. All four publishers agreed that the bond between agent and publisher can only truly come to fruition when both sides are passionate about the manuscript and when both are aware of the constant work that is required to get it published. After all, its a long journey from acquisition to publication and beyond.
As for authors looking for agents, they had this advice: familiarize yourself with who you would like to work with. Do not look for an easy yes. Does the agent represent work that is in some aspects similar to your manuscript? Either in style, overall message, audience? Alas, as Amy Eihorn (Penguin) pointed out, it isn’t necessarily attractive if a manuscript resembles a known hit. Agents and publishers are looking for innovate, unique material that will surprise and them and can surpass past bestsellers.
The conversation then turned to the hot issue of the moment: YA. Young Adult books are currently at their peak, from Vampires to Dystopia. Curiously enough Julie Strauss-Gabel, VP and Publisher of Dutton Children’s Books who is responsible for award winners John Green (who quite possibly changed my life) and Scott Westerfeld, has been resoundingly declining Vamps and dystopias for strictly literary YA. There is no guarantee that vamps will live on, at least not with The Big Six publishers.
As an intern for Ayesha Pande whose literary taste breaks the current mold of bestsellers, this panel reinforced my belief that trends are temporary and for a manuscript to truly succeed it must be timeless.
– Vina Castillo
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