So, you’re ready to write your query. Where to begin? Do you put your address information? Do you put the agent’s address information? How do you write the salutation? Here’s what I have learned, and what I intend to put into practice.
It might help to imagine the worst-case scenario. If the best-case scenario is the agent sitting back in a comfortable chair with his or her favorite drink perusing queries on a large monitor, then just think the opposite. Perhaps the agent is rushing to a meeting with a big publisher with whom he/she is hoping to start doing business. The agent has only the time it takes in the back of a cab before he/she arrives at the publisher’s to review queries on his/her cell phone. In this case, your query has to battle against the agent’s stress factor, limited time, limited attention, and the relatively small screen of the cell phone.
I’ll return to this scenario as we dissect the other elements of a query, but from this we can discern that the most important factors of a successful query will be 1) grabbing and holding the agent’s attention; and 2) doing so within reasonable brevity. Agent advice I have read emphasizes getting to the point quickly. So, when addressing the query, unless the agent’s own submission guidelines tell you otherwise:
- Don’t start with the agent’s address. He/she should know where he/she lives or works. Especially for e-mail queries, this information is redundant and just wastes precious screen real estate.
- Address the agent in the first line (e.g., “Dear Janet”)–more on this below.
- Begin your pitch. Some agents say you should put your novel title, genre, and word count first. Others say it should go at the end. Again, if the agent you are querying has a specific preference, follow that preference. You don’t want to get a form rejection just because you thought you knew better. However, if the agent doesn’t state a preference, my thinking is that you should launch straight into your pitch. Why? The agent might not like your title, or he/she may not be an exact fit for your genre, or he/she may be a little antsy about your word count. If the agent see these things first, while he/she may read your pitch, he/she is starting out with negative feelings. However, if the agent is completely wowed and left salivating after your pitch, the chances are he/she will overlook the fact that it is called MY NOVEL and it is a 200,000 word Romance-Western-Vampire story. (Yes, that would have to be one amazing pitch! )
Let’s jump back to the second point for a moment. The number one, and I mean big NUMBER ONE, huge and glaring faux-pas you can make when querying an agent is to use a generic form of address (e.g., “Dear Agent,” or “To Whom It May Concern”). Even if you are sending out the same query to 20 different agents, and even if we can assume that each agent you are querying knows they are getting the same query as everyone else, you never do this. Each query should be personalized to the agent you are addressing. The pitch might be exactly the same, but taking the time to tailor your query to show that you at least remember the name of the agent to whom you are pitching can make the difference between your query being read, and a form rejection at the first line.
This leads to a second, almost as important follow-up point. Never bulk-query. Always send one query to each agent. In other words, the “To” line on your e-mail query should contain the e-mail address of one agent and one agent only. Yes, the agent knows he or she is not the only agent you’re querying, but that appearance of personal attention tells the agent that you have given serious thought to the prospect of that person representing your work. Your query should not be like junk mail, or spam. You should know and care about who gets your query. If you don’t, perhaps your novel isn’t worth that much to you. And if it isn’t worth that much to you, how are you going to help sell it–and why should an agent care about it more than you?
What if you want to query multiple agents within the same agency? Most agencies have no problem with this (check the agency’s guidelines), however, the general policy is that you don’t simultaneously query agents at the same agency. If Agent X at XYZ Literary Agency sends you a form rejection, you may then try Agent Y at XYZ Literary Agency. This avoids the potential situation where both Agents X and Y want to represent you. Also, it’s possible that Agent X might respond along the lines of: “I liked your query, but this is not really my genre. I am forwarding your query to my colleague, Agent Y. She just sold a Vampire Western and I think this would be a great addition to her list.”
We have covered the address; next comes the pitch. This is probably the most difficult part of the query (some would say it’s harder than writing the novel), and it will be the subject of the next part in the series.