The publishing industry shifts and changes constantly. What worked for a query letter even ten years ago isn’t what agents currently prefer. I’ve hosted many query webinars, worked with hundreds of agents, and there’s a standard method for queries in the industry today that gets the most important information to the agent first.

It’s simple, clean, and requires you to be a minimalist.

They don’t want to scroll the email down. The following is a conglomeration of what I’ve learned over the years.

I’ll try to keep this updated as things change. There are still a few agents out there who might want a different format. You can easily research them and see at the following haunts…

Publisher’s Marketplace | Manuscript Wishlist | Twitter Lists like this one… | Writer’s Digest New Agent Alerts

 

GENERAL ADVICE…

Send what’s asked for and only what’s asked for. Only the number of pages, only the first pages, a synopsis if they ask for it, not your favorite chapter, etc.

Send to the query email. Do not use the agent’s business or contact email unless it’s the incredibly rare occasion that they are the same. But make sure.

Use at least a medium size font in the email. If snail mail, 12 pt, Times New Roman. Business letter format. The last thing they need is to go blind.

You don’t have to tell them what their submission requirements are. (i.e. As per your submission requirements, I’ve included the first ten pages below.) They know and will assume you followed their instructions.

Do not ever send cc’d or bcc’d emails to agents. They have filters that will bounce you into their spam.

Keep the word count as low as possible. 300 words max.

 

THE SUBJECT LINE…

Most agencies will have a specific format for the subject line. Follow it.

If there isn’t one, put in, “Query MANUSCRIPT TITLE”

EXAMPLE:

Query BEST BOOK EVER

If you don’t follow the guidelines they’ve set up, they most likely have filters that will send your email to spam. Just like they have filters that send your email to their inbox if they include the word ‘Query.’ And spell it right. Just double check. We’re human.

 

ADDRESS THE AGENT…

Use ‘Dear’ and their name. Keep it simple. Their eyes will skip over this quickly if it’s the correct spelling, and they’ll be glad you didn’t try anything fancy.

If you misspell their name, it’ll most likely be a pass.

If you don’t know their name, you shouldn’t be querying them. NEVER put any general address, such as ‘To Whom it May Concern,’ or ‘Dear Agent.’

If they introduce themselves on their website as Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. then use this when querying. Otherwise, first name is usually best. Use their first name or last name. If using the last name, use Mr., Ms. for women unless you are sure they’re married, and be sensitive of agents who identify with the gender pronoun ‘they.’

EXAMPLE:
Dear Heather,

 

PERSONALIZE AND INTRODUCE YOUR BOOK…

This is the title paragraph. The first sentence (or two if you have space) should contain why you’re querying this agent. Something as personal as possible without being creepy. Do not be proud of stalking them. Agents know it happens, but be sensitive to their personal space and be professional. This sentence is quite possibly the beginning of a lifelong, professional relationship. Don’t bullshit your way there.

Some good examples to use are:
~ they represent an author your work is similar to
~ they represent a novel close enough, yet varied enough, to your novel
~ they requested your work at a conference or workshop or webinar (In this case, there is usually also something they’ve asked you to include in the subject line of the email. Don’t forget these. They’ll lift you out of the slush.)

If you have had personal contact with the agent, it’s good to mention it.

When discussing your book, don’t say you hope or you might. Be confident. I think you’ll like…

The second part of this paragraph should be your book, the title in all caps, the genre, age category, word count.

EXAMPLE:
Thank you for the wonderful class you gave for us at Random Writing Event. While my manuscript isn’t straight from  your wishlist, it does include some fringe sci-fi I think you’ll enjoy. BEST BOOK TITLE EVER is a(n) Age Category Genre, complete at ??,000 words.

Caveat…if your word count is very high, don’t include it. (But they might know…)

 

THE HOOK…

There’s an option here to set apart a hook or tagline, strapline, endline, whatever you want to call it. If you have a great one you think will catch agents’ attention, let it stand out as its own paragraph here. Use caution doing this. If the tagline is outstanding, sometimes it’ll get an agent to just skip down to the pages and start to read. This could also be the last sentence of the title paragraph, especially if you’re short on space or you know the agent doesn’t want to scroll the email down.

EXAMPLE:

Best friends make the deadliest enemies.

Winning will make you famous. Losing will earn you certain death. (Hunger Games)

Some people have started using comparable titles here instead. If you do decide to use comps, make sure you’re being specific and realistic. The comps should be recent, published within the last two years. They should add clarity to a comparable setting, style, or fan base.

 

INTRODUCE THE MAIN CHARACTER AND INCITING INCIDENT…

Make sure this section is from the MC’s perspective. Don’t talk about what their father or sister or best friend did that made them this way. Keep it centered on the MC. If this is a middle grade or young adult query, it’s helpful to state their age. Not an absolute though. Nothing in writing ever is.

Tell us about the main character’s unique yet normal-for-them daily life. DO NOT include backstory. Then give us the inciting incident and how the balance is upset. (They’ll try to maintain the status quo but will be unable, which will have a domino effect as they try to rectify their life and only make things snowball to the key incident.)

THE KEY INCIDENT THAT FORCES THE HERO TO MAKE A CHOICE, WITH STAKES EITHER WAY…

This paragraph should mention some of the dominoes that fall as a result of the inciting incident, but not more than a sentence here. What we need is the thing that happens that sends the hero on their journey, and what is going to happen if they decide not to go–stakes!

If your novel is a dual POV, you can make the second paragraph from the other main character’s perspective, so the query shifts in the same way the novel does. This would be a second paragraph that would introduce the second MC and their inciting incident, then wrap up with a third paragraph that brings the two story lines together. Or you can just have a brief intro of MC number two and then a weaving of the story lines to get the stakes for everyone.

For some examples of these paragraphs, see my post here. It says it’s about pitches, because that’s what your query is. Just take the pitch and add relevant details until you reach your word count. Not the other way around.

 

YOUR BIOGRAPHICAL PARAGRAPH…

If you don’t have anything writing related to share, agents will tell you over and over to just skip this part.

If you’re part of a writing group, if you have education that influences your work, if your day job informs your writing, then include it.

Most agents will indulge your for one sentence, but if you include information not relevant over one sentence, you’re risking rejection. This is a professional, business letter. If you were sending a proposal to a bank asking for a loan to start a new business, would you discuss your puppy and your nice home in the hills of Montana where you raise chickens? I hope not.

Every word you make them read that’s not vital to your story or specific to a writing career is another word that keeps them from your sample pages.

And if they like those sample pages, they’re going to use your links that you’ve provided in the signature to turn the tables and check you out. They’ll find out from your website or Twitter or Facebook links that you love to weave bracelets and are obsessive about retweeting cat pictures.

MY OWN EXAMPLE…

I’m currently an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing and manage queries for Secret Agent at The Best Agency. For three years I was Managing Director of Pitch Wars and #PitMad. Previously an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, US, I now freelance edit. I have a BS in Biochemistry, am a member of SCBWI, and teach regularly at writing conferences as well as attend them to continue improving my craft.

 

NOW PUT IT ALL TOGETHER, ADD YOUR INFORMATION, AND END GRACIOUSLY…

Dear Heather,

Thank you for the wonderful class you gave for us at Random Writing Event. While my manuscript isn’t straight from  your wishlist, it does include some fringe sci-fi I think you’ll enjoy. BEST BOOK TITLE EVER is a(n) Age Category Genre, complete at ??,000 words.

Maxwell Jarvis,works at a children’s hospital and does research in his spare time. He’s hoping to cure all disease with his revolutionary formula. He’s sabotaged by the pharmaceutical company who makes their billions from the sick kids.

What nobody else knows…Max is dying, too. Unless he stops them and finishes his work within the week, his funding will run out, and the living producers of his cures will die–only weeks before himself.

I’m the Managing Director of Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, and #PitMad. Previously an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, US, I now freelance edit and intern for Secret Agent at The Amazing Agency. I have a BS in Biochemistry, am a member of SCBWI, and teach regularly at writing conferences as well as attend them to continue improving my craft.

Thank you for taking the time to read!

Heather

Heather Cashman
@HeatherCashman
www.heathercashman.com
heathercashman@email.com
add your phone number

 

Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

Happy querying!

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