How to Write a Literary Agent Query Letter

It has been a while since I’ve blogged about how to write a literary agent query letter. But I have a lot of new readers, and they may not have gone through my archives. So, for them, and for the world, I want to drive home a point about query etiquette that I first introduced in this post about appropriate rejection response:

Don’t serial query.

literary agent query letter
How to write a literary agent query letter: if you receive a rejection, practice, practice, practice, BEFORE you send your next round of queries.

Your Work May Not Be Ready Yet

When I pass on your work, I’m saying: this isn’t ready yet. You probably wrote that project during the current phase of your development as a writer. I’m saying you need to get to the next phase of your development, and possibly the phase after that, or the phase after that phase, before you’re ready. (Need tips for dealing with rejection?)

So don’t send me something else, immediately, from the same phase of your development. Or, even worse, admit that you’re sending me something that’s even older than what you’re querying around now, that’s from an even earlier phase of your growth as a writer. That’s objectively bad query etiquette.

Give Your Skills Time to Evolve

I want people who grow and develop their craft every time they sit down to write. I don’t want your old stuff. I want your new ideas, your new skills, your evolving talent…once you’ve given it time to evolve. My favorite Ben Folds quote is pertinent here, and I say it every time I speak to an audience: “Time takes time, you know?”

For some reason, I’ve been noticing a lot of serial queries lately. A query. A pass. Another query, almost instantly, for an old project you just happen to have lying around. That could possibly work if you had a blockbuster drawer manuscript, but if you do, why didn’t you start out by querying that one?

Send me your strongest work, the best example of where you are as a writer today, then, if you get a pass, go back and write some more. Evolve. Then try again. LATER. Take the time to learn from each submission process. You can’t possibly do that until you’ve gone through the entire book submissions process, though.

How to Write a Literary Agent Query Letter: Be Thoughtful, Deliberate, and Strategic

You really shouldn’t be one of those writers who’s like a log ride: manuscript after manuscript after manuscript coming down your query chute. I only want to work with thoughtful writers who deliberately learn from each craft experience and then strategically plan their next move. No mad grasping. No flinging stuff against the wall just for the hell of it. That’s just my opinion about query etiquette, though. (Check out the elements of a query letter here.) Maybe other agents appreciate getting hit with query after query for all the stuff you have up your sleeves. Go serial query them, once they raise their hands and endorse this practice. 🙂

Wondering how to write a literary agent query letter? Hire me as your query editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

23 Replies to “How to Write a Literary Agent Query Letter”

  1. “What we got here is… failure to communicate.”

    From the writer standpoint of this scenario I’d just like to point out that most agents don’t come right out and say the author is not ready in their rejection letters, and as such we can’t really be expected to read through the lines and assume what your motivations are when passing on our work. We get these generic, “It’s not right for me at this time,” responses that give us little feedback, except maybe that particular submission didn’t exactly churn your butter. Then it turns into a, “Well, if you didn’t like that, maybe you’ll like *this,*” type of thing.

    Granted agents can’t spend the time on each and every query to let us know why they are passing, but at the same time you can’t assume we will automatically know it’s because our work is not strong enough or we haven’t yet evolved to where you think we need to be as a writer if you don’t actually *tell* us that. Like my husband always tells me, “How can someone know if they’re doing something wrong if you don’t tell them?”

    Having said that I never sent a second query to an agent unless she made it clear that she wanted to see something else, but I’m a horrible salesperson anyway. I’d rather write than try to sell my stuff … which gives me the need for an agent but no real patience/skills to acquire one. These kinds of conundrums only confuse me. I can see how someone who is desperately trying to get representation and is getting bupkis for feedback may stumble into this territory.

    Speaking only for myself, if I got a response from an agent that said, “The story was too weak, you need to grow as a writer, you’re not quite there yet,” it’d give me so much more to work on rather than, “Sorry, it’s not right for me but good luck.”

    In short… I’d rather have a Simon than a Paula.

  2. Ginger — I completely understand. The problem is, a lot of writers react as if they’re been given a Simon even when we think we’ve slipped them the nicest Paula in the world. A few times early on I went out of my way to be kind and constructive and, I thought, helpful, only to have writers (who didn’t know any better, so I don’t blame them) freak out or take my suggestions the wrong way. A few of these instances and I retreated into my shell. I don’t really give a lot of feedback unless I’ve read a full and see real promise. It’s really unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Plus, there are the time constraints.

    As for the “we don’t know until you tell us” idea, perhaps it’s not very clear, but if someone’s work was ready for publication in our opinion, we’d take it on and that would be that. If that’s not happening, it’s not ready.

  3. I have to agree with Ginger. When you say to a writer “this isn’t right for me right now, but I would be interested in your other work” you are saying to anyone “hey send me other work you have”. so they do. Then you have to criticize them for it? That makes no sense. You asked them for other work. Lots of writers have several ready manuscripts. They send one because of a blog post or a mention of a specific aspect you like, even though they have several that would be a good fit according to their research. The one they send is just timely.

    IF you don’t want to see other projects from writers, don’t tell them to send one in your rejection. Just say no. You won’t get anymore from them for a while that way. Say what you mean.

  4. Mary, Thanks for being my Simon at NJSCBWI! That is who I needed and wanted.

  5. As for the “we don’t know until you tell us” idea, perhaps it’s not very clear, but if someone’s work was ready for publication in our opinion, we’d take it on and that would be that. If that’s not happening, it’s not ready.

    Your statement above seems to completely contradict the idea that agents have different tastes and only take on work that they really love and can champion. You’re essentially saying that any manuscript that is of publishable quality will appeal to you, which I find hard to believe.

    I can understand that you don’t like it when writers freak out over your suggestions or take them the wrong way, and therefore you shy away from doing that. But at the same time, I agree with Ginger. It’s much more fruitful for the writer if we get a form rejection that says, “I’m sorry but your work just isn’t quite there yet” as opposed to the ones that are completely vague and leave you wondering, was it really just that she didn’t connect with the voice? Is it because she thinks it would be a hard sell? And I’m not saying that you should personally respond to every query, but having a couple of different form rejections that address common issues would be more useful than a standard form rejection. And in the end, it may save you some time from having to read serial queries. Or, perhaps the solution would be to just do what other agents do and not respond at all unless you’re interested.

  6. Caitie — I don’t ask for other work in rejections unless I mean it, so I’m not sure this is the reason for the issue, at least in my case.

    Angie — A lot of writers complain when agents don’t respond at all.

    Do y’all see how difficult the issue of rejections is? We get criticized for form rejections. We get criticized for providing feedback. We get criticized for responding in the first place. We get criticized for not responding, etc.

    I don’t mind it at all, it’s part of the business, but the issue of rejections is so fraught for so many different writers and for so many different reasons that it is absolutely impossible to please everyone, or to even try.

  7. I agree with Ginger on this. Along the lines of what she said, one of the issues I’ve come across is my manuscripts are different genres. If an agent says one piece doesn’t work for them, who’s to say that the other piece in another genre isn’t going to be a perfect fit?

    Agents say that we should research them before submitting, and that is great advice. I ALWAYS do my research, and in doing so find new agents to send to all the time. Here’s an example of why someone might serial query:

    Writer has Novel A that’s a fantasy. The writer submits to some agents, and gets rejected. He goes away and revises some more. He puts the novel aside because another great idea in another genre, say mystery, has come (or the idea has come while querying Novel A and he begins writing). He works on the new idea and does a search for agents for Novel B when it’s complete. He queries a new agent he has discovered using new search parameters with Novel B. In other words, this agent wasn’t on the radar for Novel A. The agent rejects the novel encouraging future submissions. Writer looks through agent’s info again and thinks “hey, I have Novel A that might be perfect for this agent! She suggested I submit other works – maybe this story will click with her!”

    Is it REALLY so bad, then, that the writer submitted Novel A? The rejection notice says nothing about the writer’s ability. Writers have been trained by form rejections to think that in many cases the rejection is simply a matter of “this story isn’t quite right for this agent.” I’ve read countless stories about rejections being simply a manner of the story not clicking, bad timing with that particular story, etc. While certainly many writers are rejected for because their writing isn’t up to snuff, if a writer is encouraged to submit more work, I would think that that would be an indication that they were doing SOMETHING right.

    I’m not arguing that writer’s develop over time, but why is it so far-fetched for a writer to believe that another work might be a fit for that agent, especially if they’ve been encouraged to send other works?

  8. I meant “a writer’s work will develop” in that last paragraph. Oops.

  9. Agents see my name on an email and just assume it’s more of the unmarketable, poorly-worded dross that comes from my head!

    This is exactly why I query all 53 of my cross-species paranormal WIPs under my cats’ names. Mr. Fluffy McWhiskers has been getting some great response rates for Blood Curdling Howlz.

  10. This post makes me wince. Serial querying is something I would have done a year or so ago.

    Worse, if an agent said something remotely positive (ie not a form rejection) I might have been MORE inclined to send something else.

    It’s that “Ooh agent likes my writing but just not THAT story! So I’ll send this one instead!” thinking. Even though you know you’ve sent your number one story in the first place, you have this niggling doubt that actually it’s just that Agent X really wants stories about donkeys, not astronauts, so if you send the donkey one, they’ll sign you! Sadly, Agent X doesn’t want your donkeys or astronauts, s/he just wants someone else or, possibly if you’re lucky, you but only once you’ve learned more about the craft.

  11. Renee Gian says:

    Hi, I haven’t serial queried. However, I am wondering about a couple of things. What if the agent/editor says “the writing is good” but it’s not right for me or I can’t imagine the hook, etc? I have been telling myself that when an agent or editor says the writing is good they mean it and they wouldn’t say it if they didn’t really think it. Is this a correct assumption or is the agent trying to be polite and gentle? Secondly, I am sometimes dismayed by the process of querying an agent. It is nerve wracking to research agents and choose the one piece of writing that you think they’ll love. I wish we could query a few different pieces to show our range. Does that make sense? Also, thank you for all of the time you put into this blog.

  12. Hate to say it, but everyone is right–even Mary. LOL

    The first thing any unpublished writer should do is find some GOOD (meaning honest and informed) beta readers who are also writers. If your betas think your manuscript is ready, then it is probably ready. If they don’t, it’s not. And if you have no beta readers, it’s almost a 100% certainty that your manuscript is not ready.

    I think Mary’s point was don’t serial query CRAP, though she was too nice to be so blunt. If you serial query good stuff that’s another story–so long as you research agents carefully to know what they want and what they don’t.

  13. Laura Barnes says:

    I appreciate this post. I have written books for several years and just began querying them recently. As a new querier, this kind of feedback is important. Even though I feel I have valid reasons to be sharing another project (particularly because, I, like others here, feel your “no” may just mean you aren’t interested in this particular idea) I now can see the impression it gives an agent. Great lesson learned!

  14. JH, it sounds like what you’re talking about is querying the same agent again with another brand new MS at some much later stage (which I believe is okay, I’m pretty sure Mary’s written about that somewhere).

    I read Mary’s post as being about the kind of serial querying that is more a case of quickly shooting off another email (with MS) in the desperate hope that this next MS will suit the agent. And I’m guessing that this happens a lot more with PBs than any other genre. Just because PB writers tend to have several stories they think are great or ‘ready’ whereas other genre writers often only have one completed MS.

  15. Queried agents shouldn’t tell you what you are doing wrong. They aren’t your agent. Frustrating? Yes. But part of the process in learning.

    Great post. Love the subject of growth with each project.

  16. Mary, I can very much appreciate that writers (especially being the sensitive lot that we are) may not take constructive feedback very well and as such make it more unappealing for you to provide it. My perspective is a little different, which might give you some insight in my “Give me Simon,” mantra.

    Way back when I sent off my first manuscript to that very first agent, the brave soul took out her bright red pen and proceeded to tear it to shreds. She had no intention of taking me on, because for sure I wasn’t ready, but apparently she felt there was something there worth building upon. When she sent it back I felt my whole creative world shatter and even stopped writing for a while – but I can say now with all certainty that it was the best thing that ever happened to my career.

    Back then, though, I couldn’t see much through my devastated pride. There was barely a page in that manuscript that didn’t have red ink on it, and each mark hit me like a physical blow. I may have even cried. But I’m a nice Southern woman who was able to choke it all down behind a gritted smile and thank her, even if she did destroy my hopes and dreams with one or two (or a hundred) fell swoops of her red felt pen.

    God knows she didn’t get paid to do what she did, and only did it because of the kindness of her heart. It just didn’t feel kind at the time.

    Time gave me perspective and thanks to her effort I’ve learned to make criticism constructive. This was especially helpful when I dipped my toe in shark tank of screenwriting. I’ve worked with directors and producers, and believe me they don’t mince words when something isn’t working.

    Eventually you learn how to make it work for you, and dismiss what is just a matter of taste. And I firmly believe that rejections hover between the two.

    Maybe I have to believe that because even as a working freelance writer, optioned screenwriter who has highly ranked pieces on various websites I was still getting rejections from agents as early as this year, before I decided to pave my own path by self-publishing. This was after crafting my skill by completing eleven manuscripts and eight screenplays over the course of fifteen years, most of which have been read and reviewed by professionals who tell me that I *am* ready, that everything else is a matter of timing and taste.

    I’m in no way a “newb,” and I guess I reject the idea that without an agent validating me I am not “ready.”

    I don’t buy that if A is true then B is always true. Writers, stories and agents are far too different for it to be that simplistic. And if it is that simple, then I’d rather be told that by the agent than brushed off with a more generic, “It’s not for me.” I’m in this business to become great. Mediocre doesn’t work for me anymore than it works for you. I think this holds true for any writer serious about the craft.

    *This is not to suggest that you have to take the time out of your day to do this for every writer that comes across your desk, it was just an example of how a little more information other than a generic form letter helped at least this writer grow. I understand that time is money and it is better invested in those writers who get the “yes” and not the “no.”

  17. Renee, if I may. Even such a rejection as you mention has useful information in it. If the agent says the writing is good, take it with a grain of salt. That’s a broad statement, probably true in some sense that you yourself are the best judge of. I don’t think it’s encouragement to re-submit; just to keep writing. But if the agent says he can’t imagine the hook – that’s a signal that you fell into the ranks of those who fail the basic requirement of a query. You have to provide the agent with the hook. Probably in the first sentence/paragraph, according to my recent research. Either your book doesn’t have a hook, it’s not a marketable hook, or you didn’t highlight the hook properly in the query. It’s up to you (and your writing partners) to figure out which (or revise on the basis of all three possibilities) and fix it before sending it out to the next agent.

    Not to be cruel but I find it’s better to look at any “no” response to a query, not as a rejection on the agent’s part but as a failure on my part. I failed (at least up to this point) to write well enough, or to pick the right agent, or to write the query properly, or to match my book to the market. And I had better work on all of those, just in case. This kind of failure is not the same as failing at life and it may be preferable to whatever alternative failures were available to me at the moment. It’s just – reality. No one owes me anything; I’m not a misunderstood genius; I do have the privilege of trying again. Just… not tomorrow with the same person. 🙂

    Good luck.

  18. I certainly concur with Ginger. I thought I was so ready to query, but then entered a few auctions and won several critiques. Thank the good Lord I did. Those writers were a godsend. They pointed out issues I wasn’t aware I had. I received nuggets of gold. If I had queried, I would have been rejected and never known why. I may still get rejected in the future, but at least these areas of weakness will be improved. Mary even critiqued a piece of my work in the past. She said a character’s responses were too cliched. She didn’t expand beyond this statement, so I still didn’t quite get it. One of the authors that critiqued another piece of work, gave me detailed notes and it became crystal clear what Mary was talking about. A big, bright light bulb came on.

    I totally understand what Mary means about evolving through the phases of writing craft. I’m living it now. Even if you have to pay a professional to look over your writing and give you feedback, it is worth it. My learning curve went up immeasurably. I’m now back in the revision cave and working toward continual improvement. I wish all you aspiring writers the same 🙂

  19. Macy Beckett says:

    Gotta chime in here. While I didn’t “serial query,” I did send a second manuscript (different genre) to my agent after the first manuscript didn’t seem to “wow” her. And thank God I did. The second book is the one she fell head-over-heels in love with, and she called to offer representation three days later. Had I made the assumption that my work wasn’t ready, I’d still be stuck in query hell instead of on sub with an amazing agent in my corner.

    My motto: when in doubt, send the query. Worst case scenario: you get another rejection. Best case scenario: the agent adores your other project.

  20. Mel Robertson says:

    It seems to me that there’s a whole lotta complaining about what agents do and don’t do in their responses to us writers to let us know that they’re not interested. Bottom line, folks…they’re not interested. Find someone else or like Mary said, hone your craft, grow(up), become a better writer. If you’re stuff is good, someone will take you on. If it needs improvement, the end. It needs improvement. NO ONE in this industry is getting paid to let us down gently or coddle us. Gross. I’m glad they don’t. You got a no? Move-the-frack-on. Stop wasting your and their time. Make it better. Make it count. Stop saying crap like, “I’m not a sales person.” If your writing/story is good, it sells itself. There’s no secret formula or handshake here.

    Just my .02

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