Query letters to agents… (pet hates)

I watched a great film at the weekend – About Time directed by Richard Curtis. Have you seen it? If not, I would definitely recommend it, although I warn you that it’s terribly sad!

The idea for this post came from a moment in the film in which the main female character talks about her job as a reader for a literary agency and mentions the vast quantities of manuscripts that cross her desk. Of course, she’s an entirely fictional character (who is magically lucky enough to end up working with Ian McEwan), but it made me think of the hours and hours of time that most writers put into their manuscript and the relatively little time that is given to them by readers.

So what can you do to give yourself a better chance of jumping out of the slushpile (aside from the obvious answer of writing a cracking unputdownable best seller that will make every reader fall in love with it from the very first line)? Well, you can write a great introduction to it – a query letter, if you will. Easier said than done? Yes, but here are some words of wisdom which I’ve gathered from agents at literary events, which might prove helpful.

  1. Make sure that you always use the first name of the agent that you’re pitching to. You have a much better chance of an agent warming to your work, if your query is directed to them specifically. It sounds obvious, but do your research on agents within individual agencies and tell them why you think your book will appeal to them specifically – e.g. ‘I noticed on your website that you have an interest in YA historical fiction…’
  2. Never, never mailmerge – there’s nothing worse than an agent seeing that you’ve done a generic query letter and just mailmerged in the names of different agents/agencies. And if something goes wrong with the mailmerge, you will have ruined your chance with all the agents you’re querying, not just the one!
  3. Sense-check what you’ve written – make sure that you don’t have any obvious clangers. Several agents I’ve met have said that they’ve had email queries from writers who have said that they’ve ‘attached an SAE’ – don’t be that person.
  4. Make sure you have all the right attachments in the format in which they’ve asked for them – every agency is different. Some want the first 10 pages, others the first 3 chapters or anything in between. Follow their instructions carefully.
  5. Remember to include your address and contact details, particularly if you’re submitting by post!
  6. Say a bit about yourself, but keep it relevant and related to your writing career. The query should be mainly about your book, not about you as a person.
  7. Be succinct and to the point when describing your work – many agents say that they are constantly ‘battling against the vague’ and find it incredibly frustrating to be merely told ‘I hope you enjoy reading my novel.’
  8. Don’t be super humble, but also don’t go the other way – Don’t tell the agent that your work is similar to ‘x author’. They want to judge that for themselves.
  9. Don’t say that your kids/partner/friends love your book and therefore imply that it must be great – sadly the above mentioned people are likely to be very biased…
  10. Check all your spelling and grammar!

Do you have any other tips to share?


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