In Part 1, I talked about how to compile a list of prospective agents. Now that you have a list of who you’re going to contact, you’ve got to get together what you’ll contact them with: namely, a query letter.
A query letter is a single page cover letter which includes a one or two paragraph summary of the book, followed by a brief author bio.
The author bio should include previous publications, relevant awards and educational history. Work experience, too, especially if it has bearing on your novel (this would be even more relevant in the case of non-fiction). For instance, be sure to mention that you’re a doctor if you’ve written a medical thriller. Likewise for relevant biographical details like years of chess playing when your character is a grandmaster. But keep it straight and to the point. But it’s okay to include things that just make you look like upstanding, hardworking and interesting. Agents like that in a client.
Before you draft your query letter, do some research and look at samples that worked. Like writing great jacket copy for a book, writing a great query letter is an art in itself. It’s also a completely separate skill from writing a great book. That might seem unfair. After all, you’ve written an amazing book, but your inability to draft an equally amazing query letter might keep it from ever being published? Unfortunately, the answer might be yes.
So if this kind of marketing blurb isn’t your strength, get some help with your letter. Have a good friend, critique partner, or outside editor revise your letter. As much as some might wish otherwise, this one page letter couldn’t be more important. It is ALL the agent has to go on unless they ask for manuscript pages at the same time. Even then, they may not look past a so-so letter and read the pages. This is not because agents are bad people, it is because–like everyone else–they have limited time.
In general, be sure the tone of your letter matches the tone of your book. If your book is funny make your letter funny. If your book is suspenseful your letter should be, too. Don’t overdo it, of course, but the letter is your chance to show what you can do in your genre. Don’t squander it.
And don’t worry about hewing exactly to your story line in the letter. You don’t want to misrepresent your book–because that wastes everyone’s time. But if the letter grabs an agent and then he or she asks for your pages and loves those too, they are not going to go back to your letter to see if you exactly represented the entire plot of your book.
Just like the summary that will one day appear on the back of your published book, you’re not going to be able to include everything that happens in the story. The goal is to entice your reader (in this case an agent) wanting to pick up the book. If capturing all the book’s complexities makes your letter weaker leave them aside. Ultimately, it’s your book that will land you the agent, your letter gets your foot in the door.
And don’t be afraid to revise your letter if you’re not getting the intended response. If you don’t have a decent percentage of agents asking to see a partial manuscript, there is probably a problem with your letter (not your manuscript necessarily). Pull it back and make changes.
Likewise goes for your manuscript. If three agents ask to see it and don’t offer representation, consider taking another look at it before your give it to anyone else. And if anyone gives you criticism, use it. Obviously you shouldn’t adapt according to notes you disagree with, but if the feedback resonates make the changes. Agents don’t go around offering feedback on every manuscript they pass on. It’s a great gift when they do.
Just remember, the job of getting an agent is entirely different form the job of writing a book. It’s the business of writing as opposed to the art of it. Recognizing the distinction, though, can make navigating it much easier.