What are you looking for in a query letter?
I get this question a lot, and while I can’t speak for all agents, I can give you a little insight into what I’m looking for. I promise I’m not asking for a lot.
First up: The Opening
A query letter is just that: a letter. It means that you need to format this with all the formalities a letter requires. I’m talking about a greeting and salutation. And I’m not super strict about this. I mean, you don’t have to address me by Mrs. Chambers-Black, but you can if you want to. To be honest, it’s a little formal. You can write any of the following or some type of variation:
And guess what? If you misspell my name, I would never hold against you. My name is unique. But, when you don’t address me at all, it makes many questions come up, and none of them are positive. If you take the time to write a novel, which is not easy, why can’t you take the time to address me?
Next up: First Paragraph
I’m looking for a concise paragraph, sometimes only a sentence or two of what genre your manuscript falls under, the age group, and the word count. You can also personalize it like this:
It was really nice meeting you at [Insert name] conference last month. I really enjoyed your enthusiasm for YA Fantasy, which is why I’d like to present you with SHADOW WATCH, where 17-year-old Sasha finds out she’ll do anything to keep her magic a secret, even murder. The manuscript is complete at 90,000 words.
Now, this is only one variation, but my point here is, tell me what genre you’re sending me, the title, and the word count. You can add a little teaser or logline, but I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.
Next: The Body
The body of your query should be a brief synopsis, and should now introduce me to your protagonist(s), their conflict, stakes, motivation, and goal. For instance:
Ten-year-old Shaun Cooper has it all: he lives in the city, he’s the star of the swim team, and has loving parents. But when tragedy hits and he’s sent to live with a grandfather he’s never met, Shaun finds it hard to adjust.
When he finally comes to terms with his new life, living in a small town, and going to a school without a pool, his grandfather is diagnosed with dementia. Shaun’s first instinct is to cover it up. But as it becomes harder and harder to keep this secret, Shaun is faced with becoming an orphan (again) and losing the best friend he’s ever had.
I made that up, y’all, so if anyone is inclined to write that, I would, I don’t know, be your best friend.
Third: The Bio
Lastly, give me a brief bio, especially if it coincides with the story you have written. You can also share your profession, academic degrees, life experiences, or if you’ve been published before, which can/should include any short stories published in literary magazines.
Lastly: The Ending
After all that, don’t forget to end your letter with a salutation and contact information. You’d be surprised how many writers don’t even leave an email address. If I like your work and want to talk to you further, and not through the query box, how will I do that if you don’t offer me your information?
And, AND, if you have social media accounts, a website, or any other information that lets me get to know you just a bit more, please include it. I cannot tell you how many times I question if an author is the right person to tell a certain story, and it gives me pause on a query because they don’t offer any extra information. Some of you might even hate this part of the query. You might feel like you’re trying to find an agent for your book, so why should it matter.
Well, let me tell you why it matters to me. I don’t just want to represent this manuscript or those illustrations. I want to represent you, your career, and in order to that, I have to get to know you, if even for a little bit.
If that’s not something you’re looking for, trust when I say that there are many, many, many more agents, and keep researching because if you’re not open to me wanting to rep you for your career, you need to keep it moving; I am not the agent for you. And that is okay.
One Final Note:
But what about comp titles?
Did you catch I didn’t mention this yet? Well, here’s the thing. Sometimes including comp titles can be problematic, especially those of you that are a part of one or multiple marginalized groups. The publishing industry is changing—for the better—but until it becomes more diverse, you might have a hard time finding comp titles that won’t sound like:
The Black Goonies meets the Black Newspaper Club. Or, The queer retelling of Cinderella with a touch of Romeo & Juliet, etc.
This does happen, and if you’re okay with it, go for it. But, it makes me cringe that you even have to. Agents and editors use comp titles to understand where your book might fit in the market, but an industry that has been, until now, set up to work against you, shouldn’t hinder you either. So, when querying me, if you don’t have comp titles that you can use, please don’t panic. I’m looking for great writing, and I will make my decision mostly on that.
Well, this is a little overview of what I’m looking for in a query letter. I feel like most of the information provided is universal, but please remember, us agents are human, and therefore, our taste and guidelines may differ. But either way, I hope this helps you on your querying journey. Whether querying me or someone else, I wish you the best of luck!