In a previous article, I talked about finding a literary agent. In this article, we explore the first step in making contact with those literary agents you’ve found: the fiction query letter.
For the sake of argument, this article assumes that, whether you are or want to be self-published or not, you’ve decided that it’s time for you to find a literary agent, you’ve researched agents that might be right for you, and you have a short-list of agents to contact. But now what?
Before I answer that question, I’ll be honest with you: I’m not an expert in this subject. I don’t have any successful query letters of my own to share with you. I’ve not yet acquired an agent of my own to represent me. This is simply the next goal I’ve set for myself as I build my writing career, the next horizon toward which this adventure in indie publishing is taking me. But I’ll share with you what I know, what I’ve learned, and the steps I’m taking toward that goal. Follow along in the coming weeks, and you’ll also learn about the mistakes I’ve made, so that maybe you can avoid them yourself.
What is a Fiction Query Letter?
A fiction query letter is simple enough to define: It’s a letter (or email) written by an author to a literary agent, that briefly summarizes the work for which the author is seeking the agent’s representation in the literary marketplace, explains who the author is, and asks if the agent would be interested in offering that representation.
But that’s a very long sentence, so let’s break it down.
“It’s a letter.” You know, a missive, an epistle, a written communication. That part should be easy enough. You’re a writer, after all.
“Or an email.” Some agents are perfectly fine with receiving query letters in the form of electronic mail. But not all. Don’t assume. If you’ve done your research on the agents you’re querying, you’ll know which accept email queries, and which don’t. Do not confuse the two.
“Written by an author to a literary agent.” Note that it’s not a letter between “Chuck and Dave.” This isn’t friendly correspondence between casual acquaintances. This is a business letter, between yourself in the professional role of “author” to another professional in the role of “literary agent.” A certain friendly tone is not out of the question, but “friendly” doesn’t make you the agent’s “friend.” All the rules and guidelines for clear, concise, and respectful business communications apply. Your query letter is likely to be the first meaningful contact between yourself and the agent, and the agent doesn’t want to work with someone who can’t demonstrate a modicum of professionalism. Neither should you.
“Briefly summarize.” This is the meat of your query. The agent does want to know (briefly) why you are contacting them. They want to be intrigued by your story. They want and need a brief summary of the book to decide if it’s right for them. 100-200 words is sufficient for most novels. But a query letter is not the place to include the first 30-60 pages of your manuscript—or your whole manuscript—unless the agent’s guidelines expressly ask for them. And you will know your chosen agent’s guidelines, because you will have done your research on your chosen agent before ever you decided to send them a query.
“Explains who the author is.” More specifically, “Why are you uniquely qualified to write this book?” Do you have an MFA in writing? A history of publication? Any sort of a platform? Have you won any awards? Spoken at any events? Done anything that promises the agent that you have some idea of what you’re doing and aren’t going to waste the agent’s time?
“Asks for the agent’s representation.” You know the old saying: “Ask and ye shall receive.” Explain why you think that you and your work would be a good fit for their agency and their current needs, and then ask for their representation.
And that’s it really. There’s no mystery about it, I can’t pretend there is. A fiction letter is just a business letter, in which you ask another professional to partner with you in a business venture, and lay out who you are and what exactly you have to offer them. No more, and no less.
But, like all things “beyond the velvet rope,” there’s a particular way that these letters are usually written, a typical shape they take, hallowed by usage and consecrated by time. Tune back in next week, when I’ll share with you the mystical secrets of how to write a fiction query letter.
Until then, write on!