How I Choose What I Represent
(Or: Why Is My Query Letter So Important?)
I love the query letter. It shows what a writer can do in a limited amount of space. My eyes don’t have the chance to glaze over, because it’s done before that can happen. Yet a lot of writers seem to disdain the lowly query letter, not take enough time to master the form, and not employ it as it might be used, as a targeted strategy, a guided missile of awesome. Instead, they use it as a dumping ground of unhelpful information, when all we really want them to do is to tell us a story….
Publishing is subjective. How many times have you heard that phrase? It’s a catchall, but like other expressions in common use there’s truth there. Agents and editors from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds bring their tastes and prejudices with them, and those play a role in the projects they choose. We can’t like everything. It’s the same when someone goes into a bookstore and browses. You may come out with a couple of books, you may come out with none. Totally depends on what you like, what you saw, and what you read on those covers. That’s the whole idea behind a query. To give enough information to pique an agent’s interest so they want to see more.
I represent what I can’t wait to tell other readers about. But for me to request a manuscript, a writer must query. Good query letters are rare. Mastering the query puts you way ahead of the pack.
While some clients come through referral, most arrive via the traditional query letter route or “slush,” the term for unsolicited material. Agents and editors generally start their careers reading slush. After weeks and months of reading hundreds of poorly-written queries and submissions, good submissions jump out from the rest. I know it’s hard to believe a reader can evaluate writing based merely on a letter, but in ninety percent of the cases, it’s true. Knowing you have this limited opportunity, why not do everything possible to make it work for you?
Here are some of the things I look for in a query:
• Is the query regarding a type of book or topic I represent? (Research an agent before you query. It’s really a waste of time and a bummer to receive a rejection simply because you chose an inappropriate target.)
• Is it a really original concept, or derivative of other book(s) out there? (Read, read, read so you know the market. Don’t limit your reading to your favorite authors. Try new authors, and read out of your genre and comfort zone.)
• Do I already have something or someone I rep covering the same territory? (I don’t want to represent projects that may be too similar simultaneously. Again, know your target.)
• Can I think of several editors who might like the project? (If I know only one or two editors who might like a project, odds of sale are slim. Other agents may know more editors right for a particular project.)
• Have I recently spoken with a number of editors who mentioned they don’t want any more of the type of manuscript? (Chick-lit, anyone?)
• Is the query professional? (Does the writer comprehend that publishing is a business, and that the query is a form of business letter? Is the information presented in a clear and professional manner, with all the details needed to make a decision?)
• Has the author bothered to do their homework for their genre? (I can’t sell a 200K word mystery. Know the genre you’re writing in and the expectations of the readers.)
• Is the query geared to me and my agency? (If I’m cc’d on a query e-mailed to a hundred agents, or addressed “To whom it may concern,” I know the writer is not seriously targeting my agency. This is not a query. It is spam and treated as such.)
• However, and most important: has the author communicated the story and hook in a voice that demands attention and makes me “have” to read more? (Work to develop your voice!)
Query letters are your introduction and your first impression. They may be the basis for your agent’s pitch to editors, or even help form the strategy for marketing your book. No one knows your manuscript as well as you, and no one else will be able to synthesize your voice and communicate the essence of your story.
I know it may not seem like it sometimes, but agents are constantly looking for writing that grabs them in that special way. A writer needs to master the art of the query letter to showcase his or her voice, and make their work stand out in a crowd. It isn’t enough to write a great book. An author needs to learn how to sell the great book. The query letter is a tool in your writer’s arsenal, and the first step in getting an agent’s attention in a subjective and highly competitive environment.
Marlene Stringer is the founder and managing agent of The Stringer Literary Agency LLC, and is always looking for terrific stories.