Ask a Literary Agent: What Do You Look for in a Query Letter?

how to write a query letter
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We know you have questions about publishing, querying and how to best work with literary agents. So we invited Lauren Sharp, a literary agent with Kuhn Projects, to give us her perspective for our Ask a Literary Agent series.

Today’s reader question: What do you look for in a query letter?

Lauren Sharp says…

Here’s my confession regarding query letters: I don’t pay much attention to them.

I know there are entire how-to book chapters and webinars and conference sessions dedicated to writing “the perfect query” or “the query that will let you skip the slush pile,” and if your plot (in fiction) or central argument (in nonfiction) is exceptionally complicated, yes, by all means, walk me through it in a concise cover letter.

But I don’t need a sprawling, Mad-Men-worthy pitch, especially if you’ve included the first several pages of your manuscript or proposal, which my agency and many others require you to do. If all I need to do to get to your actual material is scroll down on my computer screen, chances are I’ll do that regardless of the query letter. After all, I’ll eventually be selling your manuscript, not your query.

This, however, is not to say that I can’t imagine some hypothetical flawless Dream Query floating around out there, so I thought I’d share some key features from that vision, in no particular order.

1. A personalized salutation

This means using my name in the introduction as opposed to “Dear Agent,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” or simply “Hello.”

When I see one of these generic openers — especially if it’s paired with the fact that I’ve been bcc’d instead of emailed directly — I immediately doubt that this project is going to be a good fit for me. This email has likely been blasted to dozens, or maybe hundreds, of other agents, probably without regard to what kind work any of us represent, and odds are good that one of those other agents will be able to jump on this before I can, even if I do end up liking the project.

2. Why you picked me

Include one or two lines on why you’re writing to me or Kuhn Projects (if you’re coming through our submissions account). How did you find me or us? What made you decide to write to us about your project? Is your novel or nonfiction project similar to one of our authors’?

3. Your manuscript’s genre

What genre are you writing in? You might answer this question with specific descriptors like “political thriller” or “self-help,” or you might tell me what other well-known books yours is similar to, like “Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point” or “Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.”

(Though if you compare your book to a very famous one, explain what the two titles have in common. E.g. “Like Netherland, my novel is set in post-9/11 New York and features a disillusioned businessman as its protagonist.”)

4. Your manuscript’s word count

If fiction, the total word count of your novel, which ideally will fall somewhere between 70,000 and 110,000 words.

5. Zero indication that what you’re sending me is a first draft

This is as simple as not referring to your manuscript or proposal as “the first draft of my proposal” or “my first complete draft.”

An agent you’re contacting cold shouldn’t be the first person to read what you’re writing, and even if she is, it’s in your best interest not to tell her that. (You’d be surprised by how many query letters say something like “I hope you’ll consider my novel, TK TITLE, the first draft of which is now complete at 90,000 words.”)

6. Good writing, spelling and grammar

Give me a sense of your vocabulary and grasp of syntax, or at least show me nothing that makes me think either is a problem.

A typo in a query letter isn’t a dealbreaker for me, but the use of one word when you clearly meant another (e.g. “once and a while” instead of “once in a while”) or an especially tortuously structured  sentence puts my guard up.

One way to cover this base is to… well… be an excellent writer. Another way is to keep your query brief, simple and straightforward.

7. A note about any simultaneous submissions

Include one line about whether your proposal or manuscript is currently on submission to or under the consideration of another agent or agents.

8. A note about this manuscript’s previous submissions, if any

Have any editors or anyone else at a publishing house has ever seen any version of this project? Include a line letting me know, though no need to mention this if not.

9. A note if you’ve self-published this project

If you’ve already self-published this book or manuscript, tell me. I shouldn’t be left to find this out on my own.

10. Any relevant background info

Have you been published before and, if so, where and when? Do you have a website? Do you have a professional (or personal) background that lends credibility to the subject you’re writing about? If you’re submitting a novel, do you have a degree in creative writing? From where?

If the answer to all these questions and any similar ones is no, just let me know this will be your first book and sign off, but if there’s any outside information I should know as I read, this is the time to send that information along.

Again, the above is a checklist for my ideal query letter. I routinely read submissions whose queries are missing many of these features because, at the end of the day, it’s the material that I’ll actually be working with if the author signs with Kuhn Projects.

But if a query comes through my inbox that checks all of the above boxes, I’ll begin reading with great confidence and enthusiasm, and that confidence and enthusiasm will put the project ahead of many other projects that come my way.

What other questions do you have about query letters?

Plus: Got a question for our Ask a Literary Agent series? Leave it in the comments below!

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Lauren Sharp is a literary agent for Kuhn Projects and is based in Washington, D.C. She has worked for the D.C.-based agency ICM/Sagalyn and earned her MA in English/Creative Writing from the University of Cincinnati. More informat... .

Kuhn Projects | @KuhnProjects

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Comments

  1. Thanks, Lauren, for giving aspiring authors these important tips! As a freelance editor, I know well the level of professionalism required in the publishing world.

    Your point about not sending the first draft is especially well-taken. It is natural for writers to feel impatient to get their work “out there,” but I think this is where the metaphor of “my book is my baby” comes in handy: You don’t send your “baby” out to start earning a living when you’ve just finished giving birth; you nurture what you brought into being until it is strong enough to stand on its own.

    There’s nothing I find more satisfying than providing some of that nurturing to a young manuscript with a lot of room for growth. I really believe that in today’s competitive market, writers should seriously consider investing in a professional editor before they begin the query process. Family, friends, and colleagues may be able to give you some valuable feedback, but the truth is, even if you are lucky enough to have a few associates who are publishing professionals, they are not likely to give your “baby” the discipline it may need to grow up strong. They love you too much! Let friends be friends, and editors be editors.

    Am I a bit prejudiced in favor of my profession? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could really help people make their books the best they can be.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  2. Hi Lauren,

    Thanks for this concise list of most effective features for a query letter. While I understand that the proposed material has to stand on its own, it’s always good when a writer can put her best foot forward, so to speak.

    Question: Is it best for the book proposal to be in the body of the email vs as an attachment? What if the proposal is quite long (meaning fully fleshed out)?

    Thanks!
    Peggy Joque Williams

    • Lauren Sharp says:

      Hi Peggy– It really depends on the agency. Kuhn Projects, for instance, requests that authors put all materials directly into the body of an email (because we’re wary about opening email attachments). Others are okay with attachments. It’s best to check out the agency’s website and look for query guidelines and then simply follow them!

      All best–
      Lauren

  3. Dear Lauren –

    Great tips all…but I am curious about #8. One of my manuscripts had a long review (including edits) by a publisher who eventually passed . Why would this be of any interest to another agent/editor?

    Thank you.

    • Lauren Sharp says:

      Hi PJ–

      An agent would want to know about this for a few reasons. First, she’d probably want to be careful not to re-submit your ms to the same imprint or publisher. She’d also want to make sure she didn’t go to another editor at the same imprint once the first editor had passed, which is generally considered a no-no. Another reason an agent might ask about this is to find out how widely a project has been submitted by the time it lands on her desk. If you worked with an agent, he submitted it to 15 imprints, and they all passed, and then you came to me without significantly changing your ms, I’d know that the total possible houses I could sell your ms to is limited compared to where I could send a previously unsubmitted project. There are a number of variations on these scenarios, but in general it’s a good idea to be as straightforward as possible about your and your project’s publishing past when you begin working with an agent.

      All best–
      Lauren

      • Dear Lauren –

        Thank you so much for your quick reply. In this case it was seen by the one e-publisher, but I will certainly add this information to future query letters. Excellent post.

        PJ

        • LOL! I actually misunderstood “passed” as “passed away” when I first read PJ’s post. That would be a rather different scenario!

          Trish O’Connor
          Epiclesis Consulting LLC
          Freelance Editorial Services
          epiclesisconsulting.com

          • Trish, I had already jotted down your name as a possible editor for my first book and then read your post above. I thought the same thing for the first few minutes!! We are definitely on the “same page!”

            I just might be in touch!
            Sonya

          • I look forward to hearing from you, Sonya! Just go to my website and click the “Contact” link.

            Trish O’Connor
            epiclesisconsulting.com

  4. Thanks for the article, Lauren!
    It’s really interesting to know all these things from a literary agents. A few of these tips that she considers to be important are quite suprising to me.

  5. Dona General says:

    Thanks Lauren for these informative tips: Precise, concise, professional and very helpful. Most grateful.

  6. Great post. Very informative. Thank you Lauren.

    Just a question about prologues. When an agent/publisher requests the first three chapters, is it frowned upon to also include the prologue (1200wds or so), as well as the first three chapters? I know some agents/publishers frown on prologues. But there are quite a few best sellers that have a prologue. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is one such example.
    Thank you
    Heather Ellis

  7. Elizabeth Kral says:

    Good info.

  8. Lawrence Brazier says:

    Thank you Lauren. It was refreshing to know about you skipping the pitch and going straight to the text. The need to sell yourself before selling the text seems awful. Is it hormonal? Maybe men prefer, or don’t know how otherwise, the gruff approach: sort of ‘here, read this, I just wrenched it out of my soul.’ In the end, of course, an editor or agent will be aware of the writer’s ability, which is possibly fostered by his or her evident (voice coming through) enjoyment in writing. I personally have found self-editing an absolute prerequisite. Perhaps editing is also a strange necessity.
    So, did I sell myself?

  9. Thank you Lauren for the information. I was curious about the self-publushed because I have done that. But I pulled the book, rewrote it from first to third person, and gave it a new title. Would that info still be nice to know?

    Thank you,

    Jeanette

  10. This list was so helpful for me! I just adapted my Query significantly, hoping for better responses this time.

    Also, Miss Sharp, I appreciate your willingness to keep reading, even if the Query isn’t perfect. As a first time author, it can be nerve-wracking to feel like one tiny, minuscule detail could turn someone off immediately. It’s nice to know that not every agent operates that way. 🙂

  11. Alicia Voegele says:

    Thank you for the information. I never knew you had to write such a letter for publishing. I am writing as of now. Trying to find an agent has been a struggle. I maybe sending you a letter shortly. If you accept them.

    Thank you again.
    Regards
    Mrs. Voegele

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