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Here’s What a Literary Agent Looks for in a Query Letter

by | Jul 8, 2015

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

As a literary agent with Kuhn Projects, 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.

Here’s what literary agents like to see in a query letter.

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 literary 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 you’re pitching fiction, share 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 deal-breaker 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 me.

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?