Today we have a guest post on writing a query letter from literary agent Lucinda Halpern. I realize many of our readers are indie authors or plan to publish independently. But these rules are important for any kind of query: to a reviewer, editor or blogger as well.
by Lucinda Halpern
Writers put so much love and labor into their stories, and literary agents recognize that. The same effort and attention is often required when a writer submits their query letter for an agent’s consideration. But all too often, the content in that query letter just doesn’t address what agents necessarily want or need to know, and therefore eludes response.
As someone who has worked in publishing for fifteen years, and as the president of Manhattan-based literary agency Lucinda Literary, it’s become my mission to share insider tips with writers that will help them to capture an agent’s attention now (and a reader’s attention later).
1. Who are You?
The first thing agents as well as publishers want to know is: who are you? We often see query letters burble with effusive personal passion but leave no sense of a person’s credentials.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, publishers need to know right away if you’ve established any sort of audience for the idea you’re proposing.
- For a fiction writer, this could be winning a particular award or writing for a well-regarded literary journal.
- For nonfiction, can you demonstrate a robust online audience clamoring for more of your expertise? Or do you have an active speaking schedule?
In the workshops I give, I’m always surprised to learn how many writers have been told not to say anything about themselves and to focus only on the work at hand. The truth is just the opposite: the author of a given book can be almost, and sometimes more important than the book itself.
2. Why This Book and Why Now
The second question agents will want to deduce within your first three paragraphs is “why this book?” and “why now?”
As mentioned, agents commonly see writers insert an overly lengthy synopsis within the body of their query letter. Reading through those several paragraphs that promise a new and life-changing book—if they even go this far—often don’t explain why or how.
The easiest and most recommended way to do this?
- For fiction, show that you’re well-read in the category in which you’re submitting. By noting any particular “comps,” or recent, comparative titles, you can demonstrate a popular context and get agents excited for your work’s potential.
- For nonfiction, reference comps to evidence a void in the marketplace; a message we aren’t yet hearing, or one we’ve misunderstood. Are you presenting a timely topic that speaks to people’s minds and hearts right now?
Articulate why readers will be motivated to pick up and purchase your title, especially where there are countless others within your genre.
3. Make it Personal
A third element to remember is this: make it personal.
One familiar piece of advice writers hear is to “keep the reader in mind.” The same goes for when you craft a query letter!
To really prove the “win-win,” do your research on the agent/agency you’re submitting to and always insert a line or two in your letter about why you’re approaching that agent specifically. For example, you might say something to the effect of, “I admire your mission to share stories that highlight diverse, underrepresented voices. Given that you represent forward-thinking books like EXAMPLE, I think my work will fit in alongside your list.”
Agents will always notice when you reference them or their list personally, and may then be more inclined to spend a little extra time and attention when considering your work. A thoughtful, personal letter immediately increases your chances of receiving a thoughtful, personal response.
A Query Letter that “Sings”
The art of creating a query letter that sings is actually more like a science. You’ll also want to consider:
- A strong subject line and/or opening sentence
- A title and subtitle that feel fresh and novel
- A next step for engaging in conversation. (For example: “I have submitted to a small list of agents, two of whom have requested the manuscript. Given their expressed interest, may I send you a partial you might consider in tandem?” Or: “if you’re intrigued by my idea given it’s timely nature, I’d love to set a half hour call at your convenience to discuss any suggestions you may have”.)
I hope these brief tips are helpful in your path to getting published.
by Lucinda Halpern (@LucindaBlu) March 23, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Do these tips give you some help with that query letter? Are you surprised at the tip to offer a phone call or other communication? (That was new to me.) Does it help with other query letters? Do you have any questions for Lucinda? For more on how to write a query to bloggers and reviewers as well, see my post: How to Write a Professional, Not Embarrassing Query.
Lucinda is the President and Founder of Lucinda Literary, representing authors writing in the categories of business, health, lifestyle, popular science, narrative nonfiction, memoir, and upmarket fiction. She regularly shares publishing insights and motivation for writers here. She explores these winning query strategies in depth in her new workshops and courses for writers, where she also shares queries from the slushpile.