If you’re looking to land a book deal with a major publisher—the kind that that will get your novel into stores all over the country—you’re going to need an agent. And to convince an agent to represent your work to publishers, you’re going to need to grab their attention through an effective query letter.
The most important literary agents in the business receive between 300 and 600 queries a month, and reach back out to only a handful of authors. When I was a reader for two of New York City’s top agents—Al Zuckerman of Writers House and Maria Carvainis of the Maria Carvainis Agency—I might have read a dozen or two queries each day.
How do you get an agent’s attention when they’re inundated with so many queries and only have time to represent a handful of authors?
Well, every agent is looking for something different, but there are a few things that no agent is looking for in a query letter. Let me share with you a few common mistakes authors make in querying literary agents:
1) The tone is off.
Your query letter is not an extension of your creative work as a fiction writer. It is a professional email (always an email) meant to convey key information about yourself and your work so that the agent can determine whether they are a good fit for your project. In reviewing queries, I would occasionally read emails that were far too formal and affected, as though I were being invited to a black-tie gala. More commonly, I’d come across informality that read as unserious. Avoid exclamation marks and contractions. It should go without saying that you’ll want to avoid profanity, but I’ve seen plenty from authors trying to come off as edgy and hip. Remember that your reader is moving fast, and these things are distracting.
One of the most egregious examples of poor tone is when authors send “conceptual” letters, writing the query in the voice of one of their characters. This is not cute. It is distracting. Be clear, to the point, and professional.
2) The synopsis is too long.
It’s perfectly understandable that as an author you would be excited about the novel you’ve written and want to share as many details as possible. But an agent simply doesn’t have the time to be inundated with such details in your query letter. The query letter’s purpose is to entice the agent to read your novel and discover the story’s details for themselves—it needs to be short and to the point. While conveying your story’s largest-scale developments is crucial to show its creativity and commercial promise, this needs to be done as succinctly as possible. I’ve seen synopses that stretch on for four or five pages. A five-page query letter will likely result in the agent discarding it immediately, without even reading the first line.
In cases when an agent has requested a longer synopsis to be included with your query letter, they’ll typically be looking for a separate document that they might read if the initial query piques their interest. For the query letter itself, five lines is the maximum an overworked assistant or intern will have time to review. This is a technical challenge, but be creative. Consider what about your book would get a stranger’s attention in five sentences and include this and only this.
3) The bio is too long.
In my time as a reader, I learned a lot about a lot of writers. Authors would tell me how many cats they own, or where they went to middle school, or even how many agents had already passed on their manuscript. An agent wants to know if they can count on your book to succeed in a saturated marketplace.
So include biographical information that is relevant to your book and its commercial value. Do you have professional or personal experience that connects directly to the subject of your novel? Have you published stories in magazines? Have you published a book with a small press? If it sold well, include that too. Do not explain how from a young age your dream has been to publish a novel. Include only what is relevant to your business proposition.
4) You broke the rules.
Many agents will lay out specific submission guidelines. These guidelines are not suggestions, and you should adhere to them precisely. At the Maria Carvainis Agency, we asked for a sample chapter to be included in the body of the email. Many agencies will refuse to open attachments as a safety measure; nobody wants to end up with a computer virus.
Some agencies are extremely specific about what your query letter to them should look like, down to the width of the margins. Look on the agent’s website and follow the instructions carefully. Provide what is requested and nothing more. If an agent asks for five sample pages, do not give them six. If they ask for the first two chapters, do not give them the first 15. An agent will request more of the manuscript if they want to review more.
5) It’s unprofessional.
A query letter is meant to serve a specific purpose and every aspect of your submission should reflect this. Do not use weird fonts, colors, or all caps in your query letter. Resist the urge to include headshots or quirky personal details that you think the agent will find “cute” or endearing. An agent cares only about your story and whether it’s marketable—everything else is an unwanted distraction.
The same goes for drawings and photographs, unless they are illustrations for your book or the agent has specifically requested them. It’s shocking the amount of clip art and pet photography I’ve seen in professional queries, but even something that might seem nominally more relevant, like potential cover art or book jackets from self-published work, is typically an unwelcome distraction.
A query letter is the publishing world’s first introduction to an aspiring novelist’s work, and for that reason it’s just as important as the work itself. Do not sell your novel short by introducing it in a haphazard or unprofessional way. If you want agents to take your work as seriously as you do, you’ll want to put a lot of time into crafting a query letter that does the story justice. Before sending it out, have a few people look at it, and ask yourself if you’ve made any of the above common mistakes. Here are some great resources for help writing a query letter for your novel:
Interested in having your query letter ghostwritten or edited by a successful or bestselling writer? Check out our query letter service here or give us a call at 844-997-8437.