If you’re interested in getting your book traditionally published, it’s crucial that you sign with a literary agent who loves your story and has a vision for your career. To do this means you need to write the single most important page you’ll ever write outside of your book: a query letter.
No pressure, right?
If the thought of writing a query letter freaks you out or confuses you, hit the pause button and breathe for a second. You are not alone.
Here’s the good news: there is a method that will help you get an agent to say, “Sounds great! Send me more.”
It’s called the three-paragraph method.
And it will teach you exactly what literary agents want to see in their query letter inbox.
What My Editorial Internship Taught Me About Query Letters
When I studied film and television in college, I learned how to develop and present an elevator pitch. After graduation, I become more involved in publishing and eventually attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2015, where I pitched my story in a special pitch slam.
This experience was intimidating—and fantastic. I had presented elevator pitches as an undergrad to my film professors, but I had never pitched my story idea live to a literary agent in under a minute.
Flash forward a few years later to when I worked as an Editorial Intern. To this day, I consider this one of the most valuable experiences in my writing and editing career.
I had a lot of roles as an editorial intern, including some hands-on experience in reviewing query letters. Here, the literary agent I worked directly with educated me on what made a query letter stand out, and that I’ve used to determine a pitch’s quality ever since: three paragraphs.
The truth is, tons of writers still struggle to write that one-page email that is clean, concise, and catchy. The kind of query letter that turns rejections into requests.
As an editorial intern, I was lucky enough to learn from the best about what makes a great query letter—one that identifies if a story matches a specific agent’s taste, and indicates whether the writer querying the agent (1) is professional and has done their research, and (2) is a strong writer with a voice and style that attracts the agent.
If you want to sign with a literary agent, you need to first understand how to pitch your book and yourself well.
This post will coach you on exactly that.
What the Heck is a Query Letter?
A query letter is first and foremost a one-page letter that acts as a sales pitch. Although once mailed through the post, they’re now normally emailed to a specific literary agent, with the intent of enticing that agent into asking to read more of your manuscript.
You don’t have to have a finished manuscript to write a query letter, but you absolutely should have a finished manuscript before you query a literary agent, unless you’re a nonfiction writer and pitching a book proposal for a nonfiction book.
We could talk about word count, but I’ve often found that if you give a writer a word count for a query letter, they focus on the little details instead of the more important ones.
I’ve always been an advocate for quality over quantity, and while I have read my fair share of longer query letters that literary agents still considered, short ones pitched well stand out.
What does short mean?
A single-spaced page, in standard Times New Roman, 12-point font, is about 500 words. I’d encourage writers to stick to this length when writing their query letters.
Going over this probably suggests that you’re trying too hard to tell your story. You shouldn’t have to try hard to pitch the big hooks. The main character, stakes, and unique plot should be able to stand on their own.
Do You Really Need a Query Letter?
Yes. Roger that. 👌
If you want to publish with traditional publishing, you need a query letter. It’s as simple as that.
Although professional editors in publishing houses are considered gatekeepers to a contract, literary agents are the threshold guardians who will represent and defend you and your story when pitching to the big pub houses.
And a query letter is the first step in getting a literary agent.
Agents receive a lot of query letters a year. Seriously, it’s a bucket load. Because of this writers might think that literary agents don’t take query letters seriously.
They might also take it personally if they don’t get a response from a literary agent months after querying them.
Look, all rejection stinks. Nobody likes that feeling. But this is part of the traditional publishing business, and I think understanding why agents don’t have time to answer every query makes the process more manageable.
Here are some statistics that Carly Watters, VPS and Senior Literary Agent at P.S. Literary Agency, shared on her Instagram account about how likely she is to offer representation (in a year, with 2,000 letters sent each month and about 300 addressed specifically to her):
- 3% to read partials
- 1% to read fulls
- less than .01% offered representation (signing about three to five clients a year)
It’s not a shock that this isn’t a lot.
Still, not querying a literary agent gives you a zero percent chance to signing with one, especially since it is highly unlikely that a publisher will offer to publish a story that you have self-published or is already published. With the exception of Andy Weir’s The Martian.
That’s why writing a knockout query letter is crucial to getting traditionally published. Why this one-page letter radiates importance. And why mastering the three-paragraph method will not only make you more confident at pitching and selling your story, but also set you up for a better chance to at least get a request for a partial or full manuscript.
This method, along with attention to submission guidelines, will likely tip your letter into the top ninety-seven percent of all stories queried to literary agents on a yearly basis.
Isn’t that crazy? Ninety-seven percent!
Why not try to learn it?
A Note on Self-Publishing
Self-publishing does not require a query letter. But learning this three-paragraph method can still help self-published authors because the second paragraph teaches a strategy to write your back cover.
Back covers work as great sales copy for Amazon and other online sellers!
When Should You Write a Query Letter?
Are you writing a fiction novel or memoir? If yes, hold off on querying until you’ve completed your absolute best draft. Although it’s possible that you won’t hear from an agent for up to three months after submitting, you could also get a request for a partial that same day. Who knows!
If you do get an early request, you need to have your manuscript ready.
Unlike drafts completed in NaNoWriMo or others pitched at a writing conference, where literary agents want writers to take time to revise them before querying, literary agents will expect a quick turnaround if they request manuscripts from the slush pile.
The only exception to this is if you’re a nonfiction writer and query a book proposal for a nonfiction book. Agents will expect that you haven’t finished writing the manuscript. You should, however, have some sample chapters completed, since this is part of what agents want to review in a book proposal.
Some other items you might want to prepare before querying (it depends on the submission guidelines for each literary agency) include:
- a one-page synopsis (focus on plot!)
- a three-page synopsis (still plot!)
- an author website (literary agents will want to see that you have at least the beginnings of an author platform)
Keep in mind, numbers of followers aren’t something that makes or breaks a fiction or memoir writer, but it could be what sells a nonfiction writer.
Regardless, author platforms are important, especially since traditional publishers expect writers to carry much of the book marketing and promotion work.
The earlier you build your writing community and promote your work—and especially have an author website with a running email list—the better.
Should You Personalize Your Query Letter?
A million times over, YES.
Do not submit query letter that is not addressed to a specific agent. Literary agents are part of literary agencies, but the specific agent is the one you will grow a business relationship with.
Which reminds me, make sure you spell their name right!
You’d be surprised how many query letters spell the agents name wrong, and while this doesn’t guarantee a rejection, it doesn’t help.
If a literary agent is interested in representing you, they will do their fair share of research on you and your work. Mistakes happen, but spelling a name correctly makes for a friendlier beginning.
Some other reasons you want to query a specific agent are:
- When you query a literary agent and they like it but it’s for them, they may pass it onto a colleague who is a good fit.
- You should want a specific agent for a reason. Querying any random agent isn’t good for your business goals and writing career.
- Knowing a specific agent gives you an opportunity to make a connection with them (see paragraph one later in this post).
Personalizing your letter proves you’ve done your research, and it will likely make you more passionate and excited to work with that agent.
It also means you probably understand their entrepreneurial spirit, work ethic, and possibly personality, which is important before entertaining an offer for representation.
You wouldn’t work at a company before researching them. You won’t regret putting in the same efforts when drafting your dream agent list.
One more note on querying a specific agent: if you query a literary agent and your story is rejected, you can take this as the agency rejecting the book, too. Don’t query another literary agent at the same agency. But, if you have a new book you want to query the same or a different agent in that agency, go for it.
How many agents should you query at a time?
Before sending out your first batch of query letters—and personalizing each query letter to a specific agent—you need to actually find a list of agents that you think make a good fit for your book.
How many agents should be on this list? There’s no perfect number, but I often recommend making a list of seven to ten literary agents per list, and then gathering the same amount for a second or third list.
This way, you develop a list of literary agents that you have spent time researching, and you’re not just querying literary agents at random. What makes them the literary agent for you, and how does this reasoning go beyond because they represent your genre?
To form this list, you need to do this research. You need to find the literary agent that is the best match for your book and your career.
Once you do, make sure to address that agent in your query letter like this:
Dear AGENT’S NAME
Dear Mr./Ms./Mrs. LAST NAME
And make sure the surname and spelling are correct!
3 Elements Every Writer Should Research Before Writing a Query Letter
You have a finished manuscript. That’s fantastic! You might think you’re ready to write the query now, but I’d advise you to hold off for just a little longer.
I emphasized the importance of research for specific literary agents, and you should do this.
However, there’s a total of three elements you should research before writing your query letter to help not only with how you write it, but also give you a better idea about why you want to work with a literary agent and literary agency.
1. Your List of Dream Literary Agents
I recommend making a list of seven to ten dream agents before writing your query letter. This might make the letter easier to write, too, because you’re writing to someone, instead of a general audience.
There are several great ways to do this. Here’s a list of ideas for you to conider.
5 Ways to Find the Best Literary Agents for You
- Acknowledgements section in books you liked and are in your genre—almost every writer will thank their literary agent in the acknowledgement section. (If you’re an author and you didn’t, you should. Think of all the work they do for you!)
- Query Tracker — a website designed to help you locate literary agents open to submissions
- Publishers Marketplace
- Manuscript Wish List — a website designed to help you find what agents have on their #MSWL
- AAR Database (Association of Author Representatives, Inc.)
2. Comparable Titles and Others on Your Dream Agent’s Client List
Comparable titles (or comps) won’t break your query letter if not included in it, but good ones can seduce an agent into asking for more.
Before you include comps, however, make sure they are excellent ones.
Rule of Thumb: Bad comps are worse than good comps, so it’s better to not include comps in your query than include bad ones.
How can you tell if your comp choices are good picks?
5 Qualities of Excellent Comps
- Published within the last five years
- Published by one of the big five (imprints)
- Performed well in sales (check bestseller lists)
- Not ubiquitous (do not compare your books that are brands now, like Harry Potter)
- Has a hook that is similar to your book but not too similar (like a televised competition, family drama, African mythology)
Found a book or two that meet all five criteria? You’ve got a great comp!
3. The Agency: What They’ve Sold and How They Work
Although you should address the letter to a specific agent, you should also research the literary agency. Just because an agency makes more six figure deals than another doesn’t mean they’re the better agency for you.
There are a lot of factors that might make an agency the right fit for you—or not. It’s worth taking the time to think about what you want and need from an agency so you know whether the agencies you query fit the bill.
7 Questions to Find the Best Literary Agency for You
- Are they hands on or hands off? Will they help you with developmental editing before pitching to an editor?
- Do you hope your book sells globally? Then the agency should have a foreign rights agent.
- Do you hope your book one day becomes a TV show or film? What’s the agent’s experience selling subsidiary rights?
- Are you interested in one day writing comics? The agency could benefit from having an agent who represents graphic novels and/or comics. Agents talk to one another, and can help one another! This goes for other genres, too.
- Does the agent support the writer if, down the road, they want to switch genres?
- Is the agency large or small? Make sure they are a size that can give the attention you want and need.
- Do you have a certain plan for marketing? Consider how the agency has supported their creators in book marketing.
There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. They’re simply tools to help you figure out what you need so you can find an agency that works for you.
How to Write a Successful Query Letter with 3 Paragraphs
Agents look for specific details in a query letter. You can be sure they’ll want to know your book’s:
- Word count
- Connection point
- Main character
- Back cover pitch — with a hook
- Author bio, with writing credentials
It can be tempting to try to explain your book at length, but a query letter is not a synopsis. You want to make this pitch short and concise.
This is why many agents prefer three paragraphs (give or take) that show a literary agent exactly what your book is about, whether or not it’s a good fit for their list, whether it will sell, and a little bit about you.
If you read query letter examples, the order of these paragraphs might be mixed. However, I personally prefer the order I’m about to share with you because it 1) establishes clear expectations of what a literary agent can expect in the book first, then 2) hooks them with a back cover description, and lastly 3) shares more about the author.
Agent Carly Watters calls this order:
I also think that this order allows you to make a connection with a literary agent first—which shows them why this book is for them, and then spends the majority of the query pitching the book.
That means the letter focuses on the story first, and then why you are the writer to create it.
Paragraph 1: Hook
Paragraph one is about hooking a literary agent by setting up expectations for the book and making a connection with the queried literary agent.
When submitting multiple query letters to different agents, this is the one paragraph you need to differentiate. The rest of the query letter can stay the same.
Why does this paragraph change? Because you should be querying a specific agent for personal reasons, remember?
Which means, you need to make a connection with that agent, not just anybody. This connection is done in two ways, potentially three:
- It describes the word count, genre, and title of your book, which should appeal to their manuscript wish list.
- It makes a personal connection, identifying why you want them as your agent, and why you think your book is a good fit for their list.
- It shares comparable titles that the agent would like, maybe even has mentioned they want to represent books like or authors like. (Of course, for this, you need excellent comps. Remember, share excellent comps, or no comps at all!)
Let’s look at an example of how to do this.
One of the books I’m really excited about reading right now is Nancy Johnson’s debut The Kindest Lie. It’s a timely book that explores the issue of systemic racism in America, and could be described as Smart Book Club Fiction, Black & African American Women’s Fiction, or Women’s Domestic Life Fiction.
Looking in the acknowledgements section in The Kindest Lie, I learn that Nancy’s agent is Danielle Bukowski of Sterling Lord Literistic.
Now pretend I have already read The Kindest Lie and think my book would work as a comp for it. I also really like Danielle as an agent for reasons I’ve researched, and decide I want to query her with my (hypothetical) book.
To make a connection with Danielle, I could research the kind of titles Danielle likes to represent by visiting one of the ways suggested in the dream agent section above.
Here’s what I found on Danielle’s website:
Something I love about her wishlist is that she wants to represent books “traditionally overlooked by the publishing industry, as working on books that represent the world is important to me.” Wow, I love that.
And if I thought my (hypothetical) book fit into this category, like The Kindest Lie does, this would be a phenomenal point to make in that first paragraph.
Sharing this in the first paragraph shows I’ve done my research on Danielle. That I want to work with her, not just any agent who represents my book’s genre—though of course, she needs to represent my genre, too.
It also gives me a chance to share that I love authors and books she’s represented.
So, here are some details I need in that first paragraph in order to set up my book’s expectations and make a connection with Danielle.
- Briefly what my book is about (I’ll go into more detail with this in paragraph two, so don’t go overboard here, focus on how it connects)
- Genre, Title, and Word count
- Why my book would interest Danielle
P.S. Don’t forget to address Danielle specifically. Don’t make it out to the literary agency, and absolutely avoid “To Whom It May Concern.”
Put it all together (one to two sentences):
Dear Ms. Bukowski (or Dear Danielle),
After reading (and loving!) Nancy Johnson’s debut The Kindest Lie, I am submitting my BOOK TITLE HERE for your review. It is a 90,000 word Smart Book Club Fiction story about SOMETHING UNIQUE TO WHAT SHE IS LOOKING FOR that I think will appeal to your interest in representing books that the publishing industry usually overlooks.
Notice a few things about that paragraph:
- BOOK TITLE HERE: Write the book title in ALL CAPS, not italics.
- 90,000 word: The book probably isn’t exactly 90,000 words, but round to a nice even number.
- Smart Book Club Fiction: State the genre of your book, and make sure it’s on the agent’s list!
Some other good ways to make a connection with an agent could include:
- Make a connection with anything they say they’re looking for on their manuscript wish list.
- Share how it’s similar to any story they’ve represented in the past (remember those good comps!).
- If you heard any interview from them, mention it and tell them why you liked this interview.
- If you met them at a conference, or heard them speak at a conference, mention the connection.
- If you’ve attended a workshop they ran, mention it and share why you liked it.
Paragraph 2: Book
Paragraph two is all about the big pitch for your story. It should read like the back cover of a book, which is why it’s great to explore the back covers of comparable titles before writing this. This kind of research could give you a feel for the big hooks in your story, including irony and why your protagonist is the least likely hero for the book.
One element you’ll want to consider when writing the back cover is your story’s stakes. I like to think about James Scott Bell’s whiff of death suggestions: psychological, physical, and/or professional death.
Another way to consider your story’s stakes and set up expectations for the climax of a story (without giving away the ending!) is to consider the value shift for your story. Joe Bunting identifies six types of stories and their value shifts in this post, or you might consider the twelve genre value shifts that Shawn Coyne talks about in Story Grid.
Note: Do not mistake value shifts for genres used in traditional publishing. While knowing your story’s main stakes are great for writing and editing it, a traditional publisher will want to know it’s a YA Fantasy story, not an Action or Performance story.
That said, knowing your value shifts can help you show them why your story has life and death stakes, or their professional reputation is on the line, or their sanity in some way.
There are various ways to write a story’s back cover, and some pantsers and plotters even use this to plan their book before writing it. However, I always turn back to James Scott Bell’s strategy for writing back covers, which he covers in his book Revision and Self Editing.
This is his suggestion:
- Sentence One: Identify the protagonist, their vocation, and their initial situation (status quo)
- Sentence Two: BUT when (this happens) + the main plot problem
- Sentence Three: Now + death stakes
Ultimately, you can write this back cover in as little as three sentences.
Some query letters write this in two to three short paragraphs (with a heavy emphasis on short: each paragraph is two to three sentences). Keep in mind that you do not want to explain too much of your story when writing this. Let the plot and main character stand on their own.
Also, do not give away the ending.
This is not a synopsis, but a pitch that should encourage agents to ask for more.
Here’s the back cover for Nancy Johnson’s The Kindest Lie:
Notice the last paragraph? You don’t need an overarching description about the big ideas in the book in your query letter, but if you can write this well, that’s great to include.
Additionally, this is a published back cover, so it’s a bit longer than what’s expected in a query letter.
You don’t want to give extraneous details in your back cover, but establish the big hooks in your plot and why this calls your protagonist into action—i.e. why this forces them to make tough decisions. (Stakes, stakes, stakes!)
P.S. If you want to read The Kindest Lie and more of Nancy’s amazing work, visit her website here.
Paragraph 3: Cook
The last paragraph in a query letter is your author bio. The most important idea here is that you write a bio that shares your credibility as a writer, or any big information that sheds a little more light into your professional resume, and maybe a dash of your personality.
Don’t force details here. If you haven’t published before, that’s okay. You absolutely can call yourself a debut writer. You don’t have to have an MFA to get a literary agent (although you can mention it if you do have one).
If you have published, though, mention this. Even better, if you have a big platform or other numbers that would benefit your book’s sales, include these.
Don’t hold back with anything that demonstrates your publishing credits!
Ultimately, bios don’t need be long. They are made to give the agent a sense of who you are from a professional standpoint; think quality over quantity again.
You don’t need to throw in your social media accounts here, but if you have big numbers (especially those nonfiction writers), it’s worth mentioning.
Maybe even thrown in one line that shows them your personality, too.
Here’s Nancy Johnson’s bio:
A native of Chicago’s South Side, Nancy Johnson worked for more than a decade as an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalist at CBS and ABC affiliates in markets nationwide. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she lives in downtown Chicago and manages brand communications for a large nonprofit. The Kindest Lie is her first novel.
Bonus: Don’t Forget the P.S.!
I know I said query letters are three paragraphs long, but there’s one extra line you can also include.
Including a P.S. underneath your signature that reestablishes your connection with the agent is a good bonus bit! Be genuine with this, and speak to the agent when you write it.
Also, it’s nice to thank the agent for their time before your signature. It also can’t hurt to include your website address directly beneath your signature. This will suffice for contact information; you don’t need to give phone numbers or addresses in a query.
Thank you so much for taking the time to review my manuscript.
YOUR WEBSITE ADDRESS
P.S. Congratulations on NAME OF CLIENT’S BOOK surpassing 100,000 copies sold! What a deserving milestone!
THE GOOD PLACE: A Query Letter Example
This sample query letter is not a real letter used to query an agent but one I’ve crafted to model the Hook, Book, Cook format. To model this, I selected a hypothetical literary agent and built on the DVD description for one of my favorite TV shows, The Good Place (season one).
I also made this query letter YA by imagining that Eleanor is sixteen years old and not thirty-something.
Keep an eye on this space. As writers in the Write Practice community pitch successful query letters, we’ll share those here, too.
Dear Ms. Schur,
I absolutely loved the fun sense of humor and uplifting tone in Leslie Knope’s YA debut, The Wonders of Pawnee, which is why I think you’ll enjoy my 70,000 word YA Fiction novel, THE GOOD PLACE. It is a perfect blend of serious life questions mixed with laughter, and will attract readers who adore love stories like Justin Reynolds’ Opposite of Always and philosophical questions like those asked in Gayle Forman’s If I Stay.
After sixteen-year-old Eleanor Shellstrop dies in a tragic accident, she winds up in the afterlife—and it’s amazing. Here, in what’s called the Good Place, Eleanor enjoys the endless pleasures of frozen yogurt, soulmates, and wonderful people who have dedicated their lives to performing good acts. Eternity here is perfect. The only problem is Eleanor isn’t supposed to be here. In fact, her life decisions wouldn’t have even gotten her close.
But when Eleanor confesses the clerical error—which only happens because she’s reaping someone else’s reward—to her soulmate, indecisive ethics professor Chidi, trouble really starts to boil.
Now, with the help of three unlikely companions, Eleanor struggles to learn how to be good in order to make sure her secret stays just that—a secret. Not only for her eternal life, but the friends she grows to care about, and increasingly endangers with her growing mess.
I am a veteran actor turned writer with a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film and have spent the last decade studying story structure while completing various internships in television and film, and most recently an Editorial Internship at Carter’s Literary Agency. As an avid YA fiction reader, I enjoy supporting authors on Goodreads and Pinterest, where I have 14,000+ followers. THE GOOD PLACE will be my debut.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
P.S. I really enjoyed your latest podcast episode on bookstagrammers. Your insight was amazing, and I can’t wait to see who you bring on for your next guest!
Other Places to Find Examples
Looking for more query letter examples? You can check out an archive of query letter examples on Writer’s Digest, but not all of these will follow a succinct three-paragraph structure like I’ve described in this post.
Remember, the three paragraph method isn’t foolproof, but it does cover everything you need in a query letter to hook a literary agent.
My favorite place to find query letter examples is on literary agent Eric Smith’s blog and with literary agents Carly Watters and Cecelia Lyra and author Bianca Marais on the podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing.
Both do an amazing job at showing writers exactly what he looks for in a query letter, and I highly (highly!) recommend you check some of them out.
Here are some of my favorite examples:
- Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
- The Fifteen Wonders of Daniel Green by Erica Boyce
- The Writer’s Life—Lily King
- Hooking Your Reader & Keeping Them Turning Pages
- In Praise of Bookstagrammers
What About Stories Written in Dual POV?
I’ve talked to a lot of writers who ask this question: what if your book has more than one point of view? Should you include all of these in your query letter?
The answer: most likely.
Query letters set up expectations for your story, right? So if your story is written in dual POV, it wouldn’t hurt to give the literary agent a heads up about this.
In fact, it might create a hook and connection if the literary agent has spoken about their hope for books with multiple points of view!
If you have multiple protagonists, you definitely need to mention both of them and show how each has their own story arc. You should also suggest how each story arc will inevitably weave together by the end.
How do you do this? Check out how authors of multi-POV novels have summarized their books in their back cover copy. Here are some examples of strong multi-POV back covers:
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
- Girls with Bright Futures by Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Wendy Katzman
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
What You Should Expect After You Hit Send (And What to do While You Wait)
You’ve written your query letter. You’ve submitted it (eek!). Now what?
Most literary agencies have a policy that you won’t hear a response from the literary agent if it’s a pass. Others might notify you that you’ve been rejected. And everyone who wants to read more will contact you.
It hurts to be rejected. I get it. But please do your best to not take rejections personally, or get bummed out if an agent doesn’t let you know directly that the book isn’t for them.
It can feel very much that a rejection of a book is a rejection of you, but it isn’t.
You might think, “Well what the heck, why don’t they let me know why it’s a pass? Or even that it is a pass?”
While most literary agents would love to write personal rejection notes and give some notes for edits, they just don’t have the time to do this. Query letters and signing clients is part of the job, and an exciting one at that!
But they also have to agent.
It only takes one yes
And if it is a rejection? Sometimes it has nothing to do with how interesting your book sounds to them. It might just not be their taste. Or, sometimes a literary agent might love your book but not know how to sell it.
Other times they might have already filled their quota for new agents in your book’s genre.
Regardless of what happens, you should be proud of yourself for taking on the submission process. Did I mention query letters are tough to write (and send)?
If you don’t hear from a literary agent in three months, it’s likely it’s a pass.
Dust yourself off, take a look at your query letter and see if it could be reworked, and turn to your next list of seven to ten agents who might be a good fit. Keep going. Try again! “It only takes one yes” is a motto in the publishing world for a reason.
What can you do while waiting to hear from a literary agent?
It’s true, after so many rejections you might decide to take an alternative publishing route, or you might shelve your queried book and turn to querying another.
This isn’t a bad thing. You’re learning as a writer when you keep writing.
Same counts for writing query letters.
Which brings me to my next point. When you’re waiting to hear back from literary agents, don’t sit there twiddling your thumbs. Turn them back to the keyboard. Start writing your next book!
If an agent offers representation, they’ll want to know you’re in this for a career, not a one time hit.
Having another book already in the beginning draft stages will be lovely note to share with them if they call to offer representation.
Some responses you might hear from literary agents if they are interested in your query letter, and later in your book’s chapters or full manuscript, could include:
- Send me more! They’ll tell you have many chapters and any other materials to send.
- Send me the full! Wow, what a great email to get!
- R&R (Revise and Resubmit): This usually comes after reading a full manuscript but not falling entirely in love it with (but liking it a ton). They’ll probably share why it wasn’t quite right for them, but also how they’re interested with “these changes” in mind. (P.S. take as long as you need with your revisions before resubmitting, there isn’t a rush with this turnaround, and it’s a big deal to get one. Take your time. Make your manuscript the best version it can be before sending it again.)
- Feedback in some shape or form (any feedback that is not a standard rejection is awesome! It shows the agent liked it enough to give you some tips to try again!)
Red Flags to Avoid in Your Query Letter
One final note.
We’ve talked about what a literary agent likes in a query letter, and what will catch their attention and hook them.
We probably should also briefly cover some red flags, or items that will (likely) lead to hard rejections. Take note of this list, and be sure your query letter is free of all these items:
- A query full of typos. Mistakes happen, but a query letter littered with grammar mistakes suggests careless writing, and anything that it too much will distract them from the story pitch.
- Misspelling the agent’s name. This doesn’t lead to an automatic rejection, but please get this right. Proofread your query letter!
- Anything suggesting that you’re the next James Patterson or another big writer, or your series will sell like Harry Potter. It hasn’t yet, so don’t state this.
- Saying your book will sell millions of copies. Again, it hasn’t yet, so leave this out.
- Being rude, threatening, or gimmicky in any way.
You have one chance to impress each agent with your query letter, and you want your letter to shine, with no bumps or hangups that might cause them to turn away. Make sure your commas are all in the right places!
Can You Follow Up?
You haven’t heard from the literary agent in a while. Should you follow up?
If the submission guidelines says a no response is a rejection, and it’s been longer than three months, it’s probably a rejection.
Some agents don’t mind a polite follow up, but don’t be hasty with this. Give the literary agent time to review their query letter inbox. And keep in mind, not every agent loves follow ups—if you follow them on social media, they may talk about this on their platforms. Follow their lead.
Overall, I err on the side of leave it be—and not putting your book in one inbox. You can absolutely have that number one agent, but don’t be afraid to query other agents after a significant time has passed (again, I recommend three months).
Follow ups are different if you’ve sent the agent chapters or a full.
Give them a few weeks to look these over, but there’s no harm in following up politely if they’ve asked for more.
If there hasn’t been a previous interest in your book pitch, however, you don’t want to be a pest. An obsessive, obnoxious amount of follow up emails will become recognizable in the slush pile.
Better to leave them be, and if you don’t hear from them, move on.
Don’t send nasty follow up emails either if it’s a rejection. They haven’t been rude to you, and the publishing world is a small business.
Plus, I think it’s never a bad thing to work on treating others as we would like to be treated.
The Key Principles for How to Write a Query Letter
We’ve just covered a lot of information about query letters. Here are the key takeaways to keep in mind as you write your query letter.
- A query letter is the most important page you will write besides your book.
- Don’t query an agent until you’ve finished your manuscript (or written a nonfiction book proposal).
- Research and build a dream agent list (seven to ten).
- Query a specific literary agent, not just any agent.
- Use the preferred three-paragraph format: Hook, Book, Cook.
- Add a P.S. to make your query letter stand out.
- Follow submission guidelines.
- Be respectful, don’t use gimmicks or lash out if you’re rejected.
- Three months is a common wait time before hearing from a literary agent.
- Avoid query letter red flags.
- Write your next book after you submit your book to literary agents.
- Remember, you have a say!
Above All Else, You Need to Write a Great Book!
I once had a conversation with Jeff Kinney, best-selling author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, about his advice for authors. He emphasized the importance of writers being persistent and resilient, and I’ve always loved this.
Publishing is a tough industry, and you need to dig deep and stay true to your passion if you want to publish—you need to muster your love for storytelling and keep going!
This advice couldn’t be more honest or true when it comes to the submission process.
Writing is an extremely vulnerable, meaningful, and powerful profession.
I genuinely believe that stories have the greatest chance to engender growth in positive directions. They are bright gifts that teach us perspectives we couldn’t learn intimately if locked away instead of put into print.
You are a writer.
You can do this. But to traditionally publish, you will want a literary agent. Your relationship with a literary agent is a business relationship first, and the submission process is also part of that business.
When you understand the mechanics of the submission process and master the three-paragraph format in your letter, you’ll boost your chances in the slush.
Ultimately, though, a query letter is only the first step in signing with a literary agent. Even more important than writing than a good query letter is writing a great book.
A great book is what a literary agent will offer to represent! The query letter gives them exciting reasons check it out.
What scares or confuses you about writing query letters? Do you think these three paragraphs will help you overcome that fear or confusion? Let us know in the comments.
Writing a winning query letter is tough. But you don’t have to go it alone.
I’d love to share my best advice for your query letter with a professional query letter critique. Get the feedback you need to make your query letter shine, and send it to literary agents with confidence.
Now that you know the preferred three paragraphs in a query letter, pick the paragraph you find most intimidating and give it a go!
Spend fifteen minutes writing this paragraph.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can’t revise anything that isn’t written, and we all need to start somewhere!
Once you’re done, post it in the comments section for feedback. Do this confidently and with an open mind for critique.
Then, comment on three other people’s paragraphs. Ask for them to critique your paragraph, too. This is how we help one another!
Good luck, and happy querying. I can’t wait to see your book debut in the world!