How to Write a Query Letter to a Literary Agent

Updated on May 20, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I teach creative writing to adults and love helping my students improve their writing skills.

Whether you write using a laptop, or pen and paper, take time to craft your letter carefully to achieve maximum impact.
Whether you write using a laptop, or pen and paper, take time to craft your letter carefully to achieve maximum impact. | Source

Why You Need a Literary Agent

You’ve finished writing your novel, or non-fiction book, and now you want to get published. It should be easy, right? Wrong! Publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts every week. Most go straight onto the slush pile; a heap of writing that rarely gets more than a glance from the busy editorial team, let alone a full read-through.

Enter the literary agent. The literary agent’s role is that of a go-between author and publisher. They weed out the total no-hopers, saving the publishing house time and effort. They build good relationships with individual editors and learn what each one wants from a manuscript. They negotiate on behalf of writers, and know copyright law inside out.

Literary agents receive their fee as a commission on sales, so it’s in their interest to only represent authors they believe will be successful and sell a lot of books. This means that finding a literary agent to accept you onto their books is almost as difficult as finding a publisher.

Many publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers, they only accept submissions via a literary agent. You may therefore have little choice but to find a literary agent to represent you, and it matters which literary agency you work with, as their reputation can open, or close, doors for you in the publishing world.

How to Write an Outstanding Cover Letter

  1. Be Brief.

    The cover letter should be short and businesslike, and cover no more than one side of A4 paper. Don’t waffle, and don’t use 10 words where one would suffice.

  2. Use a Clear Type Face and Font Size.

    Font styles such as Calibri, Arial or Times New Roman are good ones to choose. You want your target literary agent to be fascinated by your prose, not your type face. A font size of between 10 and 12 make the text easy to read for most people.

  3. Literary Agents are Busy People.

    They receive hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every week. They will skim read your cover letter and make a judgement on your work within seconds of starting to read. Don’t waste those precious first moments with unnecessary distractions.

  4. Sell Yourself as a Writer.

    Your cover letter to a literary agent is your primary selling document. You need to sell not just your book, but also yourself. The tone of your letter should be enthusiastic, and demonstrates your talents as a competent writer. The prose must be grammatically correct with no spelling mistakes or typos.

  5. Begin with a Hook.

    Start your letter with a punchy fact about either yourself or your work to catch the agent’s attention. Then briefly explain the genre, plot, and target audience of your book, as well as its length.

How to Write a Great Query Letter: Tips from Literary Agent B J Robbins

The Query Process

Your query or cover letter should hook the literary agent the moment she starts reading. The style of your prose, and the vocabulary used are the equivalent of a shop window for your writing skills. Make sure that your window display is eye-catching.

Choose a literary agent by referring to the Guide to Literary Agents which is published annually. Consult the most up-to-date edition as staff move jobs frequently. Nothing conveys a sloppy attitude more than addressing your letter to the wrong person. This could be one of the most important business letters you ever write. It’s crucial that you get it right, and successfully capture the attention of your chosen agent.

What to Include in a Query or Cover Letter

Include
Comment
Your name and address
You should always include your real name and address. If you write under a pen-name then add this too. An agent may check your credentials by reference to electoral rolls, address registers etc. to see that you are a real person.
Your email address
Remember this is a business letter. Its contents will set the tone of your relationship with the agent. Your email address should sound professional. Don’t use a jokey one that you use between friends. If necessary, create an email especially for your literary endeavors.
The title of your book
This may be a “working title” and can be changed later.
A brief paragraph describing the book
This should not be a synopsis; that can be included as a separate document. The emphasis is on the word “brief”. A literary agent receives hundreds of letters like yours every week. They need to be able to quickly scan your cover letter to get the gist of your submission.
These items are common sense, but in the heat of the moment it's easy to forget them.

How Kim Chance Got a Literary Agent

Finding and Choosing the Right Literary Agent

Researching the market BEFORE submitting a manuscript is a key part of the process. There are several reference books such as the Guide to Literary Agents, and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook that list literary agents, publishers and the type of submissions they accept. These reference books are published annually and it’s important to access the current edition.

The demand for different genres changes. An agent that was taking new clients one year may not be doing so the next. When deciding which literary agent to contact, make sure you understand which type of authors they’re interested in. Take a look at their websites to see which writers they already represent. The websites also contain information about their terms of service and how they accept submissions from new writers.

Email or Snail Mail?

You may be wondering whether it’s best to contact the agent by email or snail mail. The answer is, you must send your letter and manuscript in the way your chosen agent prefers. You have no choice in the matter.

Check out the literary agent’s website, and if they state they only accept manuscripts by email, then don’t post your work to them. It’s no excuse to say that you don’t have an Internet connection. If you want a literary agent to take you seriously, then you must follow their requirements. This is the 21st century, and agents and publishers expect you to be able to communicate online and via email.

Most agents will delete unsolicited emails that have attachments. This is to protect their computers from viruses and malware sent by spammers.

An agency may require you to send your cover letter by email with the stipulation that the full manuscript is sent by snail mail. If you are sending documents through the post and want them returned if unsuitable, remember to include a self-addressed envelope with sufficient prepaid return postage. Otherwise rejected manuscripts go straight in the bin.

Write without fear. Edit without mercy.
Write without fear. Edit without mercy. | Source

How Long Should a Query Letter to a Literary Agent Be?

There's no set length for a query letter, but bear in mind that literary agents are busy people. Your letter should be no longer than two sides of A4, and preferably no more than one. You should be able to give all the information needed in about 300 words.

Revisit the tips given at the top of this article, and keep your letter brief and to the point.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Submit a Comment
  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 months ago from Sunny Florida

    I have never written to a literary agent but I think your cover letter advice is probably excellent. I think all of your information is very useful and helpful to the aspiring writer.

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    2 months ago from UK

    This is a very interesting and useful article. Anyone looking for a literary agent would do well to take this advice.

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 

    2 months ago from SW England

    I found this useful and concise. Your advice covers all my questions and I will keep it on my desktop screen for reference. Thank you.

    Ann

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