If you’re hoping to get your novel or memoir published by a traditional publishing house, you’ll need to start querying literary agents. Traditional publishing houses only consider manuscripts represented by literary agents. An agent who chooses to represent your book will shop it around to publishers and make sure you get the best possible publishing deal. At Writer’s Relief, we know that the competition for literary agents’ attention is fierce, so it’s important to stand out from the crowd—in the best way! Here’s a writer’s guide on how to impress a literary agent to boost your odds of gaining representation.
How To Impress A Literary Agent With Your Query
Like all the other eager novelists and memoirists, you’ll be sending literary agents all or some of the elements in your query packet—the opening pages of your book, a query letter, and a synopsis—all while following each agent’s specific guidelines. It’s important that each of these pieces in your query packet is properly formatted, proofread, and intriguing enough to make the agent want to see more.
Make The Book’s Opening Pages Irresistible
If an agent requests pages, you would submit about thirteen pages or so from the beginning of your book. Since the agent will use these sample pages to determine if it’s worth reading more of your manuscript, you want to be sure your book’s opening pages are well-written and tempting:
Strike the right balance in your opening. Many literary agents prefer to see a book start with action, rather than a long introduction with lots of backstory. Open with action, but make sure to give agents all the context they need to get immersed in your book’s world.
Introduce your protagonist. For many agents, character development is the most important part of a story. Make sure your narrator—and your important supporting characters—stand out from the very first page of your book!
Frame major plotlines. If your novel takes a few chapters to get going, an agent is likely to lose interest long before getting to “the good stuff.” Agents expect to have a concrete sense of where your book is headed in the sample pages you send. What is your character’s chief goal? What do they stand to lose if they don’t get what they want? What’s standing in their way? While you shouldn’t answer all those questions in your opening pages, agents should have a solid idea of what they can expect from your book.
Hint at what’s to come. If possible, end your sample pages at a point where something exciting or unexpected happens so an agent will want to know what happens next.
Write The Perfect Query Letter
A query letter is the agent’s first introduction to your book. Here are three elements every query letter should have, and two that are optional:
Your book’s important stats. Agents will need to know the basics about your book: the title, genre, and word count. Some authors also include content warnings in their query letters to warn agents up front about any potentially sensitive material.
A book blurb that leaves agents wanting more. Like a two-minute movie preview, your book blurb hits the high points of your book in about 200 words. While you want to be sure to introduce your main plotline and characters, never give away your book’s ending! End your query letter’s book blurb with a question or cliffhanger to hook agents’ interest and leave them wanting to read more.
A concise author bio. Write your author bio in first person and offer a brief overview of your publishing history (if you have one!). Include any details about you and your expertise that make you the best person to write this book. Keep it short and sweet, but you can also share a few personal details about your education, career, or hobbies.
Optional elements for your query letter:
A killer log line. You might want to open your query letter with an intriguing log line: a very short description of the main character(s) and plot of your book.
Comparative titles. Comp titles are already published books that are similar to your manuscript. That similarity may lie in the tone/writing style, a key plot or world-building element, etc. A note of caution: You may inadvertently compare your book to one the agent hates or feels is overdone. Often, it’s best to let your book stand on its own—the agent will know where it falls compared to published books. But if you want to include comp titles, don’t simply compare your book to well-known bestsellers like To Kill a Mockingbird or the Harry Potter series. Take some time to research and make accurate choices for your comparisons.
Create A Well-Written Synopsis
The synopsis for your novel or memoir is different than the book blurb you create for your query letter. A query letter book blurb is a one- or two-paragraph description of your book, while the synopsis is a separate, one- to two-page document that provides a longer description of the entire story. The synopsis includes the setting, main characters, the conflict between characters, their motivation, and how the story ends. Learn more about how to write a great synopsis here.
And Our Biggest Tip For The Perfect Query Packet…
Proofread, proofread, proofread! Agents really appreciate a well-crafted query packet, and putting effort into your proofreading and formatting shows how seriously you take your work! If you need help, reach out to our proofreading and formatting experts today.
Tips For Approaching Agents
Get the agent’s name and greeting right. This may seem obvious, but it’s crucial—as the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression! Make sure you spell the agent’s name correctly, and take care not to misgender them. For example, some agents may prefer the gender-neutral title “Mx.” rather than “Ms.” or “Mister.” If you can’t find an agent’s preference, it’s best to skip the title and just use the agent’s full name.
Be sure you’re querying the right agent. Most literary agents publicly post the types of books they’re interested in representing. Literary agencies’ websites will have profiles of individual agents, and you can also check social media. Research the agent you want to query: Does your book contain elements this particular literary agent is looking for? Has the agent worked on books you love? Does the agency have a great track record selling books in your genre? If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no” or “I don’t know,” this agent may not be the right fit.
Follow the submission guidelines. Agents, like literary journals, will often have their own unique set of submission requirements: how many pages to send, whether to send by email or a software like Submittable or Query Manager, whether to include attachments, and so on. And no—your book is not the exception to the rule. Failing to follow an agent’s guidelines will usually result in an automatic rejection.
Don’t limit yourself to one or two queries. It can take months to hear back from an agent, so you shouldn’t limit yourself to querying one agent at a time. These days, most agents allow simultaneous submissions. But keep in mind, if an agent offers to represent you, it’s a publishing industry standard to let other considering literary agents know and give them at least two weeks to counteroffer.
Spending hours and hours researching to find the right agents to query—and to eliminate those who you definitely shouldn’t query—can be daunting. Fortunately, Writer’s Relief can do all the research and busywork for you! Our research experts will pinpoint the best 25+ literary agents for your book to boost your odds of grabbing an agent’s attention. To learn more about how we can help, submit your work to our Review Board today!
Be patient with agents. Most agents receive dozens, if not hundreds, of queries each day. That’s a lot of reading to do! And reading queries is not the biggest part of their job—agents devote the biggest chunk of their time to the clients they already have. So it’s not uncommon for agents to take weeks or months to respond. While some agents are open to polite follow-ups after a certain amount of time has passed, never harass an agent or take out your frustrations on them. People in the publishing industry talk, and you could end up with a reputation for being difficult.
By following these tips to impress a literary agent, you’ll help your query packet stand out from the competition and make it easier for an agent to say “yes” to your book!
Question: Which element of a query packet do you find the most difficult to perfect?