I’ve been querying agents for a few years now, and although I’ve come close to being signed, I still don’t have one. But in that time I’ve learned quite a bit about approaching and communicating with agents, enough so that my manuscripts are regularly requested.
If there’s one thing many writers sometimes don’t take into account when querying literary agents, it’s an appreciation for what the agents are ultimately trying to do.
Yes, your query is your pitch for your novel, but agents don’t look at it in quite that way.
Years ago, when publishing houses were their own companies, editors might take a chance by signing an author whom they felt had a unique story or voice. Literary quality is still paramount, of course, but it now must share the spotlight with marketability. Once publishing companies were bought by larger corporations, the bottom line—product sales—became a greater a priority.
Today, one of an agent’s main concerns when reading your query letter is, “Can I sell this?”
The typical query letter conveys what the writer believes is the book’s theme. But that may not be what the agents want to know.
Instead, they are more interested in how your book fits into the market: who is the audience (and is that audience large enough to generate sufficient sales); is it similar to successful books that can be referenced to create interest in yours; what is the writer’s experience or platform (this is especially true when submitting nonfiction).
When you query, think about your book’s marketing potential. I know most writers dislike doing this. But from a writer’s standpoint, the important thing at this point is to get your manuscript requested.
When crafting your query, consider it from the agent’s perspective: what is it about this book that will help me sell it to a publisher, and later to potential readers?
There are three main things you’re looking to convey to an agent in a query letter.
1.You have a product that will sell in the marketplace.
This means you have an understanding of the current market and the trends that are driving it. Often agents ask for comps—books similar to yours that are successful. This doesn’t mean that your book must mimic a bestseller, but you can illustrate your knowledge of the industry by finding some aspect that your book shares with a popular one.
2. You understand how the process works.
There are some specific aspects of query letters that show an agent you know the business. For example: Pitch your work confidently, but without boasting or hyperbole. Follow the agent’s guidelines closely. Get right to the aspects of the book that will help it sell. Don’t tease by withholding the ending.
3. You’ve separated yourself from the crowd.
The average literary agency receives tens of thousands of queries every year. Most of the submitters have little to no publishing experience, and it shows in the way they promote their book or themselves. They list aspects of the book that have little to do with its marketability, or personal facts that have nothing to do with their writing credentials.
It also helps if you have been published by literary journals or indie publishers. To an agent, you are as much the product as your book.
It’s not a bad idea to prepare several versions of your query letter that emphasize different aspects of your book, in order to better match what an agent is looking for.
For example, my latest novel has elements of family saga as well as historical fiction. Both are agent categories, so if an agent is more into the saga aspect I’ll send one version, and if she reps historical fiction I’ll send the other.
Is this insincere? Not really. The idea is to get the agent to request the manuscript and decide to represent you based on the quality and salability of the work.
To learn more, sign up for my six-week class, Finding an Agent: Resources and Strategies, starting Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Joe Ponepinto is the publisher and fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a nationally-recognized literary journal, and teaches fiction writing at Tacoma Community College. His novel, Mr. Neutron, will be published by 7.13 Books in spring 2018. His stories and criticism have been published in dozens of journals in the U.S. and abroad.