14 Literary Agents Share their Query Letter Top Tips and Pet Peeves
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
1. Julie Gwinn, The Seymour Agency
My top tip is to research word count. I get so many proposals and queries that are either too short or too long. Novellas are 35,000—45,000 words. Novels range from 70,000—90,000 words, and historical and sci-fi/fantasy can go longer to 110,000 words (for world-building).
My top peeve is when they spell my name wrong or I get the "Dear Agent" query.
2. Jessica Faust, BookEnds Literary Agency
Write your query before you write the book. The minute you have the idea sit down and work on the blurb. The query blurb is essentially the key selling points of your idea. It can also be used as a broad outline for your book. While you’re writing, check back on your query to see if you’re still holding true to what makes your book marketable. If the book is going off base, you have two options. Either adjust your query to the book, but make sure it’s still a strong blurb, or adjust the book to bring it back to the vision you first created.
Get a query critique group. Before sending out any query, run it by a few trusted writing friends, but not those who’ve already read the book. Find a support network for just queries. These are people you’re trying to sell the book to (like you’ll be selling to agents or readers in a bookstore). Are they intrigued enough to want to read the book? If not, get back to work on the query or, possibly, the book. Is it just the query that’s not grabbing them, or is it the overall idea?
3. Lauren Bieker, FinePrint Literary Management
Misspelling my name.
Querying me with a genre that I have explicitly said I do not rep.
Querying with a story that is "unlike anything the world's ever seen". If you can't find comparative titles for your book, neither will any publisher/marketing team.
Following up hourly/daily on a query (yes, this has happened).
4. Kathy Green, Kathryn Green Literary Agency
I love getting queries and always feel a swirl of anticipation when I open them.
My top tip would be to really convey the essence of the story or project in the query. Don’t be mysterious. Put it all in there, including anything relevant in your background or current life that adds to your platform.
My biggest peeve is when writers don’t really give a good description of the novel or project, but spend a paragraph telling me which authors have agreed to read a bound galley when available.
5. Gina Panettieri, Talcott Notch Literary Service
I think not paying any attention to what I actually represent and the requirements for a query are my biggest pet peeves because they waste so much of our time as a team. If my assistants spend 50% of their time wading through queries that are for inappropriate material and another 25% having to ask for additional details, like the word count or the sample pages before they can actually make a determination, that means there's that much less time for the really appropriate projects we should be focusing on. So, it hurts everyone. We don't have as much time to read, consider and reply on works that were queried correctly.
6. Elaine Spencer, Knight Agency
Blatant disregard for the types of projects and genres that I’m looking for or interested in acquiring. You’re wasting your own valuable time as well as my own. If it’s not a space I’m working in please don’t send the material my way.
7. Juliet Mushens, Caskie Mushens Agency
Get someone else to proof-read your letter before sending it over—when you’re really close to something it’s easy to see what is supposed to be there, but I lose track of the number of submissions that address me by the wrong name, or have other big errors.
You want to make sure you stand out for the right reasons!
8. Laura Crockett, TriadaUS Literary Agency
Query letters are truly like a book jacket. The book jackets of published work give you enough information to understand the groundwork/backstory, a character to focus on and their first big obstacle that sends them on the journey, and then a hook to get you to open the book and discover for yourself. Then there's a mini bio on the author. That's exactly what a query should look like—concise, thorough, enticing.
Know your market! It's so great to read books released in the last few years that's within your target audience and genre. It helps you become a better writer, it shows the agent you are up-to-date on readers' interests, and it helps both of you provide comparative titles when pitching to an editor down the road on submission. If you're writing YA fantasy, you're reading the latest YA fantasy; if you're writing adult historical fiction, you're reading the latest adult historical fiction; if you're writing middle grade mystery, you're reading the latest MG mystery.
Do not begin a query letter with a "what would you do if" question or "you would/know" declarative assumption. I'm aware it's an attempt to hook me in, but it's more of a road block and you don't want that so early into the query letter. Like writing essays in school, you wouldn't (and shouldn't) begin the essay with a question or a "Webster's Dictionary defines ___ as" statements.
Cut out the question, eliminate the assumption, and start your query with the very next line. It'll be so much stronger for it!
A query letter is ultimately a business letter or a job interview. I loathe it when the query letter is full of typos, grammatical errors, misspelling my name and/or addressing as "Dear Agent," or has more focus on the writer's bio and less about the manuscript. The query letter needs to be polished and professional. Otherwise it leaves a negative impression—or at least the impression the writer isn't ready for this business yet.
It's great when the writer does their research on the agent's reading interests, but overfamiliarity with the agent's personal life and commenting on it in the query is a huge no-no.
Many times querying writers treat the query as an opportunity to teach. My manuscript explores themes of love and loss through the lens of __, much like my inspirations [60yo book] and [never heard of this long-dead author]. This isn't an English class. I can determine what the themes are when reading the manuscript, and if I offer representation I will ask you what inspired you to write this story.
9. Josh Getzler, Hannigan Getzler Literary
My top tip is for an author to be sure that the agent you are querying actually represents the kind of book you are writing! Nothing tips me off more quickly that a submission is random than when I get a picture book or a Christian genre novel, both of which I explicitly state in my guidelines that I don't rep (many other folks do, and brilliantly; but I don't). On the (positive) flip side, when an author makes reference to books I have repped, and then show why I therefore might like hers or his, I look at it with a positive eye (whether or not I end up liking the material itself).
10. Paige Wheeler, Creative Media Agency
Queries tend to need to pick up fast, even faster than the book itself, so a solid hook to draw the agent in is a nice way to ensure at least a little interest.
Sending to as many agents as you can is not a bad strategy, but you should still take the time and care in crafting individualized letters.
Comparative titles are always nice to see in a query and helps determine right away what kind of novel the author was going for.
Similarly, figure out what genre categories your work falls under and include that in your query.
It’s not a bad idea to seek out recommendations for agents to submit to. If you know other authors, that’s great! If not, looking/asking around online can be helpful, too.
Just because you don’t hear back from an agent within a month or two, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested or are ignoring you. Persistence is key: sometimes things get looked over or stuck in spam, etc. Many agents will specify how long to wait before inquiring about an unanswered query, so look for that, but don’t hesitate to reach out again.
Proofread your query letter as carefully as you proofread your work; it’s the first sample of your writing that we see.
Your synopsis should be as engagingly written as your manuscript.
Make sure your work has a strong opening.
Remember that the sample of text included in the query is all we see of your work, so it needs to give us a good impression.
Honestly, just seeing grammatical errors and simple typos sometimes makes me think the writer didn’t take the time to proofread their query or even the novel. It’d be great if more people took the time to do that.
Kind of along those lines is when people don’t even take the time to individualize letters. Saying “Dear Agent,” or something vague just seems lazy.
I really dislike when the sample (sometimes the whole query) is attached as a file or you are directed to a link. Usually you have to download the file to view it which is super annoying.
I wish there was a standardized font/font size to use in queries. Most of the time it’s fine, but sometimes the text is super tiny and I have to magnify the page to read it.
We know you’re excited about your work and you believe in it, but exclamation marks can read as unprofessional.
Queries that don’t follow an agent’s submission guidelines can make a bad impression. It sends the signal that the author can’t (or won’t) follow directions.
If asked to send a synopsis, having a confusing or incomplete synopsis is a turnoff. A compelling and concise synopsis will definitely help a query stand out from the rest.
In the query itself, don’t spell out the entire plot of your book, keep it short and simple.
Don’t mention or pitch multiple projects in the query. Just focus on the project you are currently querying.
Overconfident authors who think that they have the story of the century.
11. Janet Reid, JetReid Literary
400 Five things that drive me crazy:
Not sending pages
I've heard tell there are agents who don't want pages.
I'm not one of them.
Show me you can write. Most of you can't write queries for sh*t. Give yourself a fighting chance with something you CAN write: novel pages.
Not telling me the start of the story/the precipitating event/anything about the plot
At some point you need a plot on the page.
The query is a good place to start.
Effusive compliments/ANY compliments really
I don't want someone who talks like I walk on water.
Sharks swim. There's a difference.
And I want someone who wants to be on my team, not revere me.
It's brutally uncomfortable to read balderdash like "you're one of the greats."
Repeatedly sending what you think is a query (and isn't) in the misguided assumption that I haven't already read it and discarded it because you didn't tell me about the book.
Telling me you're a previously published author as though that's a big plus
Unless you've sold one million copies, it isn't.
Compounding this is when you don't include any info about the new book leading me to think that you expect me to want you, not your book. #NopeNopeNope
12. Abby Saul, The Lark Group
My top peeve is writers not knowing what word count is appropriate for their genre. I often get queries that sound like they could be interesting but then say they are 45K or 150K words.
Too short or too long of a word count will sink your query (and your book) before an agent can read a word.
13. Kristina Perez, Zeno Agency
Keep your query letter short and sweet. A greeting (personalised is nice but not necessary), a 200-word pitch of your book, and a short bio that is relevant to your project. And follow the agent's directions for the length and format of the material they want to see!
14. Northbank Talent Management
Offered their blog for perusal, The Northbank Guide to Cover Letters.
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