Writing a Query Letter #agentqueries #literaryqueries

Hi, SEers. Mae here today to discuss a topic that usually makes authors cringe. There are two things I despise writing—a book synopsis, and a query letter. I’ve had to suck it up and do the former, but until the end of last year, writing a query letter for literary representation was something I’d avoided. 

I have, however, been sitting on a finished manuscript for almost two years. As a hybrid author, I’ve been published by a traditional small press, and have indie-pubbed my own work. The one goal that has escaped me is to find a home with a Big Five publisher. Most of us dream of that, right?

At the end of 2021, I decided to try. The first step—almost as hard—means finding an agent. We all know this is a lengthy process, almost assuredly layered with plenty of rejection. I’ve read horror stories from NYT bestselling authors on how long it took them to find an agent. Just thinking about it can twist my stomach in knots, but nothing tried, nothing gained. 

Middle aged woman in thinking pose before open laptop

Several things I learned while writing a query:

First and foremost, make sure you spell the agent’s name correctly! You’re probably thinking that goes without saying (and you’re right), but check and double-check. Nothing will send your query to the trash pile sooner than misspelling the agent’s name.

Be wary of copy and paste. When you’re searching for an agent, you’re submitting simultaneously. If you’re doing it correctly, the letter should be tailored to each individual agent. If you copy and paste, adjust as needed for each query. Copy and paste can be a time saver but it can also be your downfall. Make sure you comb through each query before you send. Once you do, there’s no going back to fix a mistake.

Your greeting should be short, but it never hurts to mention how much you enjoy the work of a particular author the agent represents (it shows you’ve done your homework), or that you heard them speak at a conference.

According to Angie Hodapp of the Nelson Literary Agency, there is no need to state, “I am seeking representation.” An agent already knows that. They also know you’re sending out simultaneous submissions. 

Be certain to include your word count and genre. Offer comparables. In my letter, I mentioned my work would appeal to fans of Kevin O’Brien and Jennifer McManhon. If you comp specific titles, be sure to use newer releases so it shows you’re current with the market.

Provide a summary of your book. Not a synopsis, but a two to three paragraph pitch about your work. This is probably the most important part of your letter, and likely the hardest to write. Avoid mentioning too many characters (stick to the main one or two) and too much backstory. Relay your character’s goal, their motivation for achieving it, what obstacle is standing in their way (conflict) and what will happen if they don’t achieve their goal (the stakes involved). Provide a sense of where or when your story takes place.

Think of your pitch like a teaser. You’re not giving away everything—especially not the ending!—you’re creating interest to make the agent want to read your manuscript

To close out your query, provide a short bio which includes previous publications, any accolades/writing awards you have received, and professional memberships you maintain such as MWA, RWA, SFWA, etc. Don’t make it a resume! A few sentences are all you need. Your entire query letter if printed on paper, shouldn’t be longer than a 8.5” x 11” sheet.

When you’re done, polish and polish again. If you have critique partners run your letter by them before you send it out. It never hurts to have a second set of eyes look over what you’ve written. Finally, be prepared to wait. And wait. The average query turn-around is six to eight weeks.

In my April post, we’ll look at some resources for locating agents and tracking your queries. 

Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing a query letter and seeking an agent. Is it something you’ve done or would do in the future? What is your experience or thoughts in general? Let’s chat in the comments.

Ready, set, go!

bio box for author, Mae Clair

89 thoughts on “Writing a Query Letter #agentqueries #literaryqueries

    • Hi, Michael. I’m so glad you found this useful. I’m still in the trenches of sending queries myself. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned in the process. I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

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  1. Thanks for such an informative and interesting post, Mae. I don’t know that I’ll ever attempt to do such a thing, but you just never know. And I’m glad to have some input now as to where to even begin. I’ll be saving this for future reference, just in case. 😀 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you found the post helpful, Marcia. Querying is a long, drawn out process, and I don’t know that I’ll stick with it, but I’m glad I was able to provide information on how to get started should you decide to take the leap down the road!

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. This is an excellent guide to writing a query letter, Mae. I’ve written quite a few and it’s a grueling process, that’s for sure. Especially those long waits, or auto-rejections. I’m glad you mentioned the piles of rejections, because they can be so demoralizing, especially for new authors. It helps to know that best-selling authors get them too. I think about attempting a big house publisher again. Best of luck to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Diana, your work is so strong, you really should be with one of the Big Five and in bookstores everywhere. Querying, as you said, is a grueling process. I’m only going to stick it out for about a year, then decide what other option I want to take with the ms. In the meantime, I’m working on other projects. I just hate the time querying eats up!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I tried this years ago. Even revisiting the idea gives me chills. I’m sure I’ll never strike it rich as a self publisher, but I’m having a good time and my work is out there. Your work is wonderful, and it would be crazy if someone didn’t pick you up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the wonderful comment, Craig. So often finding an agent and/or publisher comes down to timing and luck. I waffle back and forth between just enjoying my work being out there too, and wanting to reach a bigger audience. I’m not sure I’ll actually stick with querying because of the work involved. I’ll give myself a year and then decide from there. I’m finding the older I get, I’m starting to feel it’s okay if I end up just wanting to write for fun. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great tips, Mae. I shudder to think about writing a query letter. At this point, it’s probably not something I’d consider. Wishing you all the best as you seek representation. Your writing is certainly worthy of a Big Five Publisher.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Joan. I really appreciate it. I hope this effort leads somewhere, but even if it doesn’t, at least I’ll know I gave it a good shot.
      Honestly, there are days I think I would be happy just going along the way I am now. Time will tell.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Synopses and query letters – hate both of them. Excellent tips, Mae. I have a friend who finally got an agent, but her book still hasn’t been picked up by any publishers – she’s been on sub for about two years. She’s gotten so discouraged, but I’ve read her novel and it’s fantastic. The market (and agents) can be so fickle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Teri, you hit on something that falls into the next category—once you finally get an agent, then you’ve got the agonizing wait to see if said agent can get an editor interested in your work. I can understand why your friend has gotten discouraged.The sad reality is that even the best work gets overlooked based on timing, the mood of the editor, trends, and so much more. It’s what makes indie pubbing so appealing. In all likelihood, I’ll be back.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is an excellent post, Mae! Anyone who is thinking about writing a query letter must have your suggestions handy to check off point by point. I can imagine the wrong spelling of the agent’s name would hasten the trash of the letter. Copy and paste – it’s so tempting to do when someone sends out many query letters. I remember sitting in a State Funding application committee as a reviewer, I read two applications submitted by two agencies, the wordings were identitical except the paragraphs were in a different order. There was a large amount in the budget for the supervisor to attend conferences. I shared the findings with other reviewers. That experience always reminds me of the “copy and paste.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very interesting what you came across regarding that State Funding application, Miriam. We live in a fast-forward world, so it’s natural we rely on copy and paste to get things done, but sometimes we need to slow down and take the time to make an extra effort. I’m hoping that will happen with querying. It’s going to be a long process for me, and I’m already behind on submitting, but it’s something I feel compelled to try! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. An interesting post, Mae. I know authors who still seek an agent. I haven’t considered one in more than a decade. I understand why some still do. There’s a prestige involved in having representation. There’s also the opportunity to see your work reach a wider audience, which may include the Hollywood (film, tv) crowd. But while it is easier than ever to self-publish our work (for better or for worse), it’s even more difficult than ever to catch the attentions of those in that upper echelon of the Big Five. Without a significant track record, there are many hurdles over which to jump. I see the modern Big Five publishers through the same lens in which I view the big record companies in music: their model is a relic of the past. That said, there’s plenty of reasons to still seek representation. I hope you’re one of those who break through. Your writing is certainly worthy of a wider audience. Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Beem! 🙂

      I really appreciate the insightful comment, too. I agree that trying to catch the attention of the Big 5 is pretty much like finding a needle in a haystack. I’ve done just about everything else on this writer’s journey, so I figure I need to give this a try. I’m going to allow myself a year then either submit to a small press or indie pub.

      My biggest problem is reaching an audience. I’ve seen the difference a traditional publisher can make. When I was with Kensington, they set aside a dedicated advertising budget for each of my books and boy did that make a difference in sales with them behind me. I have never been able to come close to the amount of sales I had with my Mothman series. Sadly, by the time Hode’s HIll arrived, the editor I had been working with left for an unrelated venture. Kensington still promotes my work for which I am grateful, but not like before.

      There are times I waffle back and forth on if it’s worth it to query, The main reason I’m giving it a go is that I have a review of A Thousand Yesteryears from a high-profile NYT best selling author, which I’m able to use in my query letters. Honestly, if it weren’t for that, I’d skip the whole query process. I’m hoping dropping a name will make a difference and cause an agent to take a second look.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I found this fascinating, Mae. I’ve heard about query letters but to hear was needed outlined so clearly and staightforwardly is a real boon. I’ve bookmarked this and may pluck up the courage to give it a go. Like Jan, I’m really looking forward to reading this novel – however it’s published!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Alex. I’m so glad you found this post helpful and will use it if you decide to give querying a go. I really need to send out more letters. I only sent out a handful and have had 3 rejections so far. That means I need to go back to basis and query far more agents then I did the first time.
      And thank you for the kind words about the book. I’m going to give myself a year then either submit the ms to small presses or indie pub it myself. The jury is still out on that one, LOL!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Its been a long time since I’ve done this, Mae 🙂 Over twenty years for my first children book. Great advice how to write a query, and I keep wanting to go back and revisit that option again of the next step. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Congrats to you for querying before, Denise! 🙂
      I’m glad you found the post informative, especially if you decide to revisit querying again. I don’t know that it will lead anywhere for me, but I figured it was worth a shot to give it a go and see what happens!

      Liked by 2 people

  11. When I first started writing, I sent out a ton of query letters. I received a few rejection letters but nothing from most. It was very discouraging. That is what sent me to self-publish, and I don’t regret it at all. That being said, I’m eager to read your future posts. I never know if I may decide to try with one of my current or future books. Great post, Mae! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is sad that many agents don’t reply at all. I’ve seen several list something in their submission guidelines like “if you haven’t received a reply within three months, consider it a rejection.” I can live with that. But to not state anything and then not respond is a lot harder to swallow. Even a standard online form rejection is far better!

      I’m glad you found the post useful, Yvette. I’ve had three rejections so far but I only sent out about a half dozen queries. It’s time consuming, but I need to go back to the drawing board and start submitting more. If you do decide to take that step, wishing you lots of luck!

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Some writers in my writers’ group are close to looking for agents, so I made copies of this to give to them. Great advice, Mae! I reblogged it, too. Queries are so hard to write. A query is a tease, hoping an agent will ask for more. If someone’s submitting, though, they should remember that you don’t give away the ending in a query, but you DO in a synopsis, so the agent knows the entire book’s thought out. When I looked for an agent, I loved the agencies that let you submit online. Back then, I got quick answers back from them. Good luck with finding an agent who’s perfect for you! .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Judi, since I started querying I’ve encountered a few of the online submissions. I wasn’t familiar with them, but I find that I like them, and they do seem to prompt faster response times. I’m honored that you’ve copied my post for several of your writing group members. I’m wishing them the best.
      And yes, we should definitely provide the ending in a synopsis. I think that is probably the thing I hate writing the most. Ugh! I’m just glad I have that behind me and ready to send to any agent who requests it. Now it’s a waiting game!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Staci. I’m finding it requires a lot of dedication to stick with it. I’m not sure how long that will hold out for me, but for now I’m going to give it a go. It’s definitely a lot of work, and I’m learning more as I go along. Kind of like writing, it’s a WIP! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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  14. It’s almost funny that you’ve chosen to write about this, Mae. This is something I’ve been thinking about doing lately. It’s hard to know which route to take as a writer. Ultimately, you want to do what’s best for you and your books. You’ve done an excellent job sharing some tips for writing the dreaded query letter. I’ve taken lots of notes!!

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  15. HI Mae, well done on getting this done. I have never written a query letter and may never do so. I am contented with my small publisher and although the idea of a big publisher and more book sales sounds appealing, that often doesn’t seem to be the outcome for all the pain. It is also very expensive from what I’ve heard, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on that. My cousin paid $4,500 to an agent to edit her manuscript in 2016 and she still hasn’t managed to publish it. The story put me off a lot.

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    • Robbie, I hate to say it, but an agent will not charge a fee to edit a manuscript. Maybe your cousin hired an professional editor? Although that is a seriously steep price. I’ve never heard such a thing. Reputable agents are paid when an author gets paid, from a percentage of royalties. An agent may suggest changes to make a manuscript better before agreeing to representation or submitting to a publisher, but they don’t charge and edit it themselves.

      I’m glad you’re happy with your small press, and honestly, I waffle back and forth on whether or not I should just indie pub or submit to a small press myself. I’ve done both and feel I need to take this last step, but part of me is happy doing what I’m doing, especially as I’m gaining more a following in my local community. I’m sure I’ll re-evaluate in a year or so if I’ve had no luck with the agent search. I’m giving myself that long.

      Liked by 2 people

      • HI Mae, I think you should do it. I may change my mind in the future but not now. It is hard enough just getting the marketing and writing done with all my other obligations to add query letters and all that anxiety to the mix. Another writing friend also said that agents don’t charge so I suspect my cousin was conned. It really broke her writing spirit.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I feel so bad for your cousin, Robbie. Hopefully, she won’t give up if writing is her passion.
        And I fully understand about all the other obligations attached to writing. I don’t know how long I will stick with querying because of all the work involved.

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  16. Good tips, Mae. That 6-8-week window has expanded a great deal because of the pandemic, agents working from home, juggling home life with work. Some agents are taking 3-6 months to get back to writers. I have two dozen agents who requested full proposals (nonfiction/true crime) last September, and I’m still waiting. I followed-up at the end of the year. Most apologized for the delay, and said, the publishing industry slowed to a crawl when Covid hit, and it still hasn’t recovered. Two agents even requested full proposals face-to-face when I attended a writers conference last November. We hung out all weekend, having a blast together. You’d think that would give my query priority, right? Nope. Still waiting. Though, to be fair, they did warn me about the new, slower landscape. Other author friends are experiencing the same thing with fiction queries. So, my best advice is to send out queries, then try to forget about it while you work on other projects. Otherwise, you’ll slowly lose your mind. 😉 It’s a grueling, mind-numbing process, isn’t it?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Sue, that is utterly fabulous you have so much interest in your work! I hope one of those pans out for you. I’m really shocked about the face-to-face ones, but as you said, it’s a slow, slow road.
      I’ve only sent out a handful of queries so far, and three have respond within the 6-8 week time frame, but it may also be the agents I’m querying. I’ve got to go back to the drawing board, because I need to add more to my list.
      I’ve also noticed several agencies are now adding online submissions directly from their websites with a tracker to follow the progress. That was something brand new to me. I’ve been sitting on this manuscript for two years, so I’m in no rush, and have other projects in various stages of completion. Waiting is hard, but I fully expect it will be over a year or more before I toss in the towel and decide to indie pub or go with a small press.
      Fingers crossed for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. This is great information, Mae. I’m with you on writing a synopsis. That can kill my writing joy faster than anything. My agent experience is different from most. I never planned on querying. I had my first book published and had submitted my second. Little did I know, my editor was planning to leave, so my manuscript got lost in the TBR pile. When a more experienced writer, who had the same editor, reached out to me, I mentioned that my book had been in NY for almost a year. She cut me off and said, “You need an agent!” She gave me a couple names, along with her agent. I queried that writer’s agent and by the next day, I was signing with her. Maybe she felt sorry for me!

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  18. A great post, Mae. Your suggestions are excellent. I have sent out several queries and was very surprised that many agents do not respond. That is one thing that anyone going through the process should understand that sometimes there will not be a response. It isn’t personal. It is just heavy workloads. Your point about custom letters and research is critical.

    Liked by 4 people

  19. Excellent post, Mae. We all make those mistakes you mentioned and they certainly haunt us later. Review and re-review is sage advice. My first book was with a small publishing firm and now I’m with an indie publisher — where I’m at home and delighted.

    Liked by 3 people

    • There’s nothing worse then sending a query with typos, misinformation (because of copy and paste), or–kiss of death—spelling the agent’s name wrong. I worry every time I hit the submit button!
      I’m glad you found your place of happiness as an indie author, Gwen. I may end up going that route with this ms eventually, but for now I thought I’d shop it around!

      Liked by 1 person

  20. This is such an informative post, Mae. When I first wrote “Flowers and Stone” I queried and boy was I green. Needless to say, I did not receive any offers and often, not even a rejection – just nothing. So, it’s an arduous process. I wish you the best of luck and can’t wait to read this novel that’s been resting for two years!! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Jan. I know I’m looking at a long road ahead of me, and sometimes wonder if it’s worth it. I figure I need to give it a try and I’m learning as I go. I’ve had three rejections so far. I only sent out a handful of queries to begin with, so I need to go back to my list and start adding more.

      In the end, at least I know I have a finished book I can either query to a small press or indie pub. I would really like for it to see the light of day! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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