Do you remember that cartoon with Charlie Brown’s Snoopy saying that he was making a quilt with all his rejection slips?
Well, I have received enough rejection slips to make a king-sized quilt. But I have also managed to find a literary agent. In fact, I have managed to find four of them. Two agents had their own agencies; one worked at a mid-size agency and one worked at a super-name brand agency. What do agents do?
Agents want to make money. They don’t sell cars, they sell manuscripts. They will only take on projects that they feel will turn into sales because of the enormous amount of time they will invest in your manuscript. So here is my RAH approach to finding and hooking a literary agent.
Research the Right Agent.
Do NOT send a children’s book query to a literary agent who doesn’t represent children’s book authors just because you think your book is so fabulous that you’ll change the agent’s mind. Do due diligence. Before you send a Dumb with a capital D query letter, make sure you send it to the right person. Don’t send out the same letter with a Dear Sir/Madam heading to 50 random agents. Spell the name right!
Write a query letter like a back cover blurb. Would you buy this book if you read about it? Don’t compare yourself to Danielle Steele or James Michener or Victor Hugo. Fuhgeddaboutit. You want to simply show that you can write and that you have written something that this agent (whom you have already vetted and know the kind of books he/she likes) would be interested in.
Here is the query letter I wrote to an agent at Trident Media that landed me representation for THE MOM WHO TOOK OFF ON HER MOTORCYCLE:
After raising four children, two stepchildren and an unofficially adopted Ethiopian daughter, I’m taking off on my motorcycle and riding away.
I know it’s crazy and reckless and–well, slightly dangerous–but like thousands of other baby boomers, I’m facing an empty nest and I need to do something drastic. And dramatic.
So I’m hitting the road on my BMW motorcycle alongside my husband on his BMW. We’ll ride from our house in Westhampton, New York – almost at the very tip of Long Island – across Canada, up the rugged Alaska Highway (where we’ll dodge caribou, bison and grizzly bears) and into Alaska.
William Least Heat Moon wrote that when you’re traveling, “you are what you are right there and then.” In other words, past and future slip away and you’re whittled down to your very essence. But after defining myself for so long as mother, stepmother and wife, who exactly is that who I’ll meet on the road?
My book, The Mom Who Took off on Her Motorcycle, is a story of this journey and what I discover. It’s about agreeing to meet one of my husband’s dreams on his bucket list. It’s about doing something I promised myself I’d do before it’s too late. And taking the first step into the next part of my life.
Once in Alaska, I have an assignment to write about my trek on the Matanuska Glacier for The New York Times’ Escapes Section. I will be keeping a blog along the way.
For your information, my work has appeared in The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications. My fiction has appeared in The North American Review and The Reading Room.
I would be delighted to send you the first two chapters of the book. In the meantime, thank you for your consideration and for taking the time to read my work. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
This is the reply I received:
Dear Diana Bletter,
Your book sounds very appealing. I’d be interested in receiving the chapters and an outline of the rest.
So what makes this a query letter that won me an agent?
I wrote in the style of my book and gave the agent a flavor of what it would be like. I knew my book would be breezy and fun yet informative and that’s what I showed. The one thing that was missing from the letter was the one thing that made traditional publishing house ultimately turn down my agent’s query letter to them. I did not yet have a social media platform, which has become critical in today’s book market. But we’ll save that discussion for another post and continue with our pursuit of a literary agent. The above query letter followed a simple formula:
Here’s another letter that landed me an agent for my novel (not yet published), The Women’s Burial Circle:
I am a big fan of ____ [I mentioned a book that was sold by this agent] and since you represent ___[Insert author's name], I thought you might be interested in my first novel, The Women’s Burial Circle.
The book revolves around four American women who belong to the burial society in a small village in Israel. As they wash and dress dead women for burial, each woman–in her own voice–learns not only about death, but about herself, spirituality, life and love.
For your information, I am a freelance journalist whose work appears in…[blah, blah, blah]
I live in Israel’s Western Galilee with my husband and our children and I am a member of the burial society in our village.
I’d be happy to now send you the first 50 pages of the book via email, if you’re interested.
Thank you for your kind consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Once again, INTRODUCTION, THE PITCH, WRITING INFORMATION. But this time, I’d make sure to insert my SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM. Then you have your closing AND THANK YOU. Especially if they read your work. You can add, “Thank you for taking the time to read my work.”
Have your book manuscript ready. Make sure your book has been read and edited and absolutely ready before you send your query.
Agents operate in real time. I had sometimes received a “Yes, please send me the first 50 pages or the first 3 chapters” and then said to myself, “Uh-oh.” Because I wasn’t really ready…In fact, I wasn’t ready at all. I had yet to really finish the book. I just wanted to already know there was someone out there, some professional, who gave a hoot about what I was writing. But that is not the purpose of a query letter. And that is not the time to find a literary agent, when you are questioning your talent and your very purpose as a writer.
You send a query letter only after you have shown the book to other writers and your ideal reader. You send it only after you’ve already edited it a few times. You send this letter when you have all the pieces in place.
We all want a cheerleader rooting for us to finish our masterpiece but agents don’t have time to wait. They want to invest as little time and effort into your book before they try to sell it. Remember, there is a dwindling number of traditional publishing houses willing to take on a new writer. Therefore, there are not many literary agents who are willing to take a chance on an unknown, even if you are brilliant.
Question: What if you don’t have any credentials? What do you say? You say why you wrote this book. Do you work in the field of criminology? Yes, that is why you wrote this book on serial killers. Do you have 18 foster children? Yes, that is why you wrote this book, “DIY: Nurture Wins Out Or, How To Raise Perfect Foster Kids.”
If you are writing a non-fiction book, have an outline ready. There are numerous sites that will show you how to do that. And there are tons of books on how to write a novel. We can talk about that another time. Meanwhile, remember:
Show, don’t tell. Show your writing style: don’t say that you know how to write like white on snow. Show ‘em.
Keep your subject line simple. If you have a really snazzy title (and you should have) say: Novel Query: The Outstanding O’Rourkes. Or, Novel Query From 2011 Pultizer Prize Winner. Do not be cutesy. If you received the name from a friend of a friend’s neighbor, say: Novel Query Via Edwina Vonderhoff.
Have any questions? Comments? Like? Other suggestions in addition to R.A.H.? Want to send me your query letter for review before it goes out? Want to use my letter as a format? Sounds good, just remember to change the biography from mine to yours! I’ll be happy to have a look at what you want to send out.
Just remember to approach everything you do with a full heart. Write and live your best chapter. And write your best query letter.
Feel free to take my fiction or non-fiction query letters and use them as formats. If you want a review of your query letters, send them to me and I’ll be happy to look at them.
Researching the right agent
Appealing letter to specific agents
Have your manuscript sealed-tight and ready
Oh, one last thing. I was waiting at Trident Media Group‘s office in New York City and I heard the receptionist speaking on the phone and saying to the caller, “I’m sorry, but if Ms. Agent was interested in your book, she would have contacted you…I’m sorry, but Ms. Agent does not take unsolicted phone calls…I’m sorry, if you don’t hear back from Ms. Agent, that means she’s not interested…” Don’t be a nudge. If Ms. Agent wants you after reading your scintillating query letter, she’ll find you! Calling won’t help!
- First Five Frenzy – Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group (chasingthecrazies.wordpress.com)
- Learning the Literary Ropes (answers.com)
- Four Agents Seeking Children’s Authors at D4EO Literary Agency (kathytemean.wordpress.com)
- Query Letter Over Synopsis? (topoftheslushpile.com)
- Successful Query Letters and Winning Examples (kathytemean.wordpress.com)
- Knowing When You’re Ready for a Literary Agent (onewaytowonder.wordpress.com)
- What Does a Literary Agent Do Anymore? (goodereader.com)