n my first day working at a literary agency, I was informed that one of my duties would entail reading the slush pile. ”Gosh,” I said, amazed at the prospect of having so many writer’s attempts entrusted to my review. “Isn’t that a lot of responsibility? What if I miss the next Harry Potter?” My co-workers proceeded to have a hearty laugh at my expense, and then, after recovering themselves, one replied, “It’s mostly query letters. You’ll learn to spot the bad ones really, really quickly.”
He was right.
While you do occasionally find gems in the slush pile, you mostly just read the same query letter over and over again. After five or six hours, if a query letter doesn’t seem different or exciting in some way, that book is going to be sent flying into the “no” pile. I realized that there were certain things most authors did in their queries that made me lose interest in their work before I ever got around to reading the sample they sent.
So whatever you do, don’t:
Don’t Tell Us You Just Wrote a Novel
90% of query letters begin "I have just finished my novel --title--" or "I am sending you my novel --title--." We already know that. Why else would you be contacting us?
Just as the first sentence of a book should hook you, so should the first sentence of a query letter. Ideally, your first sentence will spark so many questions in the reader's mind that they'll need to know more.
One of the first sentences I found most compelling was, "When Caroline Monet finally decided to see her father again after twenty years, she discovered he could no longer see her." I immediately wanted to know why he couldn't see her—was it an adventure book? Had he been kidnapped? Was it the story of a woman dealing with an aging relative with Alzheimer's? Had he gone blind, and if so, was it a historical piece about Monet, the painter?
A first sentence like that, as opposed to one telling me that you've just written a novel, makes me eager to jump to your synopsis to find out more.
“...we kind of have this quaint notion that you’re writing a novel because you feel it’s important...”
Don’t Contact Us Without Having Finished Your Novel
Every now and again we receive queries from writers who have not actually finished their novels. They would tell us this, and then go on to say that if we liked what they wrote, then they could finish it off for us. Now, this is distressing because we kind of have this quaint notion that you’re writing a novel because you feel it’s important or you get personal satisfaction from it, or the tiny, horribly incessant voices in your head won’t let you stop.
Mostly, we just like to believe that you’re not writing entirely because you want to be published and get really famous and start leading a jet-set life (though I know, we almost all want to be Tom Wolfe or J.K. Rowling and that’s okay). When you say, in essence, you’re only writing to get published and don’t even care enough about your piece to finish it, you strip us of that quaint notion and make us tremendously bitter and jaded. And a bitter agent is an agent who is unlikely to want to represent your work.
“Have realistic expectations.”
Don’t Pitch Us Your Five Year Plan
If you have recently completed a book on ways to amuse yourself and not be terrified on commercial flights, by all means say, "I suspect this book will sell well in airport bookstores." However, if you have precisely one publishing credit in Topeka Today don't pitch us your five-year, Jacqueline Susann-inspired marketing plan. While you may think this is very clever, and shows that you've researched the business, what it actually tells us is that you're not aware that most first-time authors never sell enough copies of their books to earn royalties, let alone allow you to launch into the five-year plan you've detailed.
Have realistic expectations. A typical first novel will garner an advance of about seven to ten thousand dollars, and doesn’t usually lend itself to national book tours. As such, when the Topeka Today guy launches into the part of his plan where he appears on Oprah, we know there's no chance that we could ever satisfy his lofty aims.
Moreover, we have reason to assume that he'll be ridiculously demanding if we do represent him, and will waste our time with hour-long phone calls about how he's decided we should try optioning his book to the Czech Republic.
“We don't have ruthless, mercenary instincts.”
Don’t Mention Harry Potter
We receive at least ten queries a day from authors who claim their books are just like Harry Potter. We hate that. We hate it almost as much as we hate when they mention the Da Vinci Code. Not only are the manuscripts that the writers send in never nearly as compelling as these works (perhaps because HP and the Da Vinci Code were original and not "just like" anything)—and since they said they'd be "just like them," we now expect them to be.
The fact that they picked Harry Potter to compare their work to, or any recent bestselling book, makes us assume one of two things:
- Either the writer is not particularly well read, and is only really familiar with recent, bestselling books, in which case, it's almost inevitable that their manuscript won't be much good,
- Or the author assumes that by comparing his own book to a bestselling book they'll appeal to our ruthless, mercenary instincts.
We don't have ruthless, mercenary instincts. If we did, we'd be investment bankers living on the Upper East Side rather than literary agents commuting in from Brooklyn. Frankly, we're a little insulted when anyone even suggests we're in the business for a quick buck, as did the author who proceeded to compare his book to Harry Potter and then wrote, "Look at how well Harry Potter sold. My book is as good if not better. May I remind you that you're in this business to make money?"
We're not. We're in it for love.
That's not to say that you can't mention other books that have influenced you, or books that strike you as being similar in style to your book, just try to be genuine about it, and don't think that by mentioning Harry Potter we'll suddenly decide that your book will make our fortune and leap to represent it.
However, if you want to be a bit canny about things, look up a list of books published by the agency and compare it to one of those. I guarantee you, everyone in the office loves those books, and delights in the idea that they influenced someone.
“If you're a fiery liberal you might not want to send your book about the failure of the war in Iraq off to a staunchly Republican agent.”
Don’t Spell Our Names Wrong
Don’t spell our names wrong on the cover letter. Ever.
If the name of the agent you are sending your manuscript to is a complicated spelling, check and re-check to make sure that you’ve written it properly. Literary agents are largely underappreciated to begin with, and the fact that even people who are ostensibly trying to impress us don’t care enough to double check a name’s spelling makes us feel pretty pathetic.
If, on the other hand, you do a little research on the agent you’re sending your manuscript to—perhaps include a note in the cover letter referencing another book they’ve represented that you’ve enjoyed, or a hobby they have that makes you think this book would appeal to them—you’ll make a terrific impression.
As many agencies publish blogs written by the agents there, this information shouldn’t be overly hard to find. And it makes us feel oh so special. Doing a little background on the agent rather than sending it off to everyone listed in the Writer’s Marketplace also means that you’ll not only be able to impress them, you’ll pick an agent who is compatible with you.
If you’re a fiery liberal you might not want to send your book about the failure of the war in Iraq off to a staunchly Republican agent. After all, even if your book is so brilliant that they can’t help but overlook their personal feelings and publish it, you’re differing opinions are going to make for some pretty awkward lunches.
“Skip the pictures. Not much good tends to come of them.”
Don’t Send Bad Pictures
Many authors did this, perhaps to remind us that they were human beings. However, as their pictures almost invariably featured them in some manner of ridiculous activity (funneling beer, wearing oversized sombreros, etc.), we mostly just passed these pictures around the office and made fun of them, while wondering aloud why anyone would want to send a picture of themselves and the boys out at Hooter’s.
If you must send a picture, send a professional headshot, or a picture that doesn't otherwise make us think less of you. If you are ridiculously attractive, it might make us more interested in you, as we like to know that really good looking people are literate, but it won't change our opinion of your manuscript one iota. Skip the pictures. Not much good tends to come of them.
To be fair, if your book really is the next Harry Potter, you could probably overlook every one of these tips and demand to have a picture of you funneling beer plastered on the cover of the book itself and your novel would still get published eventually. However, if you follow these handy tips, it will probably get published a whole lot sooner. And it will mean that when you meet your agent for the first time, they’ll be really excited to see you, and not quietly wondering why you couldn’t spell their name correctly.
Jennifer Wright is an English major who has spent a great deal of time reading over the slush pile and making very mediocre coffee at a New York based literary agency. She also does a fair bit of freelance reading when not desperately trying to build up clips for her freelance writing portfolio.