Querying? Advice From My Agent
Written by
Randy Susan Meyers
December 2010
Written by
Randy Susan Meyers
December 2010

Want to make a writer shudder? Ask them if they’ve queried yet. Last year I led a workshop on The Great American Query Letter and the participants shuffled in with the reluctance (not to say dread) of women about to try on bathing suits in an open-corral fitting room.

A co-ed one.

But like a job interview, you can’t get around the query. You have to write it. Many times. Because your query won’t be good enough on your first, second, or third draft—this is an iterative process requiring many cranky hours. But if you’re gonna do it, do it right. You’d have to be a damn fool to spend years writing a book and then skimp on the letter of introduction.

Don’t give up when you’re almost at the finish line. Spend the time to revise that query. You only have one chance with each agent, and all s/he has to work with it that piece of paper. The competition is fierce, but perfecting your letter will put you ahead of most of the pack. And keep going—don’t expect to stop at 10, 50, or even 100 rejections. Honest.

I won’t try to rewrite the 101 of Query Writing. Others have done it better than I could. Google away! (I’ll give you a tip: start with this great clear breakdown.) What I will offer is wisdom from my agent, Stéphanie Abou, from Foundry Literary + Media. She’s smart, she’s fast, and she sold my book. I love her and respect her, so I went to her with this question: “what do you want to tell writers who will be querying you?” and this was her response:

“A good query letter has simple, straightforward formatting. The tone should be professional but not too formal. It should show that the person has done their research about the agent they are querying, without kissing up.

“However, beware of sending things that might be too close to one of the agent’s bigger successes. For example, after one of my books became a bestseller, people thought they were so smart sending me everything on the same topic. Wrong! That book is so strong it is going to be tough for me to take on something similar with the same level of enthusiasm. What that success should tell the author is that I am interested in family stories, with well-drawn characters and top-notch writing, yet with high readability.

“Just send one page with a solid paragraph about the book, and another one giving some biographical info that is relevant to the book. Be respectful of my time but don’t whine ‘Dear Ms. Very Important, I know I am nobody and you receive tons of slush‘ etc. The strength of the query and the writing should be the thing drawing my attention. Correct spelling (you have no idea how many people send me something with a mistake in my name), grammar, and punctuation I hope goes without saying, and I’d like the courtesy of mentioning whether you are submitting to several agents at once or whether this is an exclusive. Always check online for information. Most agencies have websites these days and each has their own pet peeves for query letters.

“Some red flags: ’a fiction novel’ (this redundancy drives me up the wall). You want to show competence, but not write your own catalogue copy or movie trailer: You don’t have to say it is “compelling,” “thrilling” etc. etc. Let us be the judge. Your job in the query is to be engaging (you the author) and to give us the desire to read more. Don’t tell us that your mom/sister/husband and best friends loved it: I bet they did and even if they didn’t they wouldn’t tell you.

“Only give an endorsement if it is relevant. Only use comparison titles that are relevant. Saying it is ’The Da Vinci Code meets The Secret’ doesn’t make me believe in your being the next best thing since sliced bread, but flags an inflated ego and a not very well-read author. Similarly, no need to mention that you will be a ’tireless promoter’ for the book, willingly going on a rock star reading tour.’ These days, tours are only given to rock stars and your willingness to promote the book is a part of your job as a writer as much as writing the book.”

She is a straight talker, my agent. Sometimes she says things that I don’t want to hear. I pout (very unattractive!) I shuffle my feet. On days that I’m especially obstinate and stupid, I argue.

In vain.

Because damn it, she’s almost always right. So if her above advice doesn’t appeal to you, here’s my advice.

Pout. Shuffle. Write me a comment to argue.

But do what she tells you.

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  • Jennifer Worrell

    Great advice! I'm taking all these pointers to heart!!! 

  • Nancy Miller

    Randy, you could not be more write (forgive me...I'm the queen of really bad puns), but in fact my agent has done the same thing with me. And you write a different query for each agent you are querying much of the time. Reminds me of the same thing I do when I job hunt and send a resume off. You write to the position for which you're applying along with an individual cover letter that wows the prospective employer, reflects your personality, shows your attention to detail, and briefly but powerfully portrays why your book is unique and who it will appeal to. I just got asked a few days ago by a student writer if it really was that necessary to do a query letter and I had to keep from gasping. This is a whole rhetorical exercise in and of itself that many new writers don't think about, but the query is going to pique someone's interest and I would say to a writer who is beginning this task to envision an agent who is just leaving the office, gets your emailed query, has read about 30 of them since 9 am. She has heard all the cliches, all the comparisons to other writers such as Joyce Carole Oates, Joan Didion, ad nauseum, and she is hoping for a best seller that blows her skirt up.

    So don't let her down. Do your homework!

  • Randy Susan Meyers

    Thanks, Cathy--what kind words!