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Query Letters - What, Why, How?

In his penultimate blog post for Writers' & Artists, Simon P. Clark discusses where you should go with your finished masterpiece - and how to finally get past the literary agent's front door.

With your manuscript finished – finished and polished – it’s time to start looking for a literary agent. No, you don’t have to – you could choose to self publish, or submit to a few of the independent publishers who accept unsolicited queries. But for the sake of ease and brevity in this post, I’m only talking to authors who are looking to go down the traditional route.

A quick summary: to get your book in front of an editor at a traditional publisher, you need to have a literary agent. Most publishers nowadays only accept books from agents, who act as a kind of first test of quality. Submitting directly to a publisher is possible at a few companies, but you’re really limiting your pool of potential editors if you limit yourself so much. Agents, in return for taking a percentage of your advance and royalties, have the contacts and influence to negotiate better deals for you, the expertise to go through contracts, and – as I just said – the basic ability to get your book on editors' desks (or desktops, as is mostly the case nowadays).

To submit your book to an agent, there are a few established ‘best practice’ rules to follow. While writing is a creative, artistic endeavour, the modern publishing industry is a business, and there are ways to do things. Just writing a casual letter to an editor and attaching your book won’t cut it. Even writing a formal letter won’t work a lot of the time. Spend any time on Twitter and look at #QueryTip or #QueryFail and you’ll see agents commenting (and laughing, yes) about query letters which have broken all the rules – sometimes spectacularly so.

So, query letters.  If you’re looking for an agent, invest time in your letter. It’s not as important as the writing itself – of course not – but it’s the first impression the agent will have of you. It tells them how serious you are; how professional you are; how much you bothered to research; and how you’re likely to approach the entire process.  All in all, it gives them an idea of what you’re like to work with.

The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook has a whole section on query letters and synopses, and there’s no shortage of guides online about the basic structure of a query letter. I wrote a piece on my blog a while back on the difference between UK and U.S. letters which might be useful for those submitting across the Atlantic, but I don’t want to use this post as just another technical explanation of what you need to write one (info on you, your book, word count, how you found the agent, and that is pretty much it…). Instead I wanted to offer some of the less empirical but still rather true things I’ve picked up going through the process myself.

  1. Rule number one is easy. Read the agents’ websites. Read them. They have their submission guidelines there and you ignore those at your peril. Really, it’s the quickest way to screw yourself.
  2. Treat the query letter as you would any writing project and draft it multiple times. Queries are that special kind of annoying writing that has to be as short as possible with as much info as possible. Take your time. Agents aren’t going anywhere.
  3. Rejected? Don’t be a jerk. Agenting is a comparably small community and if you make a stink about things – especially in the Internet or a public forum – all you do is damage your future chances.
  4. Remember why you’re doing this. You love stories, and writing, and you’re creating a book. At low moments, trying to squeeze all of that into one rather uniform sentence, remember why. See it as a challenge and a stepping stone to Good Things.
  5. Be proud of yourself. Have you sent off a query? You’ve made it into the minority! So many people want to be a writer but the idea is more attractive than the reality of writing a flipping book. And then editing? And then going through all of this nuisance, too? Boring! But not you. If you’re querying a real book to real agents, allow yourself one moment of self-congratulatory triumph before you go back to slogging in the query trenches. Seriously – you’re a writer. Moments of triumph should be clung to with wild abandon.

Querying, apart from the letter itself, is an odd time. It’s slow and not actually that exciting. Average response time varies, but three months is standard. Three months of not a lot happening. Your dreams of being a millionaire rock star astronaut god-king may well look a bit more promising in the meanwhile. Keep at it, though. So many other writers went through it. Stephen King did. JK Rowling did. I did.

(OK, that last bit was just an excuse to have my name mentioned in the same sentence as the others, but hey, the points stands.)

Treat querying as a job application. Have a professional e-mail address to send queries from.  Don’t ‘nudge’ agents asking for a reply unless more time has elapsed than they said it would take. Get the formatting right on the chapters you send. And don’t become too stalker-y online. Agents are often fantastically open and helpful when they don’t need to be – like the #AskAgent sessions I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Just don’t take that too far and get yourself blocked.

Overall, just be sensible, and patient. Oh, be patient…

Next week’s post is going to be the last of the series, but following that, Writers & Artists have given me one more spot to answer any questions any of you guys have. This week and next you can leave questions in the comments, e-mail them to, or ask on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ll do my best to share thoughts and answers.  So, if you have follow up, or just want to know a bit more about something I said, let me know and I’ll try to get to it.

Next week - seeing yourself as, and being, a professional.

Until then, guys.

Simon P. Clark

Simon grew up in the UK before moving to rural Japan to teach English for three years after graduating. From there he moved to New Jersey, USA, where he works as a writer. His first children's book, EREN, is represented by Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency. He blogs about writing and publishing at

If you found this article useful, you may want to take a look at:

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Getting plugged into the writing community

What to do after you've finished your book

What to do after the first draft's done

Editing, Editing, Editing

Acting like a pro