**Updated December 2021**
I recently met with highly successful literary agent Fiona Kenshole of Transatlantic Agency, and she gave me some query tips that truly blew my mind. I am, unfortunately, no stranger to the query game; I thought by this point I knew everything about writing query letters. As it turns out, I had more to learn.
There are approximately one trillion articles on how to research literary agents and how to write a great query letter. You can also read my article on the number one mistake writers make when querying agents.
So this article isn’t going to cover the basic query tips like personalizing your query to the specific agent and not saying things like, “this is the next Harry Potter.” Instead, these are query tips you may not see anywhere else.
#1: Use Arial Size 14 or 18 for your query letter
Agent Stephanie Winter of P.S. Literary gave this advice at the recent WriteOnCon online conference. Agents are on their computers all day, she explained. Make things easier on their poor eyes. She said a query email in Times New Roman size 11 or 12 is so hard to read she may not have much patience for it.
She didn’t speak to the preferred font or size for the sample pages, so I assume it’s okay to keep those in Times New Roman size 12. But do be sure to double-space!
#2: Use short paragraphs in your query letter
Agents are super busy; they are often reading query letters at the end of a long day, or maybe even at night in bed on their phones. When they see a big block of text in an email query, it might be a turn-off. Shorter paragraphs, and a shorter query in general, has a better chance of getting a positive reception. If your query is over a page (single spaced), it’s too long.
#3: Take advantage of Twitter pitch events (without actually participating in them)
If you want to participate in a Twitter pitch contest, go right ahead. It can be a great way to make writer friends on Twitter, and you might get lucky and get some attention from agents. But even if you don’t get those agent “likes,” or if you simply don’t want to participate, you can still make Twitter pitch events work to your advantage.
Go to the Twitter advanced search and put in a hashtag like #PitMad or #SFFPit (here’s a full list of Twitter pitch contests). Search for terms that are similar to your manuscript. For example, if you’ve written a YA novel about queer ballerinas, search for the terms #YA, queer, #LGBTQ, ballet, and ballerina.
When you find some pitches that are similar to yours, see if any agents liked them, and boom, you’ve found some agents who might be interested in your manuscript. It doesn’t matter if the agent “likes” are from years ago. Chances are, if they liked queer ballerinas then, they will still like them now. (Of course, be sure to research the agents first before querying.)
#4: The best times to query are January through June and September through October.
Summer and winter holidays are not great times to query. Agents go on vacation and the publishing world tends to slows down during these times. Of course you should always check to make sure an agent is open to queries no matter what time of year it is. Some agents will close to queries for a few weeks so they can catch up on their slush pile. They will sometimes say on their agency website, personal website, or Twitter profile when they will be opening again.
#5: If there’s a big twist in your novel – reveal it!
This is one of the query tips Fiona Kenshole told me that really blew my mind. I know most how-to-write-a-query-letter advice says not to give away the ending of your novel. But if the big twist is what makes your novel unique, you should absolutely reveal it, or at least hint to it.
Agents are not reading your manuscript like a normal reader. They are reading it like a business person, trying to figure out, “can I sell this?” and “is there a market for this?” If what makes your book exciting/unique (and therefore marketable) is a big twist or surprise ending, an agent will likely want to know that up front.
#6: Use comp titles (wisely)
More and more agents are wanting to see comp titles in queries. Offering the agent a few books that are similar to your book not only gives them a quick understanding of your manuscript but also shows that you are reading current books in your genre.
Comp titles should be current (published in the last five years, ideally) and should actually be a comp title– don’t say your book is like something if it’s not. Also try not to use anything too popular. Agents hate seeing manuscripts compared to Harry Potter or Gone Girl, for example.
You can also use movies or TV shows as one of your comp titles. Here are some examples:
- My book will appeal to fans of ______. For example: My book will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han.
- My book is similar to _______, except ________. For example: My book is similar to Ed Tarkington’s The Fortunate Ones, except set in outer space, 1,000 years in the future.
- My book combines the _____ of ______ with the ______ of ______. For example: My book combines the locked-room mystery of Lucy Foley’s The Guest List with the steamy historical romance of Bridgerton.
#7: If an agent uses a query submission form, type your answers in a Word doc first
More and more agents are using query manager submission forms. These forms have places for you to paste your query letter, bio, sample pages, and occasionally a place for the synopsis as well. Some writers get confused about the bio section — aren’t we supposed to put our bio at the end of our query? What I’ve heard agents say is that you should put the bio in both place.
And these forms often have additional questions that the agent has decided they want to ask of submitting writers. Some I’ve see are, “what books are you currently reading?” “why do you write?” and “why did you write this book?”
Once you open up an agent’s submission form, scroll through to see what questions are being asked, then prepare the answers in a Word doc. That way you can correct spelling errors and play around with your answers without accidentally hitting submit. Plus, you can save your answers in case a different agent asks the same questions.
#8 Use your bio to your advantage
The bio at the end of your query letter is a tricky thing. You don’t want it to be too long (2 or 3 sentences is more than enough), but it can also be a good way to explain why you are the perfect person to write this book.
As far as putting personal info in your bio… Most agents say they don’t want it because this is a business letter and you should remain professional. But I’ve also heard some agents say the like a teeny bit of personal info, like that you have two young daughters, or that you live with five dogs.
Honestly, I would err on the side of not including personal info unless it’s both truly interesting and relates to your your novel: “Like the character in my book, I once spent a year living on a house boat.” Or, “I volunteer at a local women’s shelter, which is what inspired me to write this story.” That sort of thing.
Here are a few things you should (and should not!) include in your bio:
- DO say if you have an MFA or other writing degree.
- DO say if you have been published or agented before.
- DO say if you have a degree related to your book. For example, if you have written a historical-fiction novel, mention your history degree.
- DO say if the book is #ownvoices if you feel comfortable doing so. For example, if you are writing about a character who uses a wheelchair and you yourself use a wheelchair, or if you are writing about a queer character and you identify as queer, mention it (if you’d like — you should never feel pressured to reveal that a story is #ownvoices if you don’t want to.)
- DO say if you are a teacher or school librarian if you are querying with a book for kids or teens.
- DON’T say how many times this book has been rejected.
- DON’T say you’ve always wanted to be a writer or that you’ve been writing since a young age. You and everybody else!
- DON’T say how long it took you to write the book.
- DON’T put in a lot of personal details that don’t pertain to your book.
- DON’T mention your age.
#9 Get feedback on your query from an actual agent
Like I did, you can meet with a real, live agent for a conversation about your query or first pages with a Manuscript Academy consultation. It’s not cheap, but it can be extremely helpful. Be sure to research the agents first and choose an agent who you think would give the best advice (like an agent who reps the type of book you’ve written). Many conferences and contests also offer agent feedback on queries, so be on the look-out for those opportunities as well.
It can also be helpful to read feedback on other people’s queries. I recommend reading sample query letters, going through the query revision posts on Query Shark, and checking out Nathan Bransford’s query critiques. Speaking of Nathan Bransford, he has great info on how to search for agents and write your query.
#10 Be realistic about goals and expectations
This is the hardest tip for me to write because it can sound very disheartening, but here we go: it is EXTREMELY hard to break into traditional publishing. You are going to need to prepare yourself for a long, hard road full of a lot of rejection. Maybe that won’t be the case for you, but it probably will be. You have to send your query to the right agent at the right time, without knowing who or when. No matter how much research you do, it’s basically a crapshoot and the odds are against you.
Furthermore, breaking into publishing has gotten even harder since COVID came into our lives. For various pandemic-related reasons, editors are acquiring fewer titles, which means agents are taking on fewer clients. Depressing, I know. It doesn’t mean you won’t get an agent or get published, but it does mean it might take longer than you’d like. A lot longer.
A lot of this is out of your control. So what CAN you do?
A) Make sure your query letter and sample pages are the very, very, very best they can possibly be before sending them out.
B) Query widely. I’ve heard the advice that you shouldn’t stop until you’ve queried at least 100 agents. And since you want to send out your queries in batches then wait to see what kinds of responses you get, you might be querying for the next year… or longer.
C) Be realistic about your goals and expectations. Expect that you will need to query a lot of agents (and be sure to keep track of who you query!!), and don’t expect to get a ton of requests.
D) Celebrate the small stuff (because it’s not actually small stuff). You queried eight new agents this month? Good for you! You got a full request or a personalized rejection? You are AMAZING and doing better than a lot of other writers out there.
E) Think long and hard about whether or not traditional publishing is what you want. If you could be happy with an indie press or self-publishing, research those options. They can at least be a fall-back plan if you grow weary of the query trenches.
F) Try not to compare yourself to others. Everyone’s road to publishing is different and filled with different kinds of roadblocks. Some writers love following #WritingCommunity on Twitter, but if seeing people announce “I’m now represented by XYZ agent” fills you with a seething rage, maybe just don’t.
G) Listen to the podcast Queries, Qualms, and Quirks. This podcast, about how authors found their agents and got their first book deal, really highlights how difficult it is to break into the publishing industry, and how the people who succeed are the ones that just keep trying. Some might find it depressing, but I find this podcast extremely inspiring — it makes me feel better about my own publication struggles!
H) Go to conferences and meet agents in person. I realize this may not be possible right now with COVID, but if and when it’s possible again, do it, even if you’re shy and/or socially awkward (like many writers, myself included). Agents are often more likely to request pages from someone they’ve met in person.
There you have it: 10 query tips you may not have known. Now, keep your chin up! The querying process is rough, but if you’ve written a great book, I truly believe you will get published (eventually) if you just keep trying. Persistence is key in this business. Good luck out there!