December 3 – 9: The All-Important Query Letter

Literary agents Debbie Carter, Josh Getzler, Victoria Skurnick and Jenny Bent discuss the all-important query letter: How many queries do you generally receive in a week? Of those, how many do you request a partial or full from? What is it about a good query that really makes it stand out? Conversely, what is most likely to make you stop reading? You won’t want to miss it!

Debbie Carter grew up in Connecticut, dreaming the whole time of an exciting life in NYC. She left town when she was seventeen to go to college in the city and pursue dream jobs—in A&R at record companies, music publishing, in artist management, and a literary agency. In ‘98 she started Mysterious Content Agency, renamed Muse Literary, to initiate her own book projects with new writers. For interests see Follow @MuseLiterary.

Josh Getzler left Harcourt in 1993 to get an MBA from Columbia Business School. After Business School, Josh spent 11 years owning and operating a minor league baseball team (the Staten Island Yankees). He left baseball in late 2006 and rejoined the book world on the agent side. Josh worked at Writers House until November 2009, building a list of novelists, YA and children’s book authors, and the occasional nonfiction writer; then joined Russell and Volkening. Josh represents fiction and nonfiction (mostly fiction, much of which is crime-related (mystery, thriller, creepy…)), adult and YA/middle-grade books (though not picture books). He is particularly into foreign and historical thrillers and mysteries, so send your ruthless doges and impious cardinals…and your farmhouse cozies! Give him atmosphere, let him learn something about another time or another place (or both), and kill off nasty Uncle Mortimer in the process—Josh will be yours! For more information on Josh’s most recent sales, please see his Publishers Marketplace profile. Josh also tweets under @jgetzler.

Victoria Skurnick came to Levine Greenberg after being at The Book-of-the Month Club for almost twenty years.  As Editor-in-Chief, she relished the opportunity to devour every kind of book, from the finest literary fiction to Yiddish for Dogs.  Anne Tyler, John LeCarre, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, Michael Lewis, Lee Child, Roddy Doyle, Alice Sebold, Tracy Kidder, Julia Child and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are just a few of the authors that make her deaf and blind to anyone around her when she’s reading. Victoria’s other addiction besides reading is music. She has sung in many choirs in New York City and spent a few ostensibly happy years singing rock in groups like Big and the Evolution. No, you haven’t heard of it-if you had, she wouldn’t be an agent. She also is the co-author (with Cynthia Katz) of seven novels written by “Cynthia Victor.”

Jenny Bent has worked in publishing for over 15 years, both as an editor and an agent, most recently as Vice President at Trident Media Group before founding THE BENT AGENCY in 2009. There she has continued her tradition of representing bestsellers, with over 25 titles on the NYTimes list since she opened her doors. She represents women’s fiction, suspense, romance, young adult, memoir and humor.
  1. I receive 15-20 queries a day, which sounds manageable, but my first responsibility is to clients, so it takes an irresistible subject line to make me open the message. I ask that queries show a “Q” followed by a colon, and a brief description of the manuscript that makes me want to read it. Saying that you’re published means nothing. I’m looking for something interesting in the manuscript you’re pitching.

    What’s irresistible? Something unusual. It could be the protagonist’s job; the story’s setting that’s familiar to Americans but still exotic enough to be interesting; everyday relationships rife with conflict, like warring sisters (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) or a handyman in an affair with the boss’s wife (The Postman Always Rings Twice); a revenge plot between friends and family members or business associates; something humorous and clever like Donald Westlake’s The Ax, a corporate downsizing thriller about an unemployed paper company executive.

    I have a lot more to say about queries but need to stop now to catch a bus. I’ll do another post tonight or tomorrow morning.

  2. I get anywhere from 25 to 100 queries a day. I ask for ten pages of sample material in every query and from that I generally request 1-2 manuscripts per week. I do pay attention to things ilke credentials and writing experience but what really captures my eye is concept and voice. I know it’s really hard to do, but if your query letter is really well-written and dynamic and communicates the voice of your book, that makes me sit up and take notice right away. And a great, original concept, one that is easy for me to pitch on the phone, is the other part of the equation. You have to think of the publishing industry as one long series of pitches–you pitch to me, I pitch to the editor, the editor has to pitch to a bunch of folks in house before getting the go-ahead to buy the book (usually people in sales, marketing, subsidiary rights, other editors, and their boss, the publisher–just to name a few!), the publicist has to pitch the book to the media, the rights person has to pitch the book to audio and overseas publishers, etc. So if the book has a great pitch from the outset, something easy to describe and truly interesting and unique, that greatly increases its chances of getting published.

    Here are links to two pitch letters that I thought did both things–captured voice and had a great pitch–really well:

  3. Honestly, I don’t open emails that have weak or vague subject lines like “query” or “legal thriller” or “thriller by published author” or even “Amazon bestseller.” The subject line has to say something about the gist of the manuscript and fit my interest. On my web site I’ve listed my areas of interest and topics and genres that DON’T interest me. I rely on writers to get my attention because of our mutual interests. I have never taken a manuscript that doesn’t fit my interests.

    I also look for writers who are informed about the industry. I’m very interested in new and talented writers but I won’t work with beginners. They need an understanding of the mechanics of fiction and narrative to even be considered.

    1. To clarify – are you saying you prefer the Q: and brief description/gist of story in the subject line of the query email? Rather than the opening paragraph?

      1. In the subject line of the query, please write Q: followed by a description of the gist of the story. For Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it might be Q: thriller about warring sisters. For The Fugitive, Q: thriller about surgeon accused of wife’s murder is one the run. You can also include a paragraph from the novel in your synopsis as well as a brief excerpt at the end of your query.

        1. I’d like to revise my suggestion for a subject line for The Fugitive, which is too long. The description itself sounds like a thriller so all I would need is: Q: surgeon accused of wife’s murder is on the run.

  4. How many queries do you generally receive in a week? I receive somewhere just south of 100/week, depending on the time of year. There’s a particular surge right after vacations (particularly Summer vacation), and right after I announce a deal on Publishers Marketplace. Also, this doesn’t include queries I get after appearing at conferences or on blogs, but rather an average week in, say, November, when nothing terribly exciting or unusual is going on.

    Of those, how many do you request a partial or full from? I’d guess around 10%. And it’s not an exact science how we ask for partials vs fulls. If something is a referral I always ask for a full; if it’s short, it’s typically a full; if it’s historical (which we’ve seen go through the find-an-agent process relatively quickly this year) we go full. If it’s a typical mystery or thriller from someone we don’t already know, we ask for a partial, because if we’re not interested after 50, we’re not necessarily likely to be interested after. Most of the passes, though, don’t take even that long.

    What is it about a good query that really makes it stand out? First, the query itself is intelligent, meaning the author has thought about whom he’s querying (me, rather than “Agent”), that the subject is one I’d like; and, often, that the author has a background that fits the book or in some other way shows expertise (that doesn’t apply for, say, dystopian vampire novels, but does for historical mysteries). There is often very little in the query beyond “Hi, this is my book, this is me, please read” that does it for me—it’s the content and the professionalism that keeps me reading.

    Conversely, what is most likely to make you stop reading? Orcs. OK, that’s not fair. But a query that shows the author isn’t careful, or makes spelling or grammatical errors, or is boastful (or for that matter overly self-deprecating), will make me stop in my tracks. In the first five pages, initial descriptions of weather make me unhappy, or overly enthusiastic use of metaphors. (I’ve blogged about this on Hey, there’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room a couple of times…)


    I receive somewhere between 25 and perhaps 75 queries per week. It’s hard to generalize, since some days my email is chock full, and others nearly empty. My feeling about fiction submissions is this: if I like the idea, I’ll ask for the entire novel. I tend to fall hard when I fall in love, so stopping after 50 or 100 pages to ask for more is not of interest to me. Of course, if I’m not enjoying the pages, I may not read the whole book, but if I love it, I can do it right then.

    It’s hard to say why some queries rise above others. Certainly, intelligent writing in the query means a lot to me. I tend to be a grammar snob, so authors who write to me might not want to say something like, “between you and I, this is the best novel you’ll ever read.” That kind of hyperbole is unappealing as well, as is the phrase, “Oprah’s going to love this!” What does work is a somewhat brief, well written description of the foundations of a novel – one without all the details and certainly without giving away the ending. Sometimes what I respond to is the underlying concept of the novel; other times it’s just the fluidity of the writing in the submission letter. Like many others, I am subject to flattery, so authors who take the time to find out who my authors are, and say something like, “The agent for Alice LaPlante will be likely to enjoy my work.”

    There’s a thin line between groveling, not appealing, and kissing an agent’s hem, which, I’m sorry to say, often is effective. But the single most intelligent thing I think a novelist should do in a query is to put the first few pages of their work in the body of the email. Agents are readers – if it’s there in front of us, we will almost certainly read it; we can’t help ourselves. And if this writing sample is great, your job as a writer is done. Do not, though, make it an attachment. We’re all subject to viruses, so we tend not to open attachments from people we don’t know…but a piece right below the pitch is just perfect.

  6. Praise from someone notable will get my attention, but a synopsis that gives a sense of the book as it really is is more persuasive. A few short paragraphs, a synopsis is comparable to a movie trailer.

    What kind of story is it and what’s the inciting incident that launches your story? Is it a love story about a heroine who acquires wealth and love in an exotic new land only to lose it all?

    Out of Africa (the movie). A Danish baroness enters into a marriage of convenience with a friend, moves to Africa to start a coffee farm, then meets a British ex-pat who becomes the love of her life.

    Is it a murder?

    The Fugitive. A surgeon is on the run after he is falsely accused of his wife’s murder in their home when the police find no evidence of an intruder.

    After these brief opening sentences, I look for a couple more sentences that allude to what the protagonist pursues over the course of the novel and the antagonist that keeps him or her from getting it. It helps to hear the novel’s voice, as we do in film previews. Can you work in a short excerpt of 2 or 3 paragraphs? The writing itself, more than a description, makes any reader want to commit to a book.

  7. After I posted my synopsis to Out of Africa, I realized I’d left out the baroness’s motivation for going to Africa. A better synopsis can be found on Netflix, which shows in two or three sentences the characters and their motivations and conflicts at the start of the movie.

  8. What’s your platform and what are you doing to build your readership? It starts before your book is published. Give some idea of your media plan. If you’re pursuing freelance journalism assignments, give the titles of pieces and names of media you’re submitting to.

  9. What NOT to put into a query letter?

    Praise from agents and editors who passed on your book.

    That you’re looking for an agent because you’re not happy with your publisher. I see this and hear this from new writers who publish their first novels with small independent presses. Most of the time, their writing is mediocre or worse; they were lucky to be published in the first place. No one wants a difficult writer. We all like writers who see themselves as part of the big picture and are grateful to have their work recognized by very busy people in this industry. They are reading your books and manuscripts on evenings and weekends.

    Formatting peeves of mine: Fonts that are smaller than Times New Roman 12 and single-spaced text. If you include an excerpt with your query, make sure it’s easy on the eyes.

  10. I ask for a one-paragraph bio with credentials that are relevant to your book and your creative writing background. I like quirky details like odd jobs and personal interests we all see on book flaps.

    A good query letter is like a love song, a love note, a come hither look. It’s genuine and authentic: a writer’s moment to shine and be a superstar. I love it when I get a good one.

  11. I look for the writer’s name, street address, phone number, and email address.on the query I don’t like queries that show only a pen name or initials with no first name; I want to know who you are. I don’t mind simultaneous queries to agencies–you’re trying to sell your book. But I don’t respond to queries that don’t address me by name and show the email address of every agent you’re sending to.

  12. Sometimes I respond to queries the same day, and writers their manuscript won’t be ready for another two weeks. It’s frustrating on my end because the query has made me eager to read their work. Two weeks later, I’ve forgotten their query. I’ll read their manuscript but I won’t go back and reread their query; I don’t have time.

    Sometimes I hear back from writers two years later who say they’ve revised their manuscripts but don’t resend the synopsis. Most of the time, I don’t even remember these writers or their work.

    If it takes too many messages or steps to communicate, I will probably pass.

    I sometimes respond the same day to a query and others I don’t get to at all. I ask that writers follow up in two weeks and if I still don’t respond, it’s because I haven’t had time to read your email. It wouldn’t bother me if a writer followed up every two weeks if I haven’t answered their query.

    I know it’s demanding of a writer’s time to look for an agent, but there are more writers than agents and editors and there have to be gatekeepers. Look for those who want new talent, and write your way in.

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