It’s essential to get your query letters right. They’re what is selling you (or not ...) to the literary agent or publisher.

Here’s what you do.

First of all make sure that you’re sending your query letters to the correct literary agents. There’s no point in sending your children’s story to somebody who doesn’t represent that kind of work.

The agents want to make it easy for you to get this right. So their section in the Writers' Yearbook/Industry Directory, and their website, will tell you very clearly what kind of work they represent and what they don’t. Also it will tell you what their submission requirements are. Make sure you follow this - that supersedes every bit of information here, which can only be generic.

Secondly, try if at all possible to get a name to whom to address your submission.

For smaller agencies this is easy - the name of the agent is the name of the agency.

For larger agencies you might want to try phoning up and asking which agents in that agency are accepting submissions right now. Chances are you won’t be given a name, but rather just be told to address it to the Submissions Department - but it’s worth a try.

Now, above all - make sure you spell the name correctly!! No excuses to get this wrong, and as you can imagine it gives a dreadful first impression if you do.

Make sure too that the letter is perfectly typed - no spelling mistakes or typos. As the old - and true - phrase has it, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, and query letters are that one chance.

Use a good quality paper - 100gm would be perfect. Don't use any gimmicks such as coloured ink or fancy fonts.

Don't forget - it's hard but true - that agents get a veritable deluge of submissions and they are looking for an excuse to reject each manuscript. Don't give them one in the form of lack of professionalism.

Don't forget the goal of the query letter. It is not, as you might think, to sell your manuscript. No! It is rather to get the agent to look at the manuscript. The goal is therefore to impress and intrigue him/her enough so that he/she will request what is known as a partial. A partial means the first three chapters and a synopsis. (And if the agent likes that, s/he'll request the whole manuscript.)

So, keep your letter brief - maximum one page. This sounds hard, and it is. But it's essential.

The information the agent needs is:

  • Why you specifically chose him or her. (And no, that shouldn't be that you're making your way through a list and s/he happened to be next.) Say something like: “I am contacting you because you represent X Author, and my work is in a similar vein to hers.”

    Or, go into a bit more detail such as:

  • “I am contacting you because you represent X Author, and my work is in a similar vein to hers in its use of complex modern themes and bleak inner-city landscapes.”

    Now, make sure that your work is similar to X Author’s. Don’t cheat; even if this tactic gets your work in front of the agent, if it’s not what you represented it to be, it’ll soon be behind him.

    Or, if your work isn't like any that the agent represents, at the very least say something like: “I am contacting you because you state [where I got your name] that you are intrigued by quirky and honest writing - and my work meets those criteria.”

This last is weakest, to be honest. The agent might be thinking, “Oh yes, they all say that.” But it’s still better than nothing. It shows you’ve done some homework.

  • The genre of the novel. It’s essential that it’s a specific, identifiable genre.
  • That the novel is completed. (It is, isn’t it? It should be. One of the cardinal rules is that you don’t query an incomplete novel. Of course, people do it all the time, and you may well do it too. Just know that agents and publishers don't like it.)

  • A one paragraph synopsis of the plot. Make it intriguing and enticing. Include the narrative hook.
  • Any qualifications you have, e.g. a degree in creative writing. Don’t worry if you have no formal qualifications - a brilliant novel is all the qualification you need! But if you have qualifications you might as well mention them.
  • Any previous work you’ve had published, e.g. previous novels, short stories, etc. It helps if you have have work published, but don’t worry if you don’t. A good novel will sell anyway.