How to write a literary agent query letter

Query letters matter. A typical literary agent in New York or London will see approximately 2000 manuscripts a year, and may take on just 1-2 new authors. Of the 2,000 manuscripts submitted, the majority (say at least 1750) will be rejected very quickly, because of errors in the query letter or synopsis.

The template your letter needs to follow is simple.

The basic query letter template

  1. Start with a short 1-2 sentence intro.
    You need to say why you’re writing (“I am seeking representation for my first novel,” for example). You need to say what you’ve written (“The Raven Ship”), and you need to define that book speedily in terms of genre and wordcount, (“A Viking-era historical novel of 90,000 words”.)
  2. Then add 1-2 paragraphs about the book.
    You aren’t delivering a back-jacket sales blurb, here, but nor are you writing a synopsis. Rather, you are helping the agent to understand a little more about the settings / characters / premise / theme of the book. You are also helping them to understand why this book is special – what its hook is, and what kind of emotional payoff the reader can expect. This total section of your letter shouldn’t run to much more than 150-200 words. Less than that is fine.
  3. Then say something brief about yourself.
    Say 1 or 2 short sentences about who you are and (if it’s relevant) you can say something about how you came to write the book. Agents don’t care if you haven’t been published before, so that’s not something you need to feel nervous about, or apologise for.

You can read a complete sample query letter here, so you can see exactly how to lay one out and get a feel for what it should look like.

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Rules for writing a query letter that sells

But you can’t just robotically follow a template and hope to get things right.

Remember that you are seeking to earn money as a professional writer and that means that agents will – quite correctly – scrutinise your work to see if you are properly in control of your craft. A badly written query letter (or covering letter) will flash a red warning that this writer is not yet ready to be published.

So take care!

The following rules pick out the errors that we see most commonly – and we look at hundreds of query letters every year. Some of those letters are really great. Other ones . . . not so great. But this is not a hard thing to get right, so do put the work in.

Guidelines for the perfect query letter

1. No obvious errors

No howlers, no spelling mistakes, no saying it’s when you mean its, no calling your book a fiction novel when it’s just a novel. (All novels are fiction.)

Oh, and check the spelling of the name of the agent you’re writing to. I promise you that if an agent is called Jon or Sara, it will bug them every single time they get a letter addressed to John or Sarah.

It’s not hard to get these things right, so check once – then check again.

2. No bad sentences

Here’s a slightly different issue, but an equally important one.

Plenty of query letters don’t have errors as such, but they still give off plentiful indicators that the writer is a little clumsy in expressing themselves. Here’s what I mean:

This novel, which is the first one I have written, is called The Adventures of Baby Jane, and I would say it falls into the genre of fantasy, or maybe even chick-lit.

That’s a hideous sentence, but it doesn’t have spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in it. It’s not just about avoiding howlers. It’s also about writing well.

3. Brevity

Keep your letter to a page. It doesn’t need to be longer than that. If your entire letter runs to 300 words, it could probably lose at least 50 words.

The exceptions? Well, yes, there are always exceptions. Of these, I’d say the three most frequent are:

  • An agent specifically asks for a longer letter on their website submission requirements. (This is uncommon)
  • You are writing non-fiction, in which case you will need (a) to set out the case for your book in a little detail and (b) you’ll need to say something about why you are the right person to write it. Even here, I would say that 2 pages should be sufficient for almost any submission.
  • You are writing literary fiction, in whichcase it’s common to say a little more about the themes of your work and why those themes echo with you particularly. Again, 2 pages should  be the absolute maximum here, and if your letter only runs to a single page, that’s nothing at all to worry about.

4. Introduce the book

I generally recommend a sentence or two at the start of the letter which summarises the key data: the title, the genre, the word count, the rough thrust of the story. Then a longer paragraph about the book. You don’t need to summarise the plot – the synopsis will do that – but you do need to say what the book is about. That could be about setting, about theme, about period. Whatever matters most.

5. Don’t say much about yourself

No one cares about you. They care about the book, so a sentence or two is fine. Keep it short. If you’ve got a proper publishing track record, then say so, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t. If you’ve just published articles in the parish magazine, don’t share it. Agents don’t care. The two exception to this rule:

  • if you are writing subject-led non-fiction and you are an acknowledged expert on the topic, then make that clear.
  • If you are writing fiction and there is a clear, interesting link between your background and the subject of the novel, then say so. For example, “The climactic scenes in the novel are set in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. I have extensive experience of mountaineering in this area, and have indeed made the first recorded ascents of three 7,000 metre summits in the region.” You’d want to read that book, right? And of course it’s easier for a publisher to publicise a book where the author has interesting, relevant background to draw on, so it’s worth making these things clear.

6. Don’t get cute

Most jokes don’t work. Lavish grovelling is pointless. ‘I will call you in two weeks to discuss’: no. This will have the opposite effect of impressing an agent. This is a business letter, so keep it business-like. In the US, you can be a little pushier, a bit more sales-y. In the UK, it’s better to play it straight.

7. Remember what the query letter is there to do

All the letter is there to do is encourage the agent to read the opening page of the manuscript. If that page looks good, the agent will read the first chapter. If he or she likes the first chapter, then they’ll read on, but the query letter is just the very start. No one will make up their mind from a query letter. Your letter needs to get the agent interested enough in the idea to make a start on the manuscript itself. It’s not hard to write a decent query letter. It’s very hard to write a decent manuscript. For more advice on securing a literary agent (and for sample query letters), just read more of our advice to get you going.

Good luck!

Completing the submission package

Take a wonderful query letter, add a perfect synopsis, and …

OK, so now you know how to write a query letter. It’s not hard and, assuming you can write a half-decent novel, then writing a decent query letter should be easy-peasy.

But you need to team that with a synopsis to complete your submission package.

I’m not going to talk in detail about writing a synopsis now – but you can get a detailed guide on writing a synopsis here – but suffice to say:

  • A synopsis should summarise the story of your book
  • The language should be neutral rather than salesy
  • Unless an agent specifically asks for something different, you should aim to prepare a synopsis of about 500 words. That will typically run to about a page and a half of normally laid out text.
  • You don’t need to cram every plot detail into your synopsis. Or, to be precise, you can’t cram every plot detail into your synopsis.
  • Instead, you want to hang your synopsis around the basic structure of your book: Status Quo / Initiating Incident / Developments / Climax / Resolution. You’ll find that the “Developments” section of the synopsis skates over a lot of specifics, but that’s fine – that’s  your synopsis doing its job!

If you want more (and you do) you can get it here:

You can also read a sample synopsis, which will help you construct your own.

After you submit your work to literary agents

Take a wonderful query letter, add a perfect synopsis, and …

The grim truth is that getting an agent is hard.

As a rough guide, agents will see 2000 submissions in an average year and take on maybe 2-3 clients from that set.

A more senior agent may get more submissions and take as few as 0-1 clients from the slushpile. A younger, hungrier agent, keen to build their list, might take as many as 5 clients on from a a slushpile of only 1000 manuscript or fewer.

For a broad average, though, you can reckon on about 1 in 1000 submissions being accepted.

Scary, right?

But don’t panic. It’s not about odds, it’s about quality.

If your book is good enough, it WILL BE taken on.

It’s that simple. It’s not even that hard for a professional reader to tell whether a book is obviously strong enough, is a definitely-possible, or is a certainly-not. We handle a lot of editorial assignments for clients (details here), and it’s just not that hard for us to tell where a particular manuscript falls . . . which is just as well, because we pass the really strong ones on to agents, at no extra charge to the client concerned, and we’ve scored heaps of wonderful successes as a result.

Still don’t believe me? OK, so here’s a story.

Last year, we were working with a freelance copywriter, Sarah Juckes. I knew she was writing a novel, so I invited her along to one of our events. She said thanks, and as a courtesy, sent me a copy of the manuscript she had just completed. I was pretty busy, so I didn’t have time to read it all. But I did read two pages.

And those two pages were so obviously strong, I told her that, yep, she ‘d be published soon enough.

And she was. She came to the event. Met an agent. Got taken on. Was seeing her book sold at the London Book Fair ten days later. Got a brilliant deal with Penguin Random House. (Oh, and even better news – for us – Sarah’s not a freelance consultant any more. She’s part of our team.)

So: odds don’t matter, quality does.

Remember that. It should be a golden rule.

That also means that if you don’t succeed after querying 10-15 sensibly chosen agents, then you shouldn’t just go and knock on another 10-15 doors. It means you should take a good hard look at your manuscript, figure out where it’s falling down, then fix it.

The gold-standard method of approaching that task is to get a professional editorial review of your manuscript. That’s a service we offer – you can get all the details here – and it’s amazing. Yes, you have to pay a chunk of money, but the impact on your writing and your chances of success can be (almost literally) stunning. So, yes, we’re biased, but yes, we strongly, strongly believe in this service. It’s the single best thing we do.

Oh, and one more thing:

Planet Agent revolves s l o w l y.

You probably want an answer to your query letter in 2-3 days. You can probably bear to wait 2-3 weeks. And, OK, some agents may answer in that time. But really, you need to allow at least 6-8 weeks before you can form a view of whether an agent wants your work. There’s no point in chasing, or not before that 8 week marker, anyway. And, I’m sorry to say, Silence = Sorry but no.

Don’t take these things personally. I (Harry Bingham) have had over a dozen books published by Big 5 publishers and my work has sold all over the world, been adapted for TV, and much else. But I’ve had rejections too. From agents, from publishers, from TV companies, from whoever.

And so what?

If the issue was that my work wasn’t good enough, I fixed my work.

if the issue was that Agent X didn’t like my work, then that agent was the wrong one for that book. So I worked with Agent Y instead, who had the excellent good taste and judgement to recognise merit when he saw it.

So be professional – take your time – follow the guidelines in this post – and write a great book!

Good luck!

The agent submissions builder

Write a perfect query letter and a brilliant synopsis. In just one hour.