Writing a Great Query Letter: Beyond the Synopsis

Okay, so. You have this query letter you’ve been sending to agents. No one is biting, but when you send it to your beta readers for feedback, they tell you that it’s a really strong letter. It does a great job of piquing their interest for your book.

This might be paradoxically unwelcome news. "If it's such a strong letter, then why am I not getting more positive results?!" you cry to the heavens (and probably your Facebook newsfeed).

Let me rephrase, then. While your query letter might be strong, there are four areas of the submission process you could be overlooking.

1.) Sell Yourself Here, Too. 

Perhaps you’re writing in a genre that hasn’t had much luck on the bestseller lists lately. Or perhaps it’s the opposite: your book is part of a genre that has blasted off, and you’re the five hundredth Gone Girl on the Bus/Train/Plane that was on Fire an agent has read this week. To counteract this phenomenon, you need to put your best foot forward. Show them why you are the unique individual who was destined to write this book.

Your plot synopsis may razzle the reader of this letter. Now dazzle them with your author platform!

Do you have Twitter followers in the 5- to 6-digit range? Have you had any major speaking engagements or industry recognition? What about previous publications? If so, add these honors and awards towards the end of the letter in a brief author bio.

With increasing frequency, authors are called upon by their agents and publishers to help promote their work (source). An author with a platform is a marketable client, so don't feel uncomfortable tooting your own horn. It might be the thing that gets an agent's attention.

2.) Attach Sample Pages. 

Nothing cues a form rejection quicker than: "I am ready to send a synopsis and sample chapters at a moment's notice!" What? Why aren't they already attached?!

Double check the guidelines on an agent's website, as well as on Publishers MarketplaceQueryTracker, and/or AgentQuery before submitting. If you don't see instructions telling you absolutely NOT to submit sample pages, then send at least your first ten pages along with the query.

You may do an excellent job selling your manuscript in the query letter, but if the agent has to email you to say, "Yes, I'm interested," and THEN wait for you to send your manuscript over, it could be a major point of contention. It may even suggest to them that you haven't written the book yet — which is a big no-no for fiction writers, especially.

Bottom line: attach those pages!


3.) Attend Writers' Conferences/Pitch Slams. 

If you're not having luck in an agent's inbox, why not attend a writing conference that guarantees face time with agents? Writers Digest hosts a well-attended one annually, and BookLife has a comprehensive list of conferences happening in 2017 here.* 

Many festivals have pitch slams, which are kind of like speed dating an agent. The time you spend face-to-face with an agent as you pitch your book can mean the difference between representation and rejection, especially if you have a memorable personality. Just don't forget to follow up ASAP if an agent requests your manuscript in person! 

* - Can’t afford travel, lodging, and registration fees for a conference? I totally understand. A free but personable alternative is to follow dream agents on Twitter and to create alerts for hashtags like #MSWL (ManuScript Wish List), #querytip, and #10queries. Angie Thomas, the author of critically acclaimed and bestselling novel THE HATE U GIVE, found her agent Brooks Sherman during a Q&A on Twitter (source).

4.) Read Query Shark. 

Query Shark is a blog run by veteran literary agent Janet Reid. She doesn't pull any punches, which is a beautiful thing. Her sample critiques of other people's query letters should tell you what you are and aren't doing right. 

Have you tried all four strategies to no avail? 

It may be your manuscript, not your query letter, that needs revision. 

Many manuscripts submitted to agents these days have had professional help.

If it's been a few months and you're still not getting the agent attention your MS deserves, feel free to reach out to me or to another freelance editor. I'd be happy to read your manuscript and offer comprehensive feedback.

Wishing you and your writing all the best,
Jessica Hatch