No matter what kind of author you are, querying agents can be a pretty arduous process — especially if you’ve never done it before! You’ve probably heard different bits of advice here and there, so you may not be sure what the correct protocol is. After all, a query letter is supposed to perfectly encompass your book in such a way that agents will be squabbling to take it on — a tall order for what should only be a single page of persuasion.
That’s why I want to help you get this process exactly right. Here are five tips and tricks for querying agents that will start you down a path to success.
1. Keep your synopsis short and snappy
When trying to fit a lengthy book into a page-long query letter, it’s hard to know what to include vs. leave out. You might be tempted to dive deep into your book: covering not just the main characters, but the secondary characters, subplots, and underlying themes you feel are important.
But your query synopsis is not the place to do this! When querying, it’s crucial to keep the summary of your book as short and snappy as possible. Otherwise, agents may not even read it — or if they do, they probably won’t remember it. And nothing’s a one-way ticket to an agent’s “reject” pile like an unmemorable synopsis.
When crafting your own, remember that there are three parts to a great query synopsis: the hook, the key plot points (read: not all of them), and the wrap-up, all of which should take up about a page. You likely already have some idea of what a hook is: it’s the most exciting or original aspect of a work, the thing that makes it stand out from the crowd. For example, if you were Alice Sebold writing a synopsis for The Lovely Bones, your hook would be, “Narrated from beyond the grave, this book tells the story of Susie Salmon, who’s killed by her neighbor but can still see him — and all her friends and family — from heaven.”
Following this would be the key plot points, which should be 3-5 sentences at most. You’d round it off with some kind of resolution, which I’ll talk about next. And bonus tip: if you can convey your writing voice in your synopsis, that’s even better. Just make sure you’re not doing so at the cost of brevity (which is the soul of wit, after all).
2. Include the ending
One of the most common misconceptions about querying is that you shouldn’t include the ending of your book, because you want to “always leave them wanting more,” as P.T. Barnum supposedly said. But, just like that quote being misattributed, the sentiment isn’t exactly sound when it comes to querying.
The truth is, most agents don’t care about story endings being “spoiled” for them — in fact, it’s encouraged, especially if you have a great ending. After all, agents who don’t have the time or patience to read through a long-ish synopsis certainly don’t have the time to read your entire manuscript just to find out your ending and decide to represent you. So even if you have the best twist ending in the world, don’t use it to bait agents without telling them what it is: just reveal it outright in your synopsis.
3. Use effective comp titles
On top of your hook and ending, another great way to sell agents on your book is to use comp titles. What are comp titles, you ask? Well, you’ve probably already used them: if you’ve ever described a book, film, or other piece of media as “[Thing A] meets [Thing B],” then you’re a regular comp title connoisseur!
As you can surmise from this, comp titles compare something relatively unknown (or unknown to the party being addressed) to things that are well-known or successful in their field. So if you’ve written a magical adventure novel that takes place on a desert island, you might pitch it to agents as “Earthsea meets Robinson Crusoe.”
However, there are two critical things to avoid when using comp titles to describe your book. The first is choosing comp titles that are super-famous and popular today — it would set expectations way too high. For example, you wouldn’t want to compare your book to Harry Potter and Divergent.
The second is that you usually don’t want to compare your book to two other titles that are very similar — e.g. “Robinson Crusoe meets Swiss Family Robinson” — because it doesn’t provide a particularly notable take. You’re basically just saying, “My book is part of this genre, same as these other two books,” which the agent should be able to figure out by themselves anyway.
Remember that your comp titles should make your book seem unique, yet identifiable within the literary canon. Moreover, if you use comp titles really effectively, your agent might even pitch your book that way to publishers — and your publisher could use those same comp titles to attract readers down the line! So think carefully about your comp titles, because they may end up going a long way.
4. Query selectively
If you’ve ever written a book (and if you’re reading this article right now, I’m guessing you've at least gotten started), you know that the finished product takes some serious blood, sweat, and tears. In fact, it’s like a child to you at that point — and you wouldn’t let just anyone take care of your child, would you?
By that logic, you shouldn’t let just anyone handle your book. You want someone who will actually care about it, and who has experience with your genre or subject matter— just as you would want someone with previous childcare experience to look after your child. (At least, I hope you would.)
So when you’re deciding how many agents to query, and what conditions they should meet, keep quality over quantity in mind. If you really do your research into each agent’s mission statement, the books they typically represent, their greatest past successes, and their current demand, you should be able to find a small but superlative pool of agents to contact. Personalizing your query letter accordingly would be your next step.
Trust me, this will lead to much better results than sending out a mass query to every agent’s email you can find! If you put the work into your research, you’ll get someone who’s actually invested in your work, and you’ll be that much closer to getting a publishing deal.
5. Follow up
Finally, if you don’t hear back from an agent who seems like they’d be a great fit for you and your book, follow up with them! Of course, sometimes agents take a long time to sift through their emails, and their not getting back to you might simply just be a product of that. But if it’s been a couple weeks and you haven’t heard anything, you’re well within your rights to send a brief follow-up email. That follow-up could be the difference between an agent you settle for and an agent who’s your professional soulmate.
If querying doesn’t go well, or you’re getting frustrated with how long the traditional publishing process takes, don’t fret: you have more options on the table, like self-publishing (which Clayton also details in this post). Or you can go back and revise your book for another round of queries — especially if some agents offer you feedback to that end. Basically, don’t give up on your dream of publishing your book: no matter what path you ultimately take, there’s always some way to make it work.
Desiree Villena is a writer for the Reedsy blog, where she covers everything from story structure to book writing software. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She's very passionate about independent publishing and hopes to help as many aspiring authors as possible reach their dreams! If you have any comments or questions for her, please leave them below, or you can reach her via email.
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