Query Letters: What Agents Love And Loathe

I’m so pleased to host literary agent Helen Zimmermann! She’s here to talk about the all-important query letter, and what you can do to increase the chances your submission will be read.

QUERY_OpIf you’re a writer shooting for a traditional publishing deal, one of the most important things you will tackle is your query (or submission) letter. It is said that a good query letter is harder to write than a symphony in C minor for the tuba. But it IS possible, and when they are good, they can definitely get you noticed. As agents, we can suss out a bad one in the first sentence or two, causing our trigger finger to hit that delete button. Molly asked me to share a few things we love and hate about the query letters we read…lets try and keep you from getting deleted, shall we?

What we LOVE:

Being called by our (correct) name!
So simple and yet so satisfying. I have been called Mr. Zimmermann, Dear Agent, To Whom It May Concern, Dear Sir, Dear Lieutenant (kinda liked that one, to be honest), and a good portion that just don’t have a salutation at all.

When you open with your strengths.
We are looking for professionals, and to that end we want to work with people who understand that putting your best foot forward is important. For goodness sake, if you’ve had a book published before, mention it! If your plot is your biggest strength, then wow me with that.

When it’s obvious a writer has done their homework.
When I can tell you’ve been to my website, it means you’re committed and serious, and that’s what I need to see.

When a writer makes a personal connection with the agent they are querying.
You have to be careful with this one, because it has to be genuine. No lines like, “I see you are a very powerful agent…” – we see right through that. But if you liked a book we worked on, or share an interest, by all means, we have egos too, so a tinch of stroking is all good!

When the title is in keeping with the genre.
It’s important to do your homework on this, and make sure your title works for the genre you are approaching. Titles like Ass Eyes in A Sea of Spec (it’s true, someone sent that to me) aren’t going to get you very far. If you’re a reader in your genre, which you should be, this should come fairly naturally to you.

What we HATE:

When the subject field says something like …
This is the best book you will ever read! Opinions out. Let the material do the talking. And remember, “submission query” is redundant.

Underconfidence.
Don’t spend the first two sentences writing about how you know how busy we are and thanks so much for taking the time. Ugh. Just get to the point!

When we receive submissions for a genre we don’t represent.
This is a flag on the play in the worst way. It means you haven’t even looked me up or looked at my website! You are asking me to put my reputation on the line for you and you didn’t even check to see what I represent? Back of the class.

Receiving a query letter for more than one project.
If you are a prolific writer, that’s terrific! But when you decide you are ready to get published, you need to pick the SINGLE strongest manuscript you’ve got and just pitch that. If an agent is interested, you can definitely shed light on your other work at that point, but your initial query letter should just be for one project.

Typos.
We hate typos more than anything. Remember, you are essentially applying for a job as a professional writer. No typos allowed! I got so frustrated that one day I took a close look at about a hundred submissions … Would you be shocked to hear that SEVENTY-SIX of them had typos in the first three sentences? You should be! I think this is because folks are nervous and otherwise anxious about sending out query letters … totally understandable. But take the time to send them to friends/writing buddies first for a once over.

Helen-Zimmermann_OpHelen Zimmermann has worked as the Director of Advertising and Promotion at Random House and was the Events Director of an Independent Bookseller. She currently runs her eponymous Literary Agency and is the founder of Project Publish, a video course for aspiring authors. You can check out the course at www.Project-Publish.com

Readers, if you have questions about query letter etiquette, leave a comment and Helen will try to answer as time allows!

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8 Responses to Query Letters: What Agents Love And Loathe

  1. Darlene January 13, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    Thanks for sharing, Helen. Always good to hear the scoop from the inside!

  2. Molly Greene January 13, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

    I agree, Darlene, it’s great to get feedback from those “in the know.” Thanks for your message and my deepest appreciation to Helen for sharing with us!

  3. Alison Jack January 13, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

    Invaluable advice for any author looking for an agent. Thank you very much to Helen for sharing and to Molly for posting.

  4. MM Jaye January 14, 2014 at 4:34 am #

    Last summer, before I decided to self-publish my contemporary romance, I sent out a query to ten agents and got two partial requests without having built any sort of author platform. Even the rejections were encouraging.To me, this meant that my query wasn’t a failure. Reading Helen’s Dos and Don’ts I know I followed the right path. You need to show that you are willing to build a solid relationship with the agent and that can only be projected through a personal, relevant approach which, in turn, can be achieved through the right kind of research and the right kind of attitude.Thanks for sharing!

    • Molly Greene January 14, 2014 at 11:35 am #

      Thanks, Maria. And it’s true, just as both you and Helen have said: Whether it’s querying an agent or a book blogger, we need to do our homework! Hope all is wonderful with you in sunny Greece :-)

    • Helen Zimmermann January 15, 2014 at 7:38 am #

      You certainly must have done something right if you got a 20% return rate! You’re absolutely right, agents are looking for as much professionalism as possible. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Lara Dunning January 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    Hello Helen,
    Thanks for the query advice. I’ve heard some agents say to send the first five pages of your MS in their queries and others say not to. Do you see a standard developing from this?
    Thanks, Lara

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