The Query-Go-Round

People often ask me how to get a novel published. In brief, it works like this:

  1. Write the book.
  2. Get an agent.
  3. Write your next book while your agent sells your first.

Step One is the most important, and the one most often neglected. If you haven’t finished your book, if it isn’t polished to a high gleam, if it hasn’t been read by a dozen friends and re-written in response to their comments, then you aren’t ready to worry about Step Two.

But if you answered check to all of the above, then it’s time to find an agent. There are two steps. First, you need to decide which ones to approach; second, you write a query letter to pique their interest. Let’s take them one at a time.

Figuring out which agents to approach is a fairly mechanical task. Basically, you want to send your stuff to agents who like similar material. My own agent, for example, specializes in crime fiction, thrillers, and some nonfiction. Sending him fantasy would be a waste of time. It’s not his market, and even if he did like it, you’d be better served by an agent who really knows your field.

How to do that? Easy. Go to your local bookstore or library, and bring a notebook. Find the section that matches your genre, and start pulling books down. In the Acknowledgements , the author almost always thanks their agent (if they don’t, you don’t want that agent anyway.) Focus on books that are somewhat similar to yours, but don’t obsess. Don’t try to pick a favorite agent in advance.

After three or four fairly boring hours, you should have a sizable list. To find their addresses, turn to the Internet. You can Google search, using quotes around their full name. You can also look at sites like and Again, this isn’t fun, but it’s necessary. Make a spreadsheet, and include the agency, the agent’s name, the authors they represent, the address and email, and sections for dates to track who you’ve sent letters and when.

To get you started, I’m happy to offer you the document I created (click to download). Bear in mind that it’s a couple years old, and likely out of date, so be sure to confirm any info.

Okay, so you’ve got a list of agents. Now what?

You write a query letter. A query letter is just what it sounds like. It’s a brief note meant to introduce yourself to the agent and ask if they’d like to look at your book. It is also a damn tricky document.

The reason is that you already wrote the book. You slaved over every one of 350 pages. You know its intricacies, its subtleties, its moments of grace and its smelly underarms.

Now you have to forget all that.

Here’s the key to writing queries. You’re not actually selling the book. What you are doing is seducing the agent. All you want to do is get them interested enough that they ask to see your manuscript. That’s it.

It’s like online dating. If you can write a charming email, you might get a date; if you get a date, who knows where it could lead. But if you try to put all your history and baggage in that first email, you won’t get any play. Instead, what you want to do is demonstrate that you’re worth someone’s time. That you are interesting, sincere, and respectful.

How do you do that? Well, for one, you’re polished. Your language is compelling and your presentation is perfect. Also, you’re brief. Agents are busy. There are hundreds of other queries to read. Finally, you are a storyteller. You know how to tease, how to intrigue, and you’re not afraid to put those wiles to work.

That said, here is my recipe for a perfect query letter. (By the way, this is all aimed at fiction; selling nonfiction is a whole other beast, and I don’t know beans about it.)

After a professional greeting (Mr. or Ms.), begin with a 1 – 2 line paragraph explaining that you are writing them because you know they represent X, and your book is similar.

Then, in 3 – 5 lines, sum up your story. Leave out the tangents, complications, minor characters, and themes. Remember, this is seduction. Focus on drama and stakes. Here’s mine:

For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score–until his former partner comes looking for him. A hardened killer fresh out of Stateville, his partner wants to kidnap the son of Danny’s millionaire boss, and he needs help to pull it off. Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.

Refusing could cost him his life.

Notice how I used only one name, and how I boiled the story down to its essense? The result is a brief summation that has some sex appeal.

In your next paragraph, spend 1 – 4 lines mentioning awards, previous publications, and nepotistic hookups. By the latter, I mean connections with authors, publishing folks, or the media. Is Stephen King your uncle? Did you work for Oprah? Put it in there. Also, if you have some experience that informed the book, consider including it. Be judicious here: if you’re hawking a mystery novel, by all means mention the fact that you are a police officer. If your character likes to cook and so do you, leave it out.

Finally, end with what in advertising is known as a call to action: “May I send you the finished manuscript?”

If you’re writing a conventional query (one that requires a stamp), you’re done. However, when possible, I recommend you query via email.

There are a couple of reasons. First, e-queries are cheaper and faster and better for the environment. Second, you can include a little taste of your novel. Do it like this: “Page one of THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL follows. May I send you the finished manuscript?”

Then, after your name and contact info, paste in the first page or so of the novel. Do not attach it, as that will freak people out about viruses. Also, be sure to check your formatting, since email can screw that up, and manually insert line-breaks to double-space. Finally, make sure that you end on a minor cliffhanger, something interesting.

The idea is simple. The agent has just read your brief and compelling query letter. They’re intrigued. It’s the easiest thing in the world to scroll down and read a little more — and then, because your first page is dynamite (right?), hopefully intrigued will upshift to excited. Simple as that.

A good query letter is not written in one day. Write it and rewrite it. Have friends and critique partners read it. Buff the hell out of it. Once you feel like it’s ready, start sending it out in waves, say 5 – 10 a week.

Soon, you’ll start hearing back. Some agents will pass. But if you followed the above, most will ask you for either a partial (usually about 50 pages) or the full manuscript. When you mail those off, be sure to write REQUESTED MATERIAL in big letters on the envelope so that your manuscript hits the top of the pile. Then do a little happy dance and go send out another couple of queries.

And throughout the whole process, remember that this is a subjective business. I got plenty of rejections before I signed with my agent. I had big names tell me the story had no tension, or that they didn’t think they could sell it. Don’t sweat that stuff. Have a beer, then send another query.

Sooner or later, the query-go-round will stop for you. Good luck!