Querying Basics: 5 Tips for Landing a Literary Agent

Today’s guest post is by Dario Villirilli.

Writing a great book is not quite all it takes to get published. No matter how remarkable your manuscript may be, you’ll first have to effectively pitch it to literary agents. This entails crafting a great query letter, following industry dos and don’ts, ensuring the timing is right, utilizing the appropriate format, and targeting agents who are searching for projects like your own.

While rejection is an inevitable part of the journey, there are actions you can take to increase the chances of your query letter being read and seriously considered. So, in this post, we’ll share five tips to help you along the way. For a deeper dive into the art of querying, check out Susanne’s own guide.

1. Query when you’re ready

Since the querying process can extend over months (and sometimes years!), many debut authors make the mistake of starting to query their novel two or three quarters into its development. They assume that by the time they receive a response from an agent, their work will be complete and ready. But this approach holds two primary pitfalls.

First and foremost, you cannot predict when an agent will reply. It could take months, but it could also happen within minutes. If they request your manuscript and it’s not ready, you’ll likely miss your chance because they have nothing to evaluate or sell.

Second, it’s crucial not to pitch a half-baked book, with a plot and characters you may revise later. Your goal should be to pitch a finished and polished product, a version of your book that you’ve had the time to self-edit to the best of your abilities (or with the help of a professional). So, only query when you’ve completed and edited your novel.

2. Think like an entrepreneur

While the process of writing a book is deeply creative, pitching it to agents takes a more market-focused approach. You must adopt the mind-set of a businessperson, selling your product to the agent who will then aim to sell it to the broader market.

To come across as professional in this aspect, there are a few things you can do. Firstly, treat your query letter as you would a formal business email. Use a traditional font like Times New Roman or Arial, ensure proper spacing, and maintain a clean and straightforward formatting style. Resist the temptation to use bright colors, images, emojis, or unconventional formatting to stand out … it’ll likely backfire on you.

Secondly, show that you are an informed and valuable publishing partner. For instance, present any relevant author credentials (e.g. “My writing has been featured in Guernica“) or mention comparable titles to your novel that help specify its target audience (e.g. “For fans of Normal People). Or, if you’re a nonfiction author and you have an existing following, mention your online presence and how you can leverage it for book marketing.

Overall, this market-friendly attitude will make you look professional and likely increase the likings of literary agents.

3. Research agents thoroughly

Querying is a numbers game, but that doesn’t mean you should blast the same letter to dozens of agents in hopes of finding the right one. Even if they represent your genre, it doesn’t mean they’ll be automatically interested in your book. For example, they might be open to literary fiction, but currently only have openings for novels featuring BIPOC characters.

It pays off to thoroughly research agents in advance and query those actively seeking books like yours. Whenever possible, browse their Twitter, personal websites, and QueryTracker profiles to get a sense of their genre or even stylistic preferences and the types of authors they aim to represent.

Again, think in market terms: Do they want to acquire what you’re offering? The closer their interests align with your book, the better the match. By targeting agents who are genuinely interested in your work, you increase the likelihood of being represented—and ultimately avoid wasting your time.

4. Craft a powerful hook

Agents receive dozens of queries a day, so often will have to skim through them to find the most relevant bits of information about your novel. In this sense, a crucial element of the query letter is your “hook”—a short paragraph that precedes your book synopsis and encapsulates the core concept of your book.

The hook should emphasize what makes your story unique. Whether it’s a distinct perspective, an intriguing conflict, or a captivating world, aim to spotlight the most fascinating elements of your story in the hook.

To get a sense of what’s a good hook, it may be useful to find and read sample query letters (e.g., on QueryTracker), read blurbs and loglines of published books, or even browse descriptions of movies and TV series on popular streaming services, which often excel in succinctly describing plotlines.

A well-crafted hook increases the chances of agents delving into the full synopsis, so spend some time refining yours.

5. Guard your mental health

This tip may appear generic, but it’s just as important as the previous ones. The querying process is filled with hope and doubt, expectations and frustrations. Even with a meticulously crafted letter sent to the right agent, you may be rejected because, for reasons completely beyond your control, they are unable (or unwilling) to take on your book at the current moment.

You may start questioning the value of your work and your potential as a writer, which can take an emotional toll. To avoid burning out, there are a few things you can do besides the usual best mental health practices like exercising, meditating, going for walks, etc.

First, seek out a community of writing buddies who get it and with whom you can share your journey, both the joyful and stressful moments. You may find this supportive network online (e.g., Reddit, Twitter, Discord) or within your local community (e.g. at the library or some writing school).

Second, instead of anxiously refreshing your emails in hopes of receiving an offer of representation, start a new project, whether big or small. It could be starting a new book, building your author website, or learning how to make an audiobook?anything that keeps you motivated and hopeful about your writing career.

By adopting these precautions, you’ll be able to face the (often) long querying journey with a more resilient mind-set.

So there you have it, some (hopefully) helpful advice on how to better tackle this often-grueling querying process. I hope to see your book on the shelves soon!

Which of these five tips do you need to work on? Share in the comments.

Dario Villirilli is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace and blog that helps authors with everything from finding the best writing software to how to find a ghostwriter to how to self-publish and everything in between.

Featured Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

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