How to query a literary agent

How to query a literary agent

By Kirsty Logan 04/09/12

You've finished your novel – the next step is to find a literary agent who can help you to get published. But how do you approach agents? Kirsty Logan shares tips on writing the perfect query letter... 

Your novel is brilliant – but how can you convince an agent when they already have hundreds of unpublished manuscripts avalanching on their desk?

You have to entice them into reading your novel, but it’s tricky to walk the line between interesting and insane. Luckily, there is a standard format for agent queries – and it’s a little like a covering letter for a job application.

A query is a one-page letter introducing you and your book, and all agents require them. The three words to keep in mind are: professional, interesting and concise. First of all, make sure that you’re contacting the agent in their preferred manner – some like an introductory email with no attachments, and some like a letter, synopsis and first three chapters send through the post. You can find this information on the agent’s website or the latest Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook.

Now, on with the letter. It consists of three paragraphs: the intro, the mini-synopsis, and the bio. The goal is to get the agent to read your book, not to show off how quirky and non-mainstream you are. Your novel can be as offbeat as you like, but your query letter must be professional.


Paragraph 1: The Intro

The very first things the agent wants to know are: title, genre, and word count. For example: 

“I hope that you will consider my 70,000-word literary novel, I HEART UNICORNS.”


“Please find enclosed the first three chapters of my 90,000-word crime thriller, PISTOLAS Y CHICAS.”

If you’ve met the agent in person or had them personally recommended to you by one of their clients, mention this here.


Paragraph 2: The Mini-Synopsis

This is the trickiest part, as you have to distill your entire 300-page novel to one tiny paragraph. It’s impossible to mention every aspect of your protagonist’s personality, every event, every charmingly odd side-character – mention just enough to give a flavour of the novel. When you see a film and a friend asks what it’s about, how do you answer? Use that same brevity, and figure out what’s really important in your story. Read the cover blurbs of your favourite books to see how the setting, characters and conflict are all described in a single paragraph.

There’s no shortcut here. You just have to sit down and brainstorm onto the page, then afterwards trim, revise, reshape and try it all again. It’s best to run this by a few friends, so that when they reply, “But why would the astronaut want to own a turkey farm? you’ll know that your description needs to be clearer.


Paragraph 3: Your bio

Mention any publications you have, any awards you’ve won, and any literature-related qualifications you’ve earned. It’s okay to mention your age, location and occupation (if you want to), but only mention other details about your personal life if they’re relevant to the story – say it’s about Hungarian immigrants and your parents emigrated from Hungary, or it’s about rare birds and you’re an ornithologist.

And that’s it! End your letter by thanking the agent for their time and attention, and don’t forget to include your contact information.


Useful Links: 


25 Examples of Successful Queries


Read more How to articles.

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Image: old typewriter keys by misocrazy, under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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