Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Querying Literary Agents (Or: Never listen to someone with a lot of experience doing this)

Here is my general overview of querying, written from the perspective of someone who has only been involved in the process once, and not for very long, at that. The problem with getting advice about querying from writers is this:

ANYONE WHO IS GOOD AT QUERYING WILL LIKELY ONLY DO IT ONCE IN HER LIFE. ANYONE WHO HAS A LOT OF EXPERIENCE QUERYING IS EITHER BAD AT IT OR, AT BEST, WRITES MANUSCRIPTS THAT NOBODY WANTS TO REPRESENT OR PUBLISH.

As a result, we end up with a lot of bad querying advice from writers, some good querying advice from agents (who don’t understand the writers’ side of it) and not much else. Here’s what I’ve been able to glean so far:

Queries, or query letters, are letters that writers send to agents saying “look at me, look at me.”  That’s about it.  Some agency websites request nothing but a one page query.  Some ask for the query and three pages or three chapters or fifty pages or a synopsis, but nothing is getting looked at unless they like your query.

On the one hand, I don’t know jack shit about being a novelist.  And I should be in the same boat about querying, having only done it once, commencing six weeks ago.  That said, I feel like an expert on querying for a couple of reasons.  Specifically:

  • I researched the shit out of how to query.  Signed up onQueryTracker.com; read the archives at the Query Sharkhttp://queryshark.blogspot.com/ looked at about every available resource in existence about what works and what doesn’t in query letters;
  • I wrote, re-wrote, and polished my query to the point that it was the best 205 words I’ve ever seen; and
  • Last but certainly not least, the resulting query worked on four of what I would consider (most people would consider) agents in the top 1% of the literary agents in the country.

To put that into perspective, the odds of getting one of those agents to request a manuscript off a cold query, statistically, were one in 688 — about fifteen tenths of one percent.   My actual results were eighty percent — four out of five.  From a purely statistical perspective, the odds of going 4 for 5 are astronomically low (0.00000000045%).  Odds so low they literally are equivalent to dialing seven random numbers on your telephone and hoping to reach a specific person.  And having her answer on the first ring.

Does this mean I will be a hugely successful novelist?  Um, no.  Being the pragmatist that I am, I’m acutely aware that it only means one thing:

I am really fucking good at writing query letters.  

Now, that skill is not entirely unrelated to becoming a hugely successful novelist.  It is a necessary first step.  But that’s all it is.

So, what is a query letter?

That’s the tricky part, because it can be a lot of things.  One of the letters I sent was pretty smartassy, making inside jokes about stuff the agent had tweeted.  I had a pretty good idea he was a smartass himself from his tweets and blog, so I figured that would appeal to him.  Then I just said: here’s the pitch and went into my blurb.

Most of them followed this format:

Book Title, Genre, Word Count, [statement of why the topic is important], [bridge from the topic to the book]

[Two sentences explaining the two key events, how they create conflict and the protag forming the resolve to be engaged in the conflict]

[One sentence describing the market for the book].  [One sentence introducing myself]

I appreciate your time and consideration.

That’s it.  That is the template for my query letter with something like one in 200 billion results.  And I know why it worked.  It is not accidental.  It worked for several reasons.  For starters, those statistics are misleading:

  • There is a lot of crap out there.  A LOT of crap.  Starting with people who don’t know how to address a business letter, continuing through people who don’t spell check right up through people who don’t have a basic grasp of the conventions of grammar.  Those 688 queries I am competing with just got whittled down to 344.
  • People are lazy.  Even people who are capable of writing a reasonably good e-mail or letter don’t bother to learn the intricacies of query writing — more than one page = death.  Not getting right to the point = death.  Open with a rhetorical question? Only if you want to die.  Agents have screeners who have to wade through thousands of submissions a week to find the one or two they may want to look at.  Give them an excuse and they will can you as fast as possible.  We’re down to 300.
  • People are lazy, part 2: Submission Guidelines.  Each agent or agency has specific materials they request.  Might be the Q letter plus ten pages of the MS.  Might be Q letter plus a synopsis. Maybe Q letter, synopsis and three chapters.  Some agents will give people a second chance, but for most, not satisfying the guidelines = death.  So now we’re down to 250.
  • Now comes the harsh part.  Out of every 250 people who think they can write a book that stands a reasonable chance of commercial success through the traditional agent/publishing house model (which, contrary to what self-publishing pushers want you to think, is really the only reasonable path to commercial, quit your day job success), about 225 are just clearly and obviously wrong.  They haven’t read enough, they haven’t written enough, they don’t have a natural knack with language, they have no unique voice or nothing unique to say or both.  But, simply put, they just don’t have what it takes.
  • Which is why I am 4 for 5 on 5 of the top agents in the US, and a lot of my friends on writers boards are 0 for 100 or 1 MS request for 50 queries to low-level startup agents (who might do more harm than good if they represent them, anyway).

Beyond that, there are two key elements to my query that the overwhelming majority of queriers lack.  First, a really (REALLY) solid hook.  Which is to say my premise.  It has never been done before and, on reading it, I can guarantee you palms are slapping foreheads and people are saying (sometimes out loud) how can it be that nobody thought to do this before.  It is incredibly obvious and completely new and unique at the same time.  That makes for a hell of a hook.

Finally, there is a concrete way to explain the existence of a substantial market for this book in one sentence.  And, yes, market matters.  Agents are in the business of selling books to publishers.  Publishers are in the business of selling books to everyone else.  Even Thomas Paine had a projected P&L when he printed the Common Sense pamphlet that we all learned about in US History Class.  And he made a hell of a lot of money selling the idea of freedom.  That’s not crass, it’s a win/win.

So that’s my theory on querying.  Be clear, concise, professional (unless you have a specific reason to stray from the professional part).  Have a solid hook that makes people mad they didn’t think of it five years ago.  Have a solid market and be ready to explain how you fit into that market.  And then spend a week polishing the crap out of it until you are ready to mud wrestle grammar girl if she says you did something wrong.

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