Query Letter Tips #1 – Why You Should Personalize Your Queries

Hello, and welcome to my blog! Here you’ll find resources for writers, posts about my personal publishing journey, book news and general musings on all things writing.  

Seeing as there was interest in this topic, I thought I’d kick things off with a post on query letters. Love them (does anyone?) or hate them, they are an unavoidable stop on the road to signing with a literary agent. But even when a query letter has served its primary purpose, the skill of writing a pithy, compelling pitch is seriously invaluable.

For me, at least, the moment I start a new story, I write a query to see if the story works: does it have a clear plot, are the protagonist’s motives logical, are the stakes gripping, does the premise have a strong hook? (or a hook at all?) If I struggle to pitch my idea in the query format, I know there’s probably an underlying issue somewhere, so I double back and examine the building blocks of the story. Doing that alone has saved me countless hours of rewrites. So, annoying as query letters may be, they have their uses.

In this series on query letters, I’ll be discussing what worked for me. Please bear in mind that I am not an agent, and these are my experiences only (and that of a few author friends). As with everything in life, research is key.

Without further ado, my first Query Letter tip is…

Tailor the query letter to each literary agent

I strongly believe tailored query letters help improve response rates. Yes, it can be tempting to send the same query letter to everyone because it’s easy and fast. Yes, tailoring your query letters takes more work and time. But the benefits make it worthwhile:

  1. A tailored query letter shows the agent you’ve put thought and research into this step, including the reason why you are querying them specifically. You’ve investigated what the market wants and taken the agent’s time seriously, which reflects well on you (and it’s helpful for the agent).
  2. It quickly captures the agent’s attention. Literary agents can get hundreds of queries a week, so there is immediate value in telling an agent why your book matches something they’re explicitly looking for.
  3. It helps you pitch the book in future by getting you to identify the unique elements of your manuscript. Trust me, it helps to know this stuff when someone asks the dreaded “So, what’s your book about?” question.
  4. The extra research involved will also help you find and connect with agents who are right for your book, your style, and your career.

How do you tailor your query letters?

First thing’s first. Never start a query letter with “Dear Agent” or “To whom it may concern”. This is way too impersonal, and might make an agent think you’ve sent the exact same query to 100 others. Always address the query letter to the agent by name. You want them to know you have thoughtfully sought them out because you believe you would work well together.

Ensure you’ve spelled the agent’s name correctly and you’re addressing them with their correct pronouns. When in doubt, I believe addressing the agent by their full name should suffice.

Depending on how you like to write your query letters, you may have an opening paragraph that gives some information about your manuscript. Otherwise, you will have this paragraph located at the end of the query (but before your biographical details). Irrespective of where it is, let’s discuss its content.

This is the paragraph where I like to individualize my query. Here’s an example (using a made up manuscript) of what my query openings would read like:

Dear Ms. Agent,

Your Manuscript Wishlist says you are interested in power struggles, epic spaceship battles and morally ambiguous characters. My novel, GAME OF THE CAPTAIN’S CHAIR, might be a good fit.”

The content would be tailored to the agent, their ‘wishlist’, and the manuscript I was querying. As it would be my opening, I would dive right into the body of the query after it. Then, in the final paragraph before my biographical details, I add the rest of the book’s info, including genre, category, word count and comp titles. (For great info on using comp titles in queries, see this article by Eric Smith of P.S. Literary.) The closing paragraphs would read something like this:

“Complete at 110,000 words, GAME OF THE CAPTAIN’S CHAIR is an adult science fiction that will appeal to fans of ABC and XYZ. It is a standalone novel with series potential.

My experiences as an ex-spaceship pilot informed its writing. My short fiction has appeared in a bunch of prestigious literary magazines. I currently live and work on Moon Base 5, where I write pilot guides.

As requested, I have included the first ten pages below.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Aspiring Author

(contact details)”

You get the idea. The subject line of the email would follow the guidelines provided by the agent, but I would add (#MSWL) at the end to indicate I’m pitching something that matches what they’re looking for. This makes it easier for the agent to spot my query in their inbox.

If you don’t know what Manuscript Wishlist is, it’s ‘a place for agents and editors to post what they wish they had in their inbox. It exists to help them find specific things they’d like to read, represent and/or acquire.’ (From the site’s About page).

This amazing free-to-use resource allows you to search what agents are looking for using specific keywords or categories, or by browsing through the directory. Agents listings are regularly updated, so you can stay informed of what an agent is hoping to represent right now.

MSWishlist is a searchable aggregate of agents and editors tweets that include the hashtag #MSWL (as well as #querytip, #askagent and #tenqueries). You can also search the #MSWL hashtag directly on Twitter.

I used these resources extensively to research agents and draft my query letters, and got a lot of positive responses in turn.

Do remember that wishlists aren’t exhaustive. If your manuscript doesn’t perfectly fit, don’t think an agent won’t consider it. Provided your manuscript is within their genre, category and guidelines, query it.

If an agent doesn’t have a Manuscript Wishlist, you will still find a wealth of information on their website, social media and any interviews they’ve given.

Publishers Marketplace is another great resource that shows you what books an agent has sold. If your manuscript shares elements with one of those books, this is something you could mention. Here’s an example of how you could word it:

“My novel, GAME OF THE CAPTAIN’S CHAIR, is an adult science fiction set in a galaxy made entirely of cake. You have represented some of my favorite science fiction novels involving food-related settings, including XXXX, and so I think it may interest you.”

Some final notes:

I don’t recommend using MSWL/other research just to say, “I saw on your Wishlist/Twitter/website that you represent thrillers. My book is a thriller.” It’s a given that if you’re querying an agent, you know what they represent and your manuscript is within that category and genre. The point of personalizing the query is to spotlight unique elements of your manuscript that match, or may match, an agent’s interests.

If an agent explicitly states they are not interested in certain subject matter, be considerate and respect their guidelines. Lastly, don’t claim your book has a certain thing an agent wants if it doesn’t. The reality will become clear pretty quickly, so this is a waste of time for all parties involved.

Okay, that’s it! Hopefully this post has been helpful to you. I know tailoring your query letters can seem like a lot of work, but you and your book are worth the effort! Let me know in the comments below what you think, or if you have any questions.

Good luck querying, friends!

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