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How Writing Query Letters Is like Dating

book editor Stacey Donovanby Stacey Donovan

It is not as if you and your literary agent are star-crossed lovers, it is that you both seek a similar outcome: the sale of your manuscript, your growth as a writer, a meaningful relationship. Depending on circumstances, any of these scenarios may precede the other.

In the occasional event of a self-published book being “picked up” (a familiar phrase in both publishing and dating) by a traditional publishing house, I have often heard unpublished writers snarl that “all the hard work” on the agent’s part is already done (especially if the author and agent have only recently chosen to work together, which is likely in this instance). If you agree with this assessment then you may be the type to forego dinner and hop directly into bed (all is fair in love and publishing).

It is true that an agent’s relationship with various editors and familiarity with publishers’ perspectives, their current and developing lists, in addition to a deep knowledge of market trends, is crucial to making sales. It is also true that an agent’s expertise includes the negotiation of contracts. Even the most robust authors dare not navigate the mountainous challenges of this terrain alone (sometimes those without literary agency representation work with entertainment lawyers instead).

Because of these realities it is not only irrational to think that all the hard work is done upon the sale of your manuscript, it is also obvious that you need the agent much more than he or she needs you, which takes us back to the query letter. Remember that it is your only dance card (and an empty one at that) with which you must interest (or seduce) your potential agent into reading your pages. Prior to writing your query, you would benefit by asking yourself the following questions. If you cannot answer any of these with confidence, it would be wise to research more keenly before deciding exactly what to say.

What do you have in common with the agent? Think genre rather than fondness for walks on the beach. Do you share a similar sensibility and taste in books? Are you familiar with the agent’s latest sales as well as backlist (from which to observe patterns or significant shifts in areas of interest)? For many new authors it is probable that the agent has more of a platform than theirs. Have you researched him or her thoroughly via social media in addition to perusing the agency website to learn what categories or subjects are currently of interest?

Note that I have emphasized the word currently. Are you more up-to-date than the agency is concerning the kind of manuscript it would welcome? I ask the question purposefully because a literary agency’s website may be six months to a year behind in reporting agents’ recent sales and/or published titles. This means it would be savvy on your part to explore social media more extensively than you otherwise might: Have you read your dream agent’s blog? Followed him or her on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook? Scoured the Internet for any articles by or about your target agents? Investigated which industry conferences they participate in, how their bios are cast, and in what areas they are considered experts?

If you think it would only be a waste of your time to delve into any or all of the above because your book is the one in the haystack that every agent on earth would scramble to represent, ask yourself this before sending out your unconsidered query: When was the last time you heard of the perfect match beginning with a blind date?

 

 Next: The Do’s and Do Not Resuscitates of Writing a Query Letter

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