First, Why Personalize Your Query Letter?
I know it’s tempting, but you absolutely should not send out the same query to a hundred literary agents. Personalizing may take more effort, but by telling an agent why you’re targeting them, you’re showing that you understand the industry, that you take your book seriously, and that you’re probably a good fit for them.
On the other hand, here’s what blasting the same email all over town says about you: You’re lazy, or you’re uninformed, or you don’t even care which agents are right for you. If you don’t seem to take your book seriously, why should they?
When I was a magazine editor, I was floored by the number of article queries I received from writers who had clearly never read our magazine and had no idea what type of stories we published. Guess how much time I spent considering those pitches? About as much time as they spent figuring out whether or not our magazine was the right place for their stories. No time at all.
Now, at least one agent, Janet Reid, the amazing QueryShark (I urge you to read as many of the query letters on her site as you can), doesn’t think writers should have to personalize their queries. She sees it as one more hoop to jump through and doesn’t want to waste writers’ time. I think that’s valiant, and even though I’m not looking for a new agent right now, the writer in me deeply appreciates her consideration. I also know she’s the exception.
The more any offer is customized to fit your needs, the more likely you are to buy into it. Think about how hard marketers work to research their audience, pinpoint their customers’ needs, and tailor their ads to them.
The good news is that you can research literary agents’ names, the books they’ve sold, and sometimes you’ll even find loads of information about their tastes and needs and personalities. If you can find the agents most likely to respond to your book and figure out how your book fits their needs, you’ll maximize your chances of finding The One, and you’ll also make the job of writing a query letter much easier.
If you’re wondering how to find the right agents in the first place, check out Query Agents Like a Pro , my online course on literary agent search strategy. Don’t wait, it’s free for a limited time while it’s in beta.)
HOW TO WRITE YOUR PERSONALIZED QUERY
Describing your entire novel in a one page query letter may feel harder than writing the book itself (it does to me!). Thankfully there’s a standard but effective formula you can follow, spicing it up with your own style.
First, I'll introduce the query letter formula, and then I'll show you exactly how to rock each section.
Section one should do two things. It should demonstrate that you’re a savvy professional pitching this particular literary agent for a reason. (I’ll tell you howto personalize your opening below.) Next, it should quickly introduce your book.
Section two should tell the agent about the story and leave them wanting more.
Optionally, you can compare your novel to other similar books. (More on how to find those books below.)
Section three of your query should introduce you and your background. (Don’t worry if you’ve never published anything before. There are plenty of other things to say.)
Section 1: Your query’s opening
In the dream scenario, you’d be able to open your query letter by reminding the agent that they requested your manuscript at a conference or by having a direct referral from a mutual friend or client. Most of the time, you won’t have that luxury.
This is still the place to show an agent that you know who they are, that you targeted them for a reason, and that you’re not blindly sending this same query to a thousand agents you found on QueryTracker, most of whom are not a fit.
For example, you could say:
“I’m a big fan of such and such author’s work (name a specific one of their clients).” Don’t vaguely say, “I’m a fan of the books you represent.” Hello, cut-and-paste job! That makes you look lazy and insincere. In fact, fake personalization can be worse than a generic pitch because it seems manipulative.
"My novel is a darkly funny coming-of-age story [describe a specific tone or style or sub-genre your book has in common with this literary agent’s taste], much like such and such books [give specific examples of books they represent]."
The goal here is not to kiss up or stroke the agent’s ego. It’s to show that you know who they are and what they like and that you have a reason for querying them specifically.
You can find and steal more personalized query letter openings in my free course, Query Agents Like a Pro.
Next, quickly introduce your novel with title, word count, and genre.
This can be extremely simple. For example, “I’m hoping you will consider my 83,000-word historical novel, [Insert Your Title Here].”
Section 2: The Story
This is the really hard part. You’ll want to summarize your book in one or maybe two paragraphs. This means leaving out A LOT! You need to be specific enough that they understand who and what the book is about, but the goal is not to give them a CliffsNotes rundown of the entire plot. It’s to get them to read more.
In other words, the job of a query letter is to paint your book into a pretty little box that they can instantly understand BUT at the same time make it seem special and like nothing else they’ve read before.
If that sounds challenging, start by filling in these blanks:
MAIN CHARACTER, a ______________, desperately wants to _____________, but _____________ is getting in the way. To reach his/her goal, character tries _____________ but that plan fails because of _____________.
Once you have the bird’s eye view of your story, add in some specific details about the characters, their location, and the lurking danger. Avoid being generic. Help them see how your character’s situation is unique.
Don’t give away the ending! Remember, you want them itching to find out what happens.
You might include a comparable title, or book that’s like yours. If you do, make sure it’s a very close comparison in tone and structure. And be realistic! Unless it is absolutely the best comp out there, saying your book is just like a massive bestseller can make you look delusional and could imply that you don’t read very widely.
You’re trying to build a long-term business relationship, not hype. Hype might work on consumers who are only risking fifteen bucks and a few hours on your book. Literary agents live and breathe their authors’ books for years, so they will not make this decision on a whim or an overblown promise. It’s like the difference between meeting for coffee and getting married.
That said, you can really help agents pinpoint your book’s style and pique their interest with a fitting comp. To find similar books, spend some time on these two sites:
Goodreads has zillions of very narrow categories to help you find your niche.
Section 3: Your Bio
If you have any writing credentials, this is the place to mention them. Definitely include your publications or awards or your MFA. If you’ve been selected for a prestigious conference or residency, include that.
Some other things you could include:
Although fiction is much less reliant on platform than non-fiction, it’s definitely worth mentioning that you have a popular blog or big email list or any other significant following – especially if it’s related to your book’s subject.
If you’ve been successful in another creative career, that can help. For example, I have a client who was a Hollywood actor for many years, and although he’s not a household name, it demonstrates his dedication to storytelling and his willingness to put in the hard work. Plus, it’s interesting and memorable.
This is also a great place to include any background that is relevant to the story. If your main character is a plumber or a dentist or a kindergarten teacher and you spent five years in that job, say it here. Likewise, if your book is set somewhere unique and you live in that place, don’t forget to mention it.
If you don’t have any of the above, don’t worry about it, and definitely don’t try to puff yourself up. You’ll only look insecure. Just give them a sentence or two that helps them get to know you as a human being.
Section 4: The Closing
End with a short, polite closing. Something as basic as, “Thank you for your time and consideration” is perfectly professional. If their submission instructions ask for additional materials like the synopsis or opening chapters, mention those attachments here.
In the end
I know it’s daunting, but your book is worth it! I can’t make this process fun, but in my online mini-course, I’ll walk you through it step-by-step so it’s infinitely more straightforward and effective.
ENROLL NOW while it’s in beta mode and FREE!
What do you think? Are you going to personalize your queries? Do you feel ready? Let me know your thoughts and concerns in the comments.