More on the importance of a brilliant query letter

I’ve written about this a few times before, and the more I read about query letters, the more I see that spending time making your query perfect is as important as time spent making your manuscript perfect.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford had a post this week about working with new agents and in it, a link to a speech by best-selling author Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, etc.) about how he got his agent. Have a read. It’s a fun piece. But here’s the part I want to point out:

A typical agent in New York gets 400 query letters a month. Of those, they might ask to read 3-4 manuscripts, and of those, they might ask to represent 1 The odds are tough, but not impossible, and that’s why I believe that a good query letter is the single most important page that any unknown, unpublished author will ever write.

I worked hard on mine; 17 drafts over two weeks and I did my best to make sure every word counted.

Nicholas Sparks’ success is unquestionable, and his road to publication began when he spent two weeks writing and revising his query letter. (Note that, if you read more of his speech, he got nos from all the agents he sent to except a new agent who had been passed his query from someone else in that agency. So, even after two weeks of work, the odds were still tight.)

To show how competitive this is, check out literary agent Jennifer Jackson’s blog every Friday when she posts Letters From the Query Wars. At the top, she lists the number of queries she read this week, the number of partials/manuscripts she requested and their genre. This past week, she read 158 queries and requested 0, none, nada.

There are a number of possible reasons for this, including a query letter could be brilliant but not her cup of tea. But all 158 of them? I doubt it. Those query letters really need to shine.

I’ve also written before about being picky when it comes to getting an agent. New writers often feel so grateful for any attention that they’ll sign on the dotted line for anyone with a pulse and an interest. But this is our career that we’re setting up, and an agent is someone we’ll work with for a long long time. So, it’s ok to be choosy and make sure it’s a good match. (This is why it’s important to research the agents you send to before you send out your queries.) Check out this post from literary agent Rachelle Gardner about the best way to fire an agent — a situation you don’t want to be in. The post is very interesting and offers great advice. But here’s something I thought was good in one of the comments:

I made a mistake and signed with the first agent who’d take me on. If my experience can teach just one lesson, let it be this: the author-agent relationship is like a marriage. Be just as careful in getting into one as the other.

This author ended up terminating the relationship with her first agent and thankfully signed with another agent more suited later. Congrats. But if you can avoid it, do. Research research research, write, revise, revise.

Make your query count. Your manuscript and your career will thank you.

Write On!

2 Responses

  1. It’s difficult isn’t it? Your first chance could be the only one. An agent has requested my full manuscript and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the outcome. As it happens, i would really like her to take me on as she’s very enthusiastic about my work. I won’t necessarily have a choice from my initial batch of submissions because I’ve done the honourable thing and let the others know someone is reading the novel. If she turns me down, they may not want to take a risk with it.
    I know if one agent loves your work then others probably will, but it’s all so subjective and their are so few “vacancies” for new authors now.

  2. oops I mean there!

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