I've spent hours working on a query letter, but I've never gotten more than a form letter in response. What am I doing wrong?
Let’s reframe this question: Out of the hundred or so queries the agency receives each week, we request material from only one or two authors. What are those authors doing right?
They are thinking like job applicants. Once you understand that the process of finding an agent and applying for a job are similar, you’ll understand what you’ve been doing wrong.
Successful letters often stand out from others by leading with a referral. This is the quickest way to get an agent’s attention. Assistants are trained to pull out all letters that say, “Joe Smith, your former colleague at Morrow, suggested I write you….” If you have publishing contacts, no matter how distant, ask to use the contact’s name.
Successful query-letter–writers have done their research. They understand in which section of the bookstore their book belongs, and they’ve learned what projects the agent they are soliciting represents. Their letters don’t look like direct-mail solicitations.
Rather than leading with the plot, these letter-writers lay out the case for their book in a crisp, tidy four-paragraph format that begins:
- Here is a (describe type of book).
- It’s the story of (give only a three-sentence summation).
- Here’s how the book came to be written and what people think of it.
- Here are my credentials.
And the final plus is also the most obvious. An author with writing credentials – whether in short stories, daily newspapers, university press or other published books – is always taken more seriously.
WHAT ARE AGENTS LOOKING FOR? I've gone past the form-reject stage, but agents continue to tell me: "I just don't love this enough." What does that mean? I know I've written a good book.
It might be a polite brush-off, but if you’re receiving personal letters from an agent, she’s being more than polite. She may have an abundance of clients and your book isn’t something she “gets” or responds to, or perhaps she doesn’t think your project will sell for enough money to warrant her investment of time and effort.
Here’s what’s going through an agent’s mind (like mine) when we take on an author’s work:
- Our fingers tingle with excitement, and we marvel: “This is so much stronger than anything I’ve read in the last six months.”
- We can visualize this on the bookstore shelf. We know precisely how to describe it to editors.
- We can think of six editors we know are eager to publish good books like this.
- This book will take us someplace new and exciting; we’re going to learn something here.
- Hmmm, we might be able to sell this for significant money.
- Hmmm, this could be a bestseller.
- Hmmmm, maybe not, but we think that booksellers will keep it on the shelves for a decade.
- This could be our Pulitzer Prize winner.
I've gone through three guides to literary agents and selected six names. How can I tell if the agents are legitimate?
One good indicator is if an agent belongs to the AAR (the Association of Authors’ Representatives). Agents admitted to the association are bound to specific ethical guidelines, and agents have been expelled for breaking the guidelines.
However, there are plenty of excellent agents who don’t belong to the AAR. You’ll want to make sure they’re experienced and they’ve made sales to mainstream publishing houses. Publishersmarketplace.com is an excellent source of information. You can type in an agent’s name and her recent deals will come up.
You can also look at the acknowledgements pages in books you admire to see which agents are thanked. You’ll also be relieved to know that the editors of such directories as Literary MarketPlace, Writers Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents are diligent about including only reputable agents.
An agent wants to represent me. What questions should I be asking?
Congratulations. Now ask her if she’s got some time to talk, and listen to her answers to the following questions to see if you two would work comfortably together..
- Is this manuscript ready to be submitted to editors?
- How much work does my book need? Will the agent write you a letter or set aside some time to talk through any needed changes?
- Which publishers does she envision submitting the manuscript to?
- Has she ever worked on a book like this?
- Does she see this going to auction or would she submit to each publisher one at a time?
- Which publishers has she done business with?
- Does the agent want you to sign an agency agreement? If so, what are its general terms? Are you tied to the agent for a specific number of months? Years? Can the agreement be readily broken?
My agent says she wants me to transform my 600-page manuscript about the French Revolution into a 100-page proposal. Why?
In addition to an introduction to your book and at least two sample chapters of it, a nonfiction book proposal generally includes a three- or four-page overview, an analysis of the competition, your CV or bio and a table of contents to the proposal, as well as a roundup of pertinent publicity and marketing opportunities. That’s the information an editor needs in hand in order to present your book at the meeting of her editorial board. The publisher, the publicist, the marketing director and possibly the sales director – along with several other editors – will be at that meeting. The acquiring editor will circulate your proposal packet to those colleagues, so your energy needs to be focused on ensuring that your proposal answers all the specific questions these colleagues may pose. Yes, your editor will read your complete manuscript; but for the editorial board meeting, her mind is in an acquisitions mode – not an editorial mode – and that’s the information maw you need to help her feed.
Memoirs offer an exception to this general preference for nonfiction proposals over nonfiction manuscripts. If you’re an “unknown” author submitting a memoir, your agent (and the editor) will likely want to see your entire manuscript before taking it on. Your agent will undoubtedly ask that the introduction to your memoir serves double duty as both an overview of the book and as your author bio.
I'm thinking of leaving my old agent. What can you do for me that my other agent wasn't able to?
Your old agent may be doing quite well by you – and in that case we’ll advise you to stay where you are. Sometimes an author’s web cruising for a new agent is just a flirtation and isn’t “meant” to result in a change. In other instances, you – and your old agent – may be looking to make a fresh start. We would start by having a long conversation with you in which we ask about your film representation, your foreign publication history and your goals for the future. We’ll talk about your current publisher and your sales figures and whether it’s time for you to adopt a pseudonym or perhaps to write a different type of book. If you’re a nonfiction author, we’ll talk about your possible need for a publicist or a speaker’s bureau. We’ll lay out a written game plan for you, and then we’ll both decide whether this is a good move for you.
Can I submit to multiple agents at Liza Dawson Associates?
Please submit to only one agent at a time. If one agent passes, you are welcome to submit to someone else.
Do you offer internships?
Yes, we have internships in the fall, spring, and summer. For more information, please click here. We do not offer remote internships.