Every so often, I’ll meet a querying writer who’s burnt out
because she’s taking hours to personalize her query letters. When I queried for
Midnight Thief, I spent a long time perfecting the query itself, but I only
spent about 10 minutes personalizing per agent. That’s really all you need do.
Indeed, I’d argue it’s all you SHOULD do.
Remember that even the most successful writers get tons of rejections.
Every query letter (individually) will have a very small chance bringing in an
offer of representation. Don’t sink hours into each one. That’s a how writers
end up jaded and bitter.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should shotgun the
same letter to every agent in Writer’s Marketplace. Researching agents and
personalizing your queries will give you a big leg up as far as getting
requests. The trick is to do the right amount of research, and the right amount
What’s the right amount? You need to answer two questions.
1) Does the agent represent your genre? 2) Does the agent have a good sales
record in your genre.
The definition of “good “ will vary for every writer, and
there are resources that discuss the pros and cons of an established agent vs.
a young, hungry one. But the point is that you need to know if the agent can
sell what you write. The Publisher’s Marketplace genre-specific dealmaker lists
are a helpful resource, as well as looking up the agents of authors you admire,
or talking with other writers.
And that’s all you need to know. You don’t need to know the
name of the agent’s favorite author as a child, or the names and ages of their
pets. You don’t need to scroll through their entire social media feed to extract
a profile of their working style, or go through their list to see if their
recent YA fantasy sales match up in tone and flavor with your own YA Fantasy.
That kind of rabbit hole can eat up hours of your time.
Also, you’re unlikely to get much useful information from social media profiles
and web pages. If you’re offered representation, you’ll learn much more by
talking to the agent’s existing clients than you ever will from a twitter feed.
(Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask to be put in touch
with existing clients when you’re offered representation. The agents don’t
always oblige, but it’s perfectly fine to ask.)
Also, the only way to truly know if the agent connects with
your writing is to send it over to them. When I was querying my current agent
Jim McCarthy, I didn’t he’d be interested in high fantasy because all the
recent sales I saw were paranomal. Good thing I sent a query anyways.
So, how exactly do you do a ten minute query
personalization? You need several things: your generic query, a few useful
informational sites, and a blank word document. Back when I was querying, I
relied heavily on Publisher’s Marketplace and the blog Literary Rambles, but
that was ten years ago. I’m not sure what the kids are using these days.
Your generic query will be your entire query except for the
opening paragraph that’s tailored to each agent. That includes your pitch, your
bio, and your signoff.
Now, we’ll write a separate greeting and intro sentence for
each agent. First, pick an agent from
your list. Write the saluation: “Dear. Mr./Ms. [Agent name]”
Easy enough. Now look through the informational pages that
you’ve conveniently opened in a tab on your browser, and find ONE connection
between the agent and your book.
Maybe they recently sold a book in your genre. Maybe they
said in an interview that they admire a book similar to yours. Maybe they are
requesting your genre on their webpage.
It doesn’t have to be
the best connection ever. In fact, it shouldn’t be, because that would take way
more time than it’s worth. All you’re trying to demonstrate here is that you’ve
done your research. Personalizing beyond this point has vastly diminishing
The best query in the world won’t get you representation.
Only your manuscript can do that. Queriesonly functions to get your foot in the
(One exception: if you’ve met the agent in person, then it
definitely makes sense to jog their memory about your meeting.)
So for my successful query to Jim, I said: “Dear Mr.
McCarthy, I noticed on your Publishers Marketplace page that you represent
quite a few young adult books with magical elements.”
And left it at that. I couldn’t even say high fantasy
because I didn’t see any recent high fantasy sales from him. But my
personalization was enough to show him that I’d put in the effort to research.
For more commentary from Jim, as well as my full query, see
this blog post.
So you have your personalized salutation and you have your
one sentence reason for querying. Now move on to the next agent in your list,
rinse and repeat. Once you have done this for all the agents in your querying round,
then go through and send all your letters, copying in the personalized intro
followed by the generic query.
And then you’re done. You’ve spent one to two hours personalizing
queries and another hour or so sending them. Now, go write your next book while
you wait. You are a writer, after all.