How to Personalize a Query in 10 Minutes

Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted here. But I've been giving a lot of the same writing advice lately, and I recently compiled it in a twitter thread. I'm reprinting it here for later access.

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 of personalization.

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 returns.

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 door.

(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.

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