05 December 2018

How to query a literary agent

Catherine Cho, literary agent
by Catherine Cho From the Agents, How To ..., Writing Tips

Catherine Cho is an Associate Agent at Curtis Brown. She is actively building a list of reading group fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, as well as narrative non-fiction and pop science – and she’s just launched the blog litseeker, to help writers get a better understanding of the publishing world and literary agents. Here are her top tips on how to send a query to a literary agent:

The querying process is a lot like dating. Everyone, and I mean everyone, gets rejected. Writing is a tough business. As an agent, it’s difficult to be on the other side, but remember that an agent’s job is not to publish your book. An agent is looking to build a list of writers to champion.

Finding an agent is a matter of fit. It takes persistence and confidence, remember that publishing is a subjective business, and so what might be a NO for some agents is a YES for others.

To be perfectly honest (beyond the subjectivity) the main reason that most manuscripts are rejected is because they aren’t good enough, they don’t have a compelling storyline or the writing isn’t quite up to par. Focus on your craft, if the story is good, you will find a readership. And of course, there is always the option of self-publishing, which many writers have found success with.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of querying, here are the elements:

1. Finish your manuscript – it should be as perfect as possible. (If you can, after writing your manuscript, put it away for several months, come back to it and read it again. Edit. Give the manuscript to a trusted, objective friend or group of friends. Proofread the manuscript.)

2. Write a killer cover letter. Tailor your cover letter for the agent you’re submitting to. The perfect cover letter is succinct and includes a logline and summary of your novel. (So a one or two sentence description and a one paragraph summary). The cover letter is a sales pitch, it’s meant to whet the agent’s appetite and to prepare them for what the novel is about. You can write about previous writing accolades, but it’s not a place to go into biographical detail, unless it’s relevant to the book.

3. Write a synopsis. A well-written synopsis is a work of art. And yes, agents do read the synopsis, some agents (including me) will read the synopsis before the submission. Test your synopsis with a reader who has no idea what your book is about. Do they understand it? Is it easy to read? Does it sound compelling? Whether or not you choose to reveal the ending is your choice, but I wouldn’t. If you can hint towards a climactic ending, then do leave an element of suspense.

4. Query agents who represent the type of work you write. This might seem like an obvious one, if you were looking to date, you would approach people you’re compatible with. Most agents will have a “type”, they have certain genres of books they lean towards, you will be able to tell their tastes from the blurb on the website or from the books they represent. There is no point in submitting to an agent who will not be a good fit for your material. It’s also considered bad form to submit to multiple agents within one agency, so choose wisely.

Check out more of Catherine’s invaluable advice to new writers on litseeker.

We also run three short online courses at budget-price designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel 

Or, take a look at our full range of creative writing courses here.

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