Query Letter Secrets

I once made a comment on Books and Writers about the chances of actually being published given the amount of talent out there.

One of the mods responded, “What you see here is not what normally crosses an agent’s desk. Most of the people here are very dedicated, talented writers.”

I had to take her word for it because it was depressing to think of having to go up against thousands of others like the ones at B&W and the Super Secret other place. There were very few entrants in the workshop I wouldn’t have eagerly picked up in a bookstore.

I read regularly about how disillusioned people are with the query letter system because agents seem to reject everything. At times you have to wonder how high the bar is when you read something like Jennifer Jackson’s stats. She read 182 queries and asked for pages from one.

It has to be the agent, doesn’t it? I mean surely she breathes fire and shoots lightning bolts from her eyes.

And you thought Evil Editor was bad! Evil and his minions, by the way, will dissect your query letters or openings. It’s a fun place to hang out and learn by participating in the exercises.

There are also a lot of other agents commenting about the increased number of queries and yet the acceptance rate isn‘t going up. What’s the deal? Even Nathan Bransford commented on the increase in submissions. How long until he changes his trademark, When in doubt, query me to, When in doubt, don’t?

On the plus side, many queries don’t take long to read when they are only five lines long. A short stroll through Nathan’s FAQ shows his suggestions for query length and I’m guessing those won’t be far off with most agents.

Rachelle Gardner wonders why she is so popular.

Janet Reid even remarked about odd query lengths.

Colleen Lindsay was going through queries, trying to get the number to an acceptable level. I admit she was making me nervous. I asked her how many queries she gets a week.


Good grief. I have no chance whatsoever. I might as well forget this mess and start writing greeting card verses.

Then she posted the live feed of queries just as they came out of the box.

This is your competition. The best way to move ahead of them is to be better. Fortunately, simply following directions seems to be a giant step in the right direction.

Not sure I am the one to be giving query advice given my conniptions about them here and here. It’s bad when I even start dreaming about how to get an agent. So, not really sure you want to be taking my advice, but here it is anyway.

Simple guidelines:

1. Do some research. If they don’t represent picture books, don’t send them your DINOSAUR ABC ALLOSAURUS, BRONTOSAURUS AND COMPSOGNATHUS GO ON A PICNIC book.

Find out what they prefer, what they have sold and what they are looking for. Some, like Nathan Bransford, will tell you to query if you aren’t sure. Most are not that gracious. They know where their zone is and, honestly, you want someone familiar with your genre. Once in a while, you find someone who is willing to step out of their comfort zone and it’s a happily ever after story. Once in a while.

2. Follow directions.

3. Address letter to agent you are querying. Remember, there can be only one. There might be a dozen on your top ten list, always good to keep a few substitutes on hand, but pretend like you only have eyes for Dream Agent, not To Whom It May Concern.

4. Follow directions.

5. They don’t like to be called Sweetie, Darling or Nate Dawg, especially if their name is Matthew. A simple, businesslike salutation will suffice.

6. Follow directions.

7. Don’t quote rejection letters. You just convinced them they are the only one, remember?

8. Follow directions.

9. Don’t tell them how much your talking horse liked the book. They’ll just try to sign your talking horse, then you’ll be without a horse or an agent.

10. Follow directions.

11. Keep it in the sweet zone. Refer back to Nathan Bransford’s FAQ list about that; 250-350 words is good.

12. Follow directions.

13. Include the first 2-5 pages unless they say absolutely not to. Reel them in while they can still smell the bait.

14. Follow directions.

15. Pitch one story and one story only, but do pitch it. This is a query letter. It’s your one shot to sell your story in 300 or so words.

16. Follow directions.

17. Include contact information.

18. Remember, you are not a special little snowflake…follow directions.


  1. But my Mom keeps on telling me what a special little snowflake I am…!!!!

    Perticularly loved steps 2, 4 ,6 ,8 ,10 ,12,14,16 and not forgetting step 18!!! :):)

    Seriously though I’m stopping worrying about whether my query letter is perfect or not. I’m following agent directions and just leaping into the abyss called queryland in the hopes that I survive! 🙂

  2. Ann, after watching Colleen post those queries just as they came out of the box, I am convinced just following guidelines is a big step.

    I think we should try to make our queries as good as possible, but it’s also fruitless to go insane about them.

    If all else fails, get friends to critique them, post them to Query Shark or Evil Editor and move on.

  3. Shoot, Ann stole my line about my special snowflakeness… 🙂

    Thanks for the kick in the seat of the pants about querying. The one rule I consistently violate — implicit behind all 18 explicit rules here — is, simply, “Query.” Knowing all the protocols etc. doesn’t mean squat if I’m not actually, actively putting the knowledge to work.

    Well, we all have our wakeup calls. Thanks for this one. But I don’t suppose I could pay you to do the querying for me?!?

  4. Alas, no — it means the *previous* WIP is languishing for lack of querying. If I don’t get back on that moving walkway soon I’m going to forget what the book was about and be unable to answer questions about it. 🙂

  5. Good advice, Julie – and it doesn’t hurt to be a cowgirl that ditches Janet’s classes!

    Congratulations on the full request!!!! I am crossing fingers and toes in hopefull preparation of happy dances to come. (I just visualized that and it’s not as pretty now… eh, hmmm… I’m rooting for you would be a better translation)

    Off to check what came up on Colleen’s link. Haven’t seen that one yet.

  6. Good advice, Julie – and it doesn’t hurt to be a cowgirl that ditches Janet’s classes!

    Congratulations on the full request!!!! I am crossing fingers and toes in hopefull preparation of happy dances to come. (I just visualized that and it’s not as pretty now… eh, hmmm… I’m rooting for you would be a better translation)–

    I was rather floored she asked for a full. I was expecting 25, perhaps 50 page request. A full? No, never expected that.

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