Now, my e-mail system displays only the first 10 or so words of any subject line. When I see e-mails with subject lines rambling into oblivion, they also get dumped into my Queries folder without being immediately opened.
The key is to give the agent a reason to open the e-mail immediately. If you’ve been published before, even in a minor capacity, it never hurts to use the words published author in your subject line, such as “Published Author Seeking Representation for Newest Thriller Novel.” This would get my attention. One of my current clients used this type of subject line when she first queried me. I immediately opened it and was pleasantly surprised to see that she had been previously published by a major publishing company and was looking to change agents. If she had simply written “Query” in the subject line, I may not have read the e-mail in time.
If you’ve never been published, there are still ways to catch an agent’s attention in the subject line. Perhaps because I also work in the film industry, the classic “this meets that” often gets my attention. In other words, in a time when moody vampires and superheroes are all the rage, a query letter with the subject line “Query for new novel — Twilight meets Spider-Man” would certainly get my attention.
Now that you’ve got your subject line in order, next comes the body of the e-mail. Like the subject line, there’s a fine line between too little and too much. I have literally received queries that say, “Please click the below link and let me know if my book is of interest.” Putting aside the risk of computer viruses, there is no way I am going to click on a link to see if I like a book. You’re adding an extra step to a process that is already a long shot. Similarly, I don’t need to know your entire history. While I’m sure you went to a great college and that you really love your dog, unless it directly relates to your book, I’m not interested.
It never hurts to show the agent that you’ve done your research. Flattery never hurts, though you don’t want to go crazy with it (I’ve had a few stalker-level queries). Mentioning other books that the agent has sold is a good idea, and so is comparing your book to one (or more) of the ones he or she has previously placed at a publishing company.
Once you’ve subtly ingratiated yourself with the agent, jump right into your short one-paragraph description of the novel. It should read like a film preview. Set up the key characters, highlight the conflict and leave them wanting more.
Your last paragraph should be your bio and should highlight any and all writing experience, as well as any experience that relates to your topic. If you wrote a thriller and you’re a former CIA operative, you should probably mention that fact.
And that’s your query letter; it should be no more than three paragraphs long. Get in, get the agent’s attention and get out.
STEP 3: MODERATION & COMMUNICATION
Once an agent requests your book, there’s not much you can do other than wait. Step 3 is a simple one, but it’s one that I’ve discovered authors have a hard time following. You can literally “just want to check in” your way to a rejection from an agent. In other words, once an agent has requested your novel and you’ve sent it, don’t check in every day. Or even every week. Once a month is generally regarded as appropriate. And do not title your e-mail something to the effect of “Well … ?!” I have passed on novels unread when authors pester me too much during my review process. Like most of the people reading this article, I am extremely busy — but I try to read submissions as quickly as possible. Trust me, I want to like each and every book that I read. When you check in, do so in a nonpressuring way. It’s OK to be curious, but don’t be overly aggressive.
If you get an offer of representation, it’s key to let all the other agents still reading your work know that you have an offer. This is important for two reasons: (1) It’s polite, and (2) you may end up with your pick of the proverbial litter.
Many people write novels, and most of them query literary agents. It’s not easy to get one. But if you follow these three simple steps, you’ll have a much better chance of landing an agent than the people who send links and rambling subject lines.
Good luck and keep writing. I’ll be looking for your query.
Brendan Deneen has worked as an executive for Scott Rudin Productions and Miramax/Dimension Films and as a literary agent for FinePrint Literary Management.