by Annette Lyon
This last weekend I attended a writing conference, where literary agent Christina Hogrebe of the Jane Rotrosen Agency spoke.
Among other things, she addressed the dreaded query letter and what she personally likes to see in one.
When she reads queries, she's not expecting the first line to be a catchy hook that draws her into what the book is about. In fact, when she described her ideal query, the description of the book was nowhere near the first couple of paragraphs. In her workshop, she read several queries that worked, meaning that the authors later became her clients.
Not one of those letters had a catchy hook in the first line.
What did they have? Here's what Ms. Hogrebe herself said, according to my notes, about what she likes to see in a query:
1) Show that you've done your research.
Right off the bat, explain how you found this agent and why you think this agency is right for you.
First and foremost, this means not using the same query letter for each agency you're trying to woo. Yes, that means extra work on your part (you'll have to research the agency and find out what they've sold), but agents appreciate the effort and like knowing that they aren't one of eighteen people cc:ed on your query e-mail.
Mention it if you met the agent at a conference, were referred by another client, found them on a website, or found their name elsewhere.
Also explain why you and the agency are a match. "I know you represent author XYZ, whose work is in the same genre and style as mine, so I believe we'd be a good fit," can get your foot in the door. Note that you don't say it's just like XYZ's work or (worse) that yours is better.
2) If you've had another agent before, say so.
Also explain why the relationship ended.
3) Explain your publishing history, if you have one.
No, published letters to the editor of your local paper don't count. Mention any "real" publishing credits (by that she meant something published with a press where there is a selection/rejection process for quality). This will not only lift you in the agent's estimation, but it will also help when trying to sell your work to editors (and then to their marketing departments) down the road.
4) Write a brief (one paragraph) blurb about your book.
Make sure it's, in her words, "great copy," and mentions any selling points. In other words, what will make your book sell?
5) Share your knowledge of the market.
Do this not by saying you're the next Tom Clancy, but by making a gentler comparison: "Fans of Tom Clancy will appreciate this book."
One solid reminder: Writers slave over their manuscripts, then often dash off a quick letter to sell the thing they've invested so much into. Don't make that mistake. Write a solid letter. Have others read it. Proof it (several times). And then send it in.
Have heart: while it's tough to break out of the query slush pile, it does happen. When Hogrebe read several of her clients' queries, she dispelled the myth that no one gets an agent that way.
The competition is stiff, but climbing out of that slush pile can be done. Stand out from the crowd by including those things agents really want to see.