Agent Miriam Goderich on Queries

Recently, I received an e-mailed query letter that began “Dear: Miriam Golderich.”  And, believe it or not, the odd punctuation and misspelling of my name were the least of this author’s problems.   Seldom are query letters as inept as this, but this one did serve to remind me of how important the querying process is.  In fact, it’s often the difference between getting your foot in the door and having the door slammed in your face. 

That said, like unicorns and a haircut you’re happy with, there is no such thing as the perfect query letter.  Basically, a good one will make us want to sign a project on before we’ve even seen the manuscript or proposal.  A bad one will hit the recycling bin faster than we can get the envelope opened.  The middle-of-the-road ones will depend solely on the alignment of the stars or the mood of the harried intern or agent reading it.    While there are no hard and fast rules about writing the perfect query, here are some general tips you might find helpful:

Do:

  • Check spelling and punctuation.  Your work shouldn’t be rejected because you couldn’t double check to make sure the agent you’re writing to is actually at the agency you’ve addressed your query to or you didn’t spell his or her name correctly.  As a rule, publishing people are more nitpicky than most about typos and other crimes against the written word.
  • Tell us in a concise, succinct way, what the book you’re pitching is.   This does not mean summarizing the entire novel using  an 8 pt. font and 1/4” margins.  A well thought out couple of sentences that gives us the gist of the book is what we’re looking for.  Those sentences should pique our curiosity and make us want to read more.  That’s all. 
  • Tell us about you.  Give us relevant information that will make us want to know more about you as well as your work.  Not everyone has attended the Iowa Writers Workshop or had a piece published in The New Yorker, but most people have done one or two interesting things in their lives that may have informed their writing in some way .   If you’ve done nothing but sit on a couch for 30 years, you can at least tell us about it with humor and wit. 
  • Offer some context for your work.  What category would you say it falls in?—knowing your audience is key, both at this stage and when you’re promoting your published book.  What other writers’ works would you compare yours to?  Be careful here.  Nothing is more of a turnoff than unwarranted grandiosity.  Instead of “My novel is the next War and Peace,” try  “Fans of Grisham and Baldacci might like _____.”
  • Research the agents and agencies you’re querying.  Most agents have web sites or are active on social media and you can get a pretty good sense of what they represent and what they like to read.  Don’t send a sci-fi query to an agent who only represents literary fiction or vice versa.
  • Did I mention, proofread your work?

 

Don’t:

  • Oversell yourself.  Cockiness is generally not attractive until you’ve achieved Jonathan Franzen success levels.
  • Be overly diffident either.  Pitch your work like you not only wrote it, but would like to read it.
  • Be sloppy.  A clean, well crafted letter is half the battle.
  • Be gimmicky.  Trust your work and refrain from trying to jazz things up with weird fonts or special effects.
  • Give up.  Keep working on polishing that query letter and keep sending it out.  Publishing is not for the faint of heart and perseverance really does pay off (if not with this manuscript, maybe the next).

 

HeadshotMiriam Goderich and Jane Dystel have been partners since 1995 and they work closely as an agenting team to generate book ideas, help create book proposals, place projects with publishing companies, and negotiate all contracts pertaining to publishing and subsidiary rights. In addition, Miriam is an insightful editor who has been responsible for discovering and working on a number of first novels. She is also very involved in developing nonfiction projects and taking them from the conceptual stage to publication. Miriam’s areas of interest include: literary and commercial fiction as well as some genre fiction, narrative nonfiction, pop culture, psychology, history, science, art, health and medicine, and biography/memoir. Miriam received a BA in Comparative Literature and an MA in English from Columbia University.

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