You’ve finished your manuscript.
It’s been edited by a critique partner.
You’ve assembled a pitch.
The next step is securing literary representation to pitch your project to prospective publishers. At P.S. Literary we receive approximately 2,000 emails a month from aspiring authors—so how does a writer get from the slush pile (what agents call those unsolicited emails) to our client roster?
Believe it or not, it’s a series of reasonable steps that separate the rejections from the requests:
1. Follow A Simple Template
A three-paragraph structure (1: title, word count, genre, hook; 2: an overview of the plot told in a sales-oriented way like back cover copy; 3: a short author bio focusing on platform) is all you need. But don’t label or number those paragraphs. Instead, try to make it flow like a cover letter for a job. Most importantly, remember the goal of a query letter is to get an agent to request more material, not to tell us your life story or the entire backstory of your project. Leave us wanting more, not with glazed eyes from an over-sharing monologue. If it’s too long I’ve probably stopped reading 25% of the way through. Some agents ask for the title, word count, and genre at the bottom of a query letter, but in my opinion essential information should absolutely be at the top in case the agent doesn’t make it to the end.
2. Lead With The Book Not Yourself
The only exceptions to this rule is if you are a previously published author with significant credentials or you are writing non-fiction and I need to know your platform in order to understand the concept. Otherwise, focus on the book!—and then tell me about yourself at the end. I sell books based on terrific concepts and excellent writing. Yes, the author matters, but it doesn’t matter how lovely you are if the premise and craft isn’t there. Also, many debut authors who pitch me in the slush pile don’t have credentials yet (awards won, books published etc.) which is absolutely fine because I assume that most of you are new to the industry. Therefore, there is no need to spend the first 5 seconds of my time telling me this is your first book. I know that already. That’s 5 seconds you could have spent impressing me with your hook or premise.
3. Focus On Plot Not Themes
This is my biggest pet peeve. Queries must focus on plot, not themes. Themes don’t sell a book, plot does! Themes arise after someone has read the project and if you’re preaching your themes to me in the query letter you’re not letting your novel do its job. It’s like a helicopter parent doing their kid’s homework and then asking them what they learned. Let your work speak for itself and let the readers and book clubs come to their own conclusions about things like themes. Remember that you’re not going to be hand-delivering thousands of copies of your book when it leaves the printer so the book has to stand-alone.
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4. Never Apologize
It’s shocking to me the number of writers who say: “I’m sorry for taking up your time because I know how busy you are” or “I apologize for breaking your submission rules.” Firstly, yes, I’m busy but I make a living from supporting and managing writers’ careers. If I don’t receive great submissions then I don’t have a job—so I care deeply about those query letters and the writers who select me as a great fit. Secondly, if you know you are breaking submission guidelines why draw attention to it? Why start your query off with a negative tone? I’ve never understood that approach.
5. If You Don’t Know How To Pitch Your Book, How Do I Know You Can Write One?
This point is crucial to my thought process. If I read a query that is misspelled, pitched poorly, too long, too wordy, apologetic, not a category I represent, trying too hard, or not trying hard enough then I’ve lost confidence in your storytelling abilities. Your query is my first taste of your communication style, your voice, your professionalism, and your understanding of the industry. So if you can’t pitch your own book to me (one you’ve presumably be working on for months if not years) then how do I know you can execute a novel and keep me captivated for 80,000 words? I don’t. If this is your hobby I don’t want to hear about it because it seems that you’ve lost sight of the fact that this is a business. However, if this is your professional goal then it will show through with a crisp and clean pitch that focuses on what matters: a great book.
Writing a winning query is a combination of research and common sense. When in doubt: don’t be overly familiar, be honest, be confident, correctly spell our names, and show me you’re not just any writer—you’re a career-oriented storyteller.
Carly Watters is a VP and Senior Literary Agent at the P.S. Literary Agency. She began her publishing career in London at the Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency. Her degrees include a BA in English Literature from Queen’s University and a MA in Publishing Studies from City University London. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.