How to Write an Effective Query Letter [Part 2]
A literary agent is a critical ally in your mission to write a great book and get it published.
To find a literary agent, you'll need to send him or her a convincing query letter.
But how do you write an effective query?
We interviewed Literary Agent Sam Hiyate for his advice. Watch the video to find out [Transcript Below].
So You Want to Write?: Ok so Sam what do you actually look for then in a query letter, if we’re going to be specific?
Literary Agent Sam Hiyate: Ok so, and I feel like this would be a subgroup of all the agents, but the first thing is I want to know why you’re approaching me.
You need to know something about my agency or my taste or you’ve heard me speak… usually it’s like, why me? There are hundreds of agents that are looking for interesting literary work, so why me?
Often it’s because of my sense of humour, it’s because of another book that I did where somebody says, “oh if he did that book he would love my book.
SYWW: But not so blatant, right? You don’t want people to be like...
Sam: Oh no, I love when they say, “Sam you did this book and this book and this book, and by the way my book is a comp [comparable]" The best example would be, “It’s this meets that meets this,” which would be pretty funny. Some people have actually done that and I respect that, because it means they’ve done their homework.
So the first thing is I want to know why. Why should I be looking at it rather than somebody else. One of my pet peeves is if I see that I’m on an email thread and they haven’t learned how to use the bcc and then there’s like 50 other agents and usually those I just delete.
I’m like, I’m sorry, you’re approaching a bunch of people randomly. And then you can't even say, "Dear Sam,” it would be “Dear Agent,” which is always a clue there’s an issue.
I want to know, one, why you’re approaching me or my agency. Sometimes I read for other agents that work with me. So it’s fair if it’s not specifically for me they could say, Sam, I think your agency’s kind of cool in this way or that way, you might want to look at this one. I’ll say OK, I believe that.
And then the second thing is I want a really good elevator pitch of what your story is, that’s usually the second thing.
SYWW: And how long-ish?
Sam: As long as it takes, there’s no rules about that. But the general query should be about a page, an 8 and a half by 11 piece of paper, and it should be a page double-spaced.
Then you’ve got the elevator pitch about what the book is. I like to have more market comparables, it’s a little bit like this meets that.
If you can figure out what it is, or "written in the tradition of this" or "with the voice of that", or "imagine if Harry Potter grew up and was doing this, you’d have this character or something." I like that.
And then the third thing should be, the third part of the query is, why are you the best author of this book or why did you write this book if it’s fiction? What was it that compelled you to do it? Why, of all the things to write, why this thing? What was interesting about it?
And with non-fiction usually you’re the best person for the book because it’s about something you studied or something you’re an expert in or something you already teach, and just want to share the wealth.
SYWW: Right, and even in fiction I suppose, it can be your own life but but told through other metaphors or characters, you can bring it back to yourself…
Sam: Well and it’s true there’s always a fine line because a lot of fiction contains a lot of truth from the writers' lives and the lives of their friends and so on, and sometimes a lot of what is known as memoir or non-fiction, usually they put that right up front in the disclaimer, that they’ve created a composite character to solve a problem, or they’ve changed names.
It can be a fine line but generally we understand what we mean by memoir and non-fiction and fiction and there’s a bit of leeway.
SYWW: And is that how you like the structure, the way you just laid it out.
Sam: Ya usually it’s like, if I get 100 of these a day, which I sometimes do, I want to know why is it coming to me, what do you have? Who are you?
SYWW: And how about the [email] subject line? Is that how you choose to open [emails] sometimes?
Sam: That’s a good question, I’m not really picky. If they say “Query” and give me the title of the book…
It’s also a good test of a good title. If I’m caught by the title that could be awesome, of if I’m like “what is this,” that could be good too, if it makes you curious to learn more.
SYWW: So do you open every email or not really?
Sam: I try to, and I do most of them, but sometimes I just forward them. From our website you can pick which agent or agents should get a query, so often if I see that I’ve got a query and one of my other agents that it might be better for already has it, that means that the author has done their homework.
And if I like it I’ll send a note [to the other agent] saying, “Are you interested in this? Because this really looks right for you, I can get it to you."