Chip MacGregor

May 22, 2013

What's the best method to query an agent?


Someone wrote and wanted to know, “What advice do you have for authors regarding querying? What is the best method (e-mail, snail mail)? Is there a particular format the query should follow?”

The BEST method is to get face-to-face, of course, so by all means consider attending a conference where you can meet the agents and editors with whom you want to work. Research them ahead of time, find out who they are, what they represent, and who might be a fit. Then try to get in front of them. That’s best… But in today’s publishing world, that’s harder than it used to be. Many agents are staying away from conferences because they’re dominated by beginning writers. In publishing today, most people have become email people, and thus I expect most of the queries you’re going to write are going to be without a face to face introduction (even though that would be best).  

I much prefer a query via email than a printed letter (save the trees, save the gas delivering it). A query should be short, to the point, and most of all is should give me a reason for wanting to see your proposal. It should help me to be interested in our topic or story. Remember, the goal of the query isn’t to sell your book; it’s to get an agent or editor to agree to take the next step. That’s all. Nobody decides to acquire a book based solely on the query. So the query should briefly give me a reason for wanting to see more, it should be written extremely well in order to show off your talent, and it should tell me exactly what you want me to do.

The first paragraph of your query letter  introduces your topic — just give it one or two sentences. Your second reveals the basic idea or focus of your book in two or three sentences. Your third paragraph mentions you briefly, perhaps explains why you decided to write the book or why you are the correct person to write it. Then you wrap it up by saying you have a complete proposal (or, if you’re writing a novel, by saying that the manuscript is complete), and that you’re happy to be in touch and discuss or explore the book. 

One note about the tone: I want to represent people who are fairly normal. So don’t allow your query to make you look like an insane person (“This story was personally handed to me by an angel”). Don’t pretend we’re best friends (“Yo bud! How ya doin?”). Don’t threaten (“I’ve been getting a lot of interest from other agents…”). Don’t be a used car salesman (“This is your lucky day!”). Get me into your story, show off the big idea and why it’s salable, and give me some sense of your writing ability. [And if you haven’t seen it yet, make sure to check out A riot.]

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  • I started to take a quick look at the slushpilehell blog and finally had to force myself to stop reading after about page 8. I was laughing even when I was horrified to think people actually send those types of query letters to that poor agent!
    Thanks, Chip, for letting us know what agents look for in a strong query and I’m hoping you never receive those types of letters in YOUR email box! ;~)
    Donna L Martin

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Glad you liked it, Donna. I’m with you — couldn’t stop laughing!

    • Guest says: I hadn’t visited that infernal slush pile for a while. Donna, you prompted me. I’d like to believe those entries are part of a massive April Fool’s Day prank, but they’re scattered throughout the year. Scarier yet–Gulp–many of these folks will self-publish…unedited!

    • Donna Martin says:

      I couldn’t agree more! I make it my job to read as many books in the genres I write as I can and have seen some of the results of authors rushing to self-publish while disregarding a level of quality to their work. It is my hope that I never find myself on the slushpilehell blog much less associated with inferior writing…;~)

      Donna L Martin

  • Rick Barry says:

    Clean, crisp, easy-to-understand steps. Succinctly stated, Chip! Do you expect your current clients to submit ideas for new projects in the same way? Or does the system relax for those you already partner with?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      No — current clients basically send me an email, and we talk over the ideas (or sometimes they just write and say, “Here’s my next book”). Nothing so formal as this, Rick. But it’s a very good question. Thanks.

  • I am not there yet, but I really enjoy learning from your blog! I appreciate the subtle training in preparation for when I am ready for that next step. Thanks!

  • Iola Goulton says:

    “I want to represent people who are fairly normal”
    Remember, we’ve all read the poetry written by your ‘fairly normal’ clients…
    Joking aside, that final paragraph reminds me of what my father used to say: Common sense isn’t always that common.

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