Written by Wendy Keller, Literary Agent
It’s Monday morning at Keller Media, the literary agency and speakers bureau I founded in 1989. The birds are singing, the traffic is honking its merry tune, the clock is ticking and the intern is groaning. The intern’s job includes the unenviable task of bringing in the mail—both electronic and snail—and sorting through the deluge of queries.
Some of them have potential. But more often, most are sent in my crazy cat ladies and Indiana Jones impersonators, riddled with typos and bad grammar. After seeing a few queries channeled from Madonna (sometimes the singer, sometimes the Virgin), even the most optimistic of interns begin to dread the sorting process.
Over the years, we’ve collected the “worst queries” we’ve seen (I’d post some of them here, but that list is as long as my daughter’s list of uncompleted chores). They provide a moment of mirth for the workshops and seminars I do on all aspects of publishing, book marketing and concept development every year.
But the most important thing these failed queries can do is act as huge warning signs of what not to do. If, in fact, you want to actually be treated with respect and not be responsible for transforming the squirrel-like new agency intern into the cynical aide-de-camp, then you’ll have to follow a few guidelines.
- Research your topic BEFORE you write it, BEFORE you send it to agents (who will know your competition at least as well as you do!) and BEFORE you send out queries!
- Know what books like yours have been published, and how yours is “NDBM.” My trademark shorthand phrase to teach new writers their project must be “new, different, better or offer something more” than all the books now on the shelf.
- Research the agents. If we don’t handle fiction, don’t send it! If we despise sports books, don’t send one! The information is easily found in the dozens of directories in print and online in which we all are listed. Cross-check!
- Submit TO the person you want to have read it and spell their name properly.
- Submit in the FORMAT and with the material they state they prefer. My agency wants one-page or less email queries with NO ATTACHMENTS. Why? Because we won’t open them. Period.
- State your credentials in the first sentence if they are impressive. E.g., “I am the leading research at Johns Hopkins…” or “I am the CEO of Microsoft…” or (in my agency’s case) “I give +40 speeches a year to at least 250 people per event.”
- State your material in summary form. “My book teaches readers how to help their children learn math more quickly.” “My book explains how Henry Ford started out as a milk delivery boy.” “My book is based on my research into why people…”
- Close without promising me your mother loves it, it will be on the bestseller list, I’m a fool if I pass, that you demand I respond within X time period, that there are no other books like yours in the world (there are, I promise you!), that this is the chance I have been waiting for since I began as an agent, etc.
- If you surface mail it, include a SASE – a self-addressed stamped envelope. DO NOT include your book, your speakers demo tape, your mother’s death certificate or anything else with your query. Or, just email it. You’ll still get a response if we’re interested.
- MOST IMPORTANT: Give ALL the agents to whom you submit your proposal 6 weeks to respond. Then, in a perfect world, when they have requested your material, do NOT sign a contract with anyone (should you be so lucky as to be offered one!) until all the agents considering you have had a chance to respond. (Usually another six weeks – call stragglers and tell them you have an offer.)
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