Confession: I find the idea of posting my agent query letter to be completely mortifying. I wrote it more than four years ago, and I basically had no idea what I was doing. While you’re at it, would you like to see the cover letter I wrote to get my first job? (Don’t get your hopes up!)
But I’m gritting my teeth and posting it anyway, because I remember scouring the internet for examples of other people’s queries when I was struggling to write my own, and I’m still grateful to the brave souls who posted their queries online.
At the time, I didn’t know any other writers and knew almost nothing about the publishing industry, beyond what I’d managed to glean from reading the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market cover to cover and then obsessively googling “How do you write an agent query letter?” I’d never attended a writer’s conference or participated in a “pitchfest.” I didn’t have a dream agent or even a list of top picks — I only marginally understood what agents even did. I just knew that you were supposed to have one, and so I set out to tackle the task with the mix of blithe ignorance, cheerful willingness, and occasional neurotic panic attack that I’ve brought to every step of the publishing process since.
I started by sitting down in front of my bookshelf with a notebook and pen and searching every single book to see if the author had thanked her agent in the acknowledgments. After I’d exhausted my personal library, I went to a local bookstore and expanded my list until an employee asked me why I was sitting on the floor and if maybe I might like to either buy a book or go home. Preferably both.
So I headed home with my list of books, authors, and agents, and created an excel spreadsheet with the following columns:
AGENCY | AGENT | ADDRESS | PHONE | EMAIL | BOOKS/AUTHORS REP’D | SUBMISSION INFO & MISC | SENT (METHOD) | DATE | REPLY
This was back in the dark ages when email submissions were still somewhat uncommon. I made a long list of agents based on my tattered copy of Children’s Writer’s Market and the list I’d created from searching my own books. And then I spent a bunch of time playing with colors and column size in excel, because that’s way less scary than actually, you know, sending query letters.
But eventually, I braved rejection (and even more terrifyingly, the possibility of success!) and sent this:
Dear Ms. Agent,
It wasn’t that I didn’t care, exactly, I just had other priorities. Like my friends. And my boyfriend. And making princess.
Paige Sheridan has everything: popular friends, a great boyfriend, and a strong bid at becoming Homecoming Queen. But everything begins to fall apart the summer before her senior year, when an accident lands her in drug rehab an ocean away from everything she cares about. Suddenly, perfect doesn’t seem as important, a lesson reinforced by the sexy new (and posssibly gay?) Creative Writing teacher and the classroom family he creates. When her old friends accuse her teacher of something unconscionable, Paige must choose between her perfect old life and the possibility of an imperfect new one, infinitely messier and more real.
At 81,400 words, PAIGE, TURNING (1) deals with issues of identity, sexuality, rape, homophobia, power and privilege, trust, fear, and friendship in a small town. It takes a realistic view of the ways teenagers often conflate sex and power, and addresses questions of sexuality without being another coming-out novel. As an English teacher, I see how thrilled my students are when they find books that speak to them without speaking down to them, and have written PAIGE, TURNING with such readers in mind. (2) In addition to eight years of teaching, I have worked as a freelance writer for such publications as Ins & Outs and The Grinnell Magazine, and have had stories and poems published in The Grinnell Review and The Chautauqua Literary Journal. (3)
Given your work with [other author(s)] (4) , as well as your interest in young adult fiction with a strong voice and great story (5) , I believe this project might be a good match for you. I am interested in your evaluation of its commercial potential and any recommendations that you might have on how to make it a better book. A full manuscript is available upon your request. This is a simultaneous query.
Thank you for your time and assistance. I eagerly await your response.
M. Molly Backes
(1) Paige, Turning = original title of The Princesses of Iowa. I like them both, but I’m happy that we ended up with Princesses. Also, the published version is way, way longer.
(2) Lame. This seems only slightly less lame than saying “I read this to my grandchildren and they really liked it!” Ugh.
(3) These are all college publications. Also lame, but I’d taken a break from publishing while I was teaching full time.
(4) Fill in the blank according to extensive excel sheet notes.
(5) And WHO ISN’T?
But as cringe-worthy I find elements of my query letter now, I must have been doing something right, because I got my first positive response 13 minutes after sending off my first email query. (The first round of queries were all to agents who accepted e-queries, mainly because it was August and the post office was a mile away and I was too lazy to walk all the way there.)
I actually signed with my agent (the amazing Becca Stumpf with Prospect Agency) about a month after I sent my first query letter. Note: this is not normal. “Well, that was easy!” I thought. “I bet my book will have sold by Christmas!” Note: it did not. In fact, it was more than two years between landing an agent and actually selling my book, years filled with more revisions, title changes, and my special blend of ignorance, panic, and occasional spurts of hard work. (To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson: I wouldn’t recommend blind ignorance and neurotic panic attacks for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me!)
As Deb Erika said yesterday, there are many ways to get the job done, and everyone’s path to agented bliss and/or publication is different. And though query letters can be intimidating, you shouldn’t let them stop you — after all, writing a novel is way harder, and you’ve already done that part, right? And if not, may I suggest going back to the whole cheerful ignorance thing? Finish your novel first. Don’t even start worrying about query letters until you have a finished draft!
And when you do get to the query phase, I wish you a quick, not-too-quirky query quest with few questions or quarrels. (I know, I know — I can’t help myself!) Good luck!