I know it’s difficult to stare at a blank screen trying to decide what to include and what not to include in a query. Is it necessary to convey a love of writing? What about positive feedback? There’s a limited number of words in an ideal query and a whole lot that needs to be conveyed.
Here is a list of things I don’t need to see in a query. There are exceptions to most of these rules, so, in the end, use your best judgment. But hopefully this list will help you wield the delete button wisely.
The “don’t need to know” list
Literary agents don’t need to know…
- How long it took you to write your manuscript
- How long you researched your manuscript (or how you researched your manuscript)
- How many manuscripts you’ve written besides the ones you’re querying about
- How much you love to write
- Your age (unless you’re under 18 or if your age is otherwise relevant to the manuscript)
- How much your friends, family, local schoolkids, a paid editor, strangers, and/or anyone else who is not a published author loved your manuscript
- Quotes from anyone who loved your novel, except perhaps for one or two brief quotes from a published author (agents will be taking these with a grain of salt)
- Any rejection letters or references to rejection letters or quotes from rejection letters no matter how positive the person was when they were rejecting you
- What you think the cover should look like
- Which publishing houses you think would be a good fit
- A promise that your book will make the bestseller list and/or sell a million copies
- That you’ve had health and/or mental health problems (unless it specifically relates to the manuscript)
- The moral of your novel
- The themes of your novel (this should be clear from the description of the plot)
- More than two paragraphs of plot description (keep it concise!)
- That you’re willing to send a synopsis or outline if I ask for one (the agent will assume that if they ask you’re gonna provide one).
- That your manuscript is completely different than anything that’s ever been published (that’s basically impossible)
- Apologies for wasting the agent’s time (you’re not… er, unless your query is too long)
When to tell an agent about X
If you’re still confused about what to include/what not to include, this post could also help:
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Art: In the Conservatory by Edouard Manet
Deaf Brown Trash Punk says
I’m good, man. None of that is in my query letter.
Margaret Yang says
Some agents want you to mention published books that are similar. I can’t remember if you are pro or con on that one. Add it to the list?
Nathan Bransford says
They can be done well or not well, so I leave that up to the author.
Bill Womack says
Are you at all interested in whether the novel has been workshopped in a critique group or otherwise vetted by anyone other than the author?
I sometimes think I should be stating themes outright in a query, only because my plot description feels sparse, and maybe that’s a whole other problem. But are you saying it doesn’t even matter much to know the theme, or that, yes, you want to know the theme, but show it, don’t tell it.
Nathan Bransford says
No, I tend to assume it has.
A great checklist–thanks!
Also an interesting portrait of what must be in your inbox occasionally (yikes!).
Heather Wardell says
If another agent has rejected the book but suggested I query you, would you recommend mentioning that? It sort of implies a previous rejection, but the first agent must have seen something positive or else wouldn’t have made the recommendation.
Unless the first agent hates the second, I suppose. 🙂
Nathan Bransford says
Whew. Read that list gritting my teeth, but I was in the clear.
Thanks for the info!
Since I’ve seen so many questions recently about author age, I think it would be worth clarifying that point: am I correct in thinking that you need to know if the author is under 18 for legal, minors-signing-contract reasons, and not because a teenage author is a particularly harder/easier sell?
Sorry but I have a rather random question. How often do most large publishers have an editorial review/meeting to decide whether or not to buy books?
Thanks for all your great posts.
Nathan Bransford says
Usually once a week.
Nathan Bransford says
I would recommend that you focus on one project. If you really want to have an agent who represents all of your work and that is very important to you you can mention it briefly, but I think the best strategy at first is to focus your efforts on one project in one genre. Once that works? Then maybe think about the wisdom of genre hopping, but in close consultation with your agent.
Pithy, pertinent post – that did not abuse alliteration.
I was a semi-finalist in the Amazon contest last year. I never sent out queries for the manuscript as I didn’t think it was ready for publication. That being said, out of 5,000 entrants, only 100 or so received positive reviews from PW and hardly any received glowing reviews. Most people actually received pretty condescending reviews from PW. Just thought I’d mention it in the defense of anyone who queried you and mentioned their positive review.
Thanks for the list Nathan. For once I’m not guilty of anything on here!!! Amy
Nathan Bransford says
Thanks for the info about the Amazon reviews. I guess I have probably received a lot of those 100 and have sort of become immune to them, but I’ll keep that in mind.
Marilyn Peake says
Would you be interested in knowing about awards that an author’s won for previously published small press books, e.g. ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards, IPPY Awards, or EPPIE Awards? Is it a good idea to mention short stories and articles previously published in major magazines?
Forgive me, but I’m in a very surreal place right now…
I’ve taken sixteen years to write my fictional magnum opus: “Sixteen Years of Writing,” in addition to a good fifteen minutes researching the material on Wikipedia. I love it. My mother loves it too. My Dad hates it, but he suffers from papyrophobia and so this is to be expected. “Sixteen Years” is my fourth fiction novel. The other three are currently in the smallest room in my house, where their pages are occasionally read before being recycled. Amazon’s Breakthrough PW review said, “This is probably a book.” Stephen King’s publicist’s secretary’s assistant said something about “restraining order violation,” but I know he liked it. Although Agent X rejected this work, she said, “The words, taken individually, are not bad,” so you know I’ve got some talent.
The book explores themes of loneliness, heartbreak and misanthropy through the revealing lens of a man whose allergy to wood keeps him isolated from his forest community. In addition to being didactic, pedantic and preachy, the novel teaches the reader the value of cheese (particularly gouda) as an alternative building material, and how true love can reduce household expenses.
I think this book would be a great fit for the publisher of “Thirty Days in New Jersey,” and “Starting Religions for Fun and Profit.” They could do it up with a cover featuring a Martin Short look-alike and a Chihuahua. In red, because that stands out on the shelf. A homeless guy near my house thinks the local bookstore would make a killing stocking only this book and selling coffee. It has “New York Times Bestseller” written all over it. In crayon, for now, but we can change that. Take this on, and we’ll make enough money to visibly embarrass Oprah when she has me on her show. You’ll have to swing that, though, because her producer’s assistant’s nephew’s lawyer mentioned the same restraining order Mr. King’s publicist’s secretary’s assistant did.
I don’t have any psychological issues, as the attached court documents prove. My age is irrelevant, since my Mom and Dad can’t agree on that anyway.
I am willing to provide a short synopsis of the book. Also, a summary. Or an outline. I’ve got an abstract as well. I can also send pictures of me and my shoes. And short videos of a play I did in second grade. And, well, any of my possessions, actually, although you’ll have to give me an itemized list if you want someone else’s possessions.
Obviously, “Sixteen Years of Writing” is completely different from everything else out there. For one thing, all those other books have already been published. For another, none of them have been dictated to me by the monster under my bed.
Sorry for wasting your time, but I don’t have any of my own to waste.
RED STICK WRITER says
Your attractive young contributor with the antlers asked about mentioning similar published books. You replied, “They can be done well or not well, so I leave that up to the author.”
I assume a “done well” usage is when it helps to identify the story’s niche in the market, while a “not well” usage might be naming some Stephen King titles and suggesting that your story is as good or better or that you are the next Stephen King.
Say a query letter said, “Though I do not presume to compare myself to the authors, my manuscript is similar in nature to books I have read and know to be commercial successes. Mortal Fear and Dead Sleep by Greg Iles, Scavenger by Tom Savage, The Switch by Sandra Brown, Deviant Way by Richard Montanari, and Mercy by David Lindsey are examples.” Would you consider the passage to be an example of the former or the latter?
Don’t worry about my feelings. I’m a thick-skinned Southern boy. Besides, you rejected me already. Now my goal is to use moments like this to analyze your thoughts about each of my paragraphs.
Nathan Bransford says
(sorry for the short or non-responses today, busy day)
sex scenes at starbucks says
Well done Ulysses!
Kimberly, if you get past the requests stage with an agent you’ll have plenty of chance to talk about other projects. A good agent should ask you!
Having been through the Amazon semi-finalist meat grinder, I’ll add this: the PW reviewer assigned to my book didn’t actually read it.
Or, to be fair, perhaps they *did* read it, and just got the entire story wrong.
Either way, I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape about the PW reviews one way or the other.
Ryan Field says
Kimberly Lynn says
I am curious, though.
(Dream big or not at all, right?)
Elyssa Papa says
I’m good, too.
Great post as usual.
Goodie! My query’s in the clear! And I’ve chopped it down from over 500 words to about 380. Yeah, it’s getting a LOT better and it even sounds better short. Weird, but true. I guess you guys know what you’re talking about! Jk, i know you do! 🙂
I would add:
– details about your sex life
– your UFO experiences/how JFK is channeling messages through you
– how your book is like (this book) but broken down into eighteen books
– what is wrong with today’s youth and how your picture book will ‘right’ the next generation
Also, we once received a query that smelled like Desitin. I’d hate to think where that letter was before it was in the envelope…
Good info. I’m guessing you can mention if the book is part of a projected series? I know Book 1 should be a stand-alone (just in case the worst happens and everyone stops reading), but… mention projected Book 2 or no?
Ulysses, I liked the part about the monster under your bed. In my case, I dictated the novel to the monster. He’s a better typist.
great post. I read it holding my breath, and was glad to sigh at the end!
I have a question that may or may not be vaguely related to one of the first questions:
If your manuscript is heavily plotted in a field that is not your own (ie legal, medical, detective) and you had it reviewed by an expert in that field for authenticity (ie, a lawyer, doctor, pathologist), would that be worth mentioning in a query?
Or do you assume it’s authentic and figure you’ll know pretty quickly when you read it?
Whew! I think I avoided any of the listed offenses…
A Paperback Writer says
I am amused.
Betty Atkins Dominguez says
Oh No! You’ve heard from me before?
I really enjoyed the book title, “Starting Religions for Fun and Profit.” The whole letter was wonderful, but that line really cracked me up.
Michelle Moran says
HA! Best query ever, Ulysses. If I was an agent, I’d snap that right up.
Furious D says
Great post, I think the key to good writing, and writing good queries is knowing how much information is too much information.
Excellent post, Nathan. Cheers.
I do have to confess to being semi-guilty of the “research and theme” offenses, but only in the sense that they nailed the guts of the concept and plot and flowed so nicely into a much shorter description. They were more or less “warm up” comments that I thought helped whet the appetite rather than dry info, but I think I’ll drop them now. 🙂
k. kelly says
I was wondering, Nathan – is it typical for an agent not to respond to a query at all? I’ve heard that most agents send a rejection letter at the very least (if only to discourage the person who wrote the query from contacting them again), but I’ve sent out two queries recently and neither agent responded with a rejection letter or otherwise (I waited a good amount of time for a response – about six months for each agent). Is this standard practice in the industry?
Well, I was going to write a book entitled “Starting Religions for Fun and Prophet”, but I haven’t seen Jesus’ face in my breakfast cereal yet, so I’d better hold off.
But seriously… I’ve read where some experts say, Yes, mention books similar to yours… “in the style of James Patterson….” etc., and I’ve heard, No, don’t compare your stuff to anyone else’s. Let it stand on its own merit.
So, Nathan, what’s your take? Should my query to you inclue or not include comparisons?
Gail Goetz says
I’ve read several places that agents want to know if we’ve written other manuscripts than the one we’re querying about so they’ll know we have other novels they might represent.
The query you are about to read has no plot.
BLESS YOU! 🙂
When I was first in editing (at Gold Medal Books!), we used to assign the “I am sick and need to make money real fast for my fatherless kids” query letters to one editor named Walter. It was a great company joke.
Thank gods for the internets, because agents tend to tell you what they’re looking for. Although the details like Nathan’s list may vary, perhaps one should go with their gut, yet stick to keeping it at an effective length. If the rest is strong and you’ve miscalculated, perhaps you’re still in with a shot.
Marketing oneself is far more difficult than writing the darn book!
Ulysses, thank you. That query laughter cracked me up!
Sheila J. says
I guess one advantage of switching to digital submissions is that you only have to worry about what is in the query letter, and not so much about what may be inside that rather thick envelope.
Your book sounds esoteric enough to be a contender for some British literary award. Set it in the middle east and I reckon you’re sure to make a shortlist or two.
Have you heard back from Nathan yet?
Nathan Bransford says
I’ve already offered him representation and am flying him out to San Francisco just so I can tell him in person how moved I was by his query letter.
Nathan, if you have time to answer, I’m wondering about mentioning magazine clips in my query that are completely unrelated to the novel itself — I’ve seen advice that this is a good idea because it shows you can stick to deadlines and take editorial feedback, but I’ve also seen advice to skip mentioning clips that aren’t relevent to the novel’s subject. Do you have any thoughts on that, or is it just a “mention if you want, keep it short” thing?