Before I get to the query letter that landed me a literary agent, let me answer two questions I’m asked often: Yes, I needed a literary agent even though I was working as an agent at the time, and yes, I had to send out query letters the old-fashioned way.
I sent queries out to seven or eight agents, some of whom I knew personally, some of whom (like Catherine Drayton, my now-agent), I knew only by reputation. I chose to query Catherine because she represents one of my favorite books, The Book Thief, and I had heard great things about her.
So I sent out my query, got a few rejections, Catherine and a few other agents asked to see partials/fulls, and when Catherine called to offer representation a few weeks later I knew we were a match. She really got the book, I liked the changes she suggested for the manuscript, and I really got the sense that she has a ton of integrity, which was one of the most important qualities I was looking for in an agent.
And, yup. When I was writing my query I used my own mad lib formula, personalized the query, and kept it under 300 words. I practice what I preach, people.
For a complete guide to writing a query letter, see this post.
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Now for the query. Here goes…
Dear Ms. Drayton,
As a young literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. I have long admired Inkwell, as well as your strong track record. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, if you searched for a book that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike THE BOOK THIEF (which I absolutely loved), you might just have JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, a middle-grade-and-up science fiction novel that I just completed. Still fun! But no one dies – Mr. Death would be lonely.
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled. But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver one night they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.
JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW is 50,000 words and stands alone, but I have ideas for a series, including titles such as JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE and JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE VACATIONING ALIENS FROM ANOTHER PLANET. I’m the author of an eponymous agenting and writing blog.
I’d be thrilled if you would consider WONDERBAR for representation, and a few other agents are considering simultaneously. Thanks very much, and hope to talk to you soon.
And it worked! It’s now a trilogy. The Jacob Wonderbar books are available for sale at:
Barnes & Noble!
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Nathan, Thank you, thank you for sharing this! I will be querying next month and it is so helpful to read letters that work. I loved this letter and especially the corn dog part – you get right from the letter that it's going to be a fun book. One question: I am planning on following your advice on suggesting that the book could be the first in a series and I know what I want the second book to be called, just like you had suggested titles here. Do you think including a suggested title is a good idea? Obviously, it worked for you but do you know if your agent appreciated receiving suggested titles?
It's always interesting to see successful query letters, because sometimes it's hard to walk that line between the personal and professional, which as you've shown, a good query letter has.
Thanks for sharing.
Wendy F says
Thank you so much for sharing this! I have been struggling with writing a query letter and finding a way to sum up my novel and make the best presentation. After reading your post, I believe that I need to revisit my book and edit it again. I truly think it will be a much better story after the ideas you have given me. Thank you!!
Now if I can only work in 'eponymous' and 'nefarious' into my query letter, maybe I'll have something… 😉 It obviously worked a treat. Thanks for sharing.
I'm amused and impressed by how you managed to make "Yeah, my book is nothing like one of the books you represented" into a compelling personalized beginning.
Well done, Nathan! Thank you for sharing.
This is a very good query but I wonder if you can look at it objectively and speak on a) whether you as an agent would have read this and been interested and why and b) whether a non-agent querier with this same project would have received the same attention.
Again, definitely not taking a shot, genuinely curious.
Kristi Helvig says
Thanks for sharing this, Nathan. I loved your line about The Book Thief (one of my faves too). Your query is so good, I'm surprised you had any rejections at all.
J. T. Shea says
JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE VACATIONING ALIENS FROM ANOTHER PLANET!? I can hardly wait!
Careful querying your kids, Mr. D, you could get a form rejection, or no response could mean no.
Patti Wiginton, corndogs! That's it! I knew my trilogy lacked something. Corndogs and space monkeys!
Munk, aliens come from another planet? No wonder they're illegal.
I notice nobody's asked what a Cosmic Space Kapow actually is. Not that I'M asking or anything. Maybe the answer is too far out of this world for our merely human brains to absorb. Or maybe it's 32.
Nathan Bransford says
No, I wouldn't have requested a partial if I queried myself because I didn't represent middle grade science fiction.
And yes, I do think I had an advantage being an agent in the business. I don't think it was the difference between me getting published and not getting published (if all it took was me being an agent my first and still unpublished novel would have gotten off the ground), but I do think it helped me get in the door. I talk more about it here.
Thanks for all of your great help. You just can't find the writing advice you need sometimes unless it's from someone who's "been there."
This is truly the best query I have ever read.
It's highly personalized. Even the humor is highly personalized. And it's funny and flows well. The confidence is clear. It's smart and saavy. But most importantly, this has voice. A great voice.
Nathan, if you ever give up your social media gig, and then your book trailer maker gig, and then your editor gig, you could make a bundle writing queries for people.
You know, I'm sure that being an agent helped you, but your query is so good, and you are such a good writer, that it probably just made the process go abit faster. Someone would have snapped you up pronto regardless.
Thank you for sharing this! It's terrific.
word wanderer says
Well, the letter certainly worked on my 5th grade daughter and 8th grade son – they both want to read the book (if you hadn't had them already, you won them over by trading corn dogs for spaceships)!
One more thing – I really doubted that it was possible to write a query letter with a humorous voice and still have it be professional.
I am impressed and really appreciate this example. I really doubted it could be done.
Loved the query and the agent must have been rather thrilled to receive such a witty, fun and succinct submissive. Here's a query from me: why did you use the comma in the last sentence? Is it because the 'I' is understood and therefore still two independent clauses?
Nathan Bransford says
Because I'm a terrible copyeditor.
I do understand that you didn't rep your kind of novel but I'm still curious as to whether, as a former professional and who knows the ropes of what works and what doesn't etc, if you can tell whether you would have – pretending you actually did rep middle grade fiction – asked for a partial and why.
I agree that being an agent isn't the answer, your unpubbed novel being the proof, but I was wondering if you, for example, would be more open to a book query received from someone like yourself, when you were agenting, and whether that would make a difference. I will read through the link.
Nathan Bransford says
Well, it's kind of a hard question to answer. I mean, I wrote my query to my own specifications so yeah, if it wasn't me writing the query and it was a genre I represented I think I would have gone for it.
Arief Zainal says
Nice. I am about to write my own query letter when a kind soul referred me to this post.
Will be using that mad lib for my own query letter if you don't mind.
Christina Lucas says
I totally agree w/Mira…I like to be funny and personal when networking, but I also don't want to come off as unprofessional whenever I get to the query. This is a very good example for me. Thanks! Shared it on FB. My writer's digest and blogger buddies appreciate it!:)
Kristin Laughtin says
Great query. The beginning is humorous and personalized without being unprofessional or butt-kissing.
I like that you pointed out that you did get rejections. Too often we think that one must have connections to the industry to succeed. Maybe they helped in your case, beyond giving you inside knowledge of what's desired, but still, you didn't get an unbroken streak of full requests. The connections weren't everything. Rather, you were judged on your query and your work, and if we did just as well, we could experience the same success.
JM Leotti says
Fantastic example of a query. This was very helpful, although I think I might play it a little safer my first time out. I guess I won't know until I actually write it.
Have I said this before? I'm really enjoying this series and learning so much. But I always learn something new every time I come here. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing!
(Sorry for the deleted posts. I don't know why blogger posted doubles.)
Sheila Cull says
Wow. That's the best query I've ever read, out of lots, AND, I learned a lot.
see, i'm so lucky that i just read it, and now, with free time to re read and then Save in a Bransford folder. yeah! i'm lucky.
thank you very much, I knew that my query letter was not the best. Back to working on it
Emily Hill says
Not to put too fine a point on it, but, errr…Could I use YOUR name?
Nathan Bransford doing a query letter is as rich as it is amusing. See kids how it's done?
According to Kristen Nelson, her bot-watch email account took in 36,000 email'ed queries in 2010. She chose THREE to represent; 3:36,000. Those odds are NOT out of the norm, nowadays. Check out her interview with Dawn Tevy of Angels & Warriors on BlogTalk Radio. Then Get Real, Go Indie!
Ummmm, wasn't it a bit easier to get your agent since you were once one yourself?
lol if only it were that easy for the rest of us… :/
Anne Cralle says
Hi Nathan! I am recovering from minor surgery and the silver lining is that I have time to read more items in your web site! I absolutely love your query letter. It was fun to read which made me confident your books would also be fun to read. Also, thank you for publishing a bunch of other query letters. I am a newbie when it comes to writing fiction so it is wonderful for me to be able to see successful query letters. Hope you are well. Anne P.S. I am almost finished draft one of chapter one of my novel. Twelve whole pages! Not very much in the world of experienced writers but a huge accomplishment for me . . . ☺️
Nathan Bransford says
Thank you! Keep it up!
Kirhonda Williams says
This was great feedback and the letter was precised and to the point. I know I can learn much from you. Hi! I am KD Williams and I self- published my first novel The Mysteries of Woodland Academy and I want to find an agent outside of the series. I have other novels I am writing please see my website if you like to see my novel and learn more about me. Great post I am a new follower.
All the best,
KD Williams, author The Mysteries Woodland Academy