Agent Janet Reid recently posted a rant about one of the frequent flash points in the “This process is too freaking hard” camp of agent-seekers: the personalized query. Essentially, Janet believes personalized queries are pointless.
In one sense I do agree with Janet.
Is a personalized query, by itself, proof that the author has written a good book? No.
Does it matter that an author is a good querier if the book is otherwise fantastic? No.
In an ideal world, would authors need to personalize their queries in order to find an agent? No.
Do we live in an ideal world? No.
Agents are positively besieged with queries at all times. I still receive queries to this day and I haven’t been an agent for six years. It’s a relentless deluge.
And that slush pile should really be called a sludge pile (bonus: this article examines the origins and possible connotations of “slush pile”). At least 50% of the queries I received as an agent were so far away from anything approaching publishable material I constantly wondered if I was being punk’d by an evil competitor.
When you’re dealing with that kind of volume (I answered between 50-100 every weekday), anything that makes a decision easier is a godsend. And one of the absolute best shorthands that I was dealing with a professional author going the extra mile was when a query was personalized.
It didn’t mean I liked being kissed up to.
It didn’t mean I tossed out every query that wasn’t personalized.
It just was a tipoff that I should pay closer attention to the query. If someone took the time to personalize a query they also were more likely to be the type of professional, hardworking author I wanted to work with. I’m absolutely positive this extra attention tipped me over to requesting manuscripts a non-trivial amount of the time.
Contra Janet, finding an agent is not like hiring a plumber. You, the author, are not choosing someone to work with out of the Yellow Pages (ha! Remember those? I just lost everyone under 25).
A more appropriate metaphor, I think, is that finding an agent is like finding a potential investor in your business. And if you want someone to invest in your book startup, are you going approach that venture capitalist casually? Or are you going to research them, make sure they’re a good potential fit, and dress snappily when you pitch your business plan?
Does researching an investor and putting on a suit make you a suckup? No, it’s just the professional thing to do. And just like an investor, most agents will appreciate it if you’ve done your homework.
The ultimate proof I believe in this? When I queried agents for Jacob Wonderbar I always personalized. I didn’t know Catherine Drayton prior to querying her, but I did know she represented The Book Thief and mentioned it in the query letter.
If you are going to personalize, here are some tips:
- Include the personalization at the start of the query, not the end, for maximum “hey, tipoff, I’m a professional” effect.
- Don’t fake it (yes, some people try to do this).
- Don’t overdo it. You don’t need to write a page-long ode, just a wink and a nod is okay.
- Be professional, not overly familiar. You may feel like you know someone from their blog or social media account, but if you don’t actually know them, you don’t know them.
- Build off this basic formula: “I chose to query you because [you represent X books, I saw your write X article] and [how this resonated you].” How I did this for my Jacob Wonderbar query:
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.
Authors/agents, what do you think? Do you think it helps or is it more trouble than it’s worth?
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Art: Image from The Ladies’ Home Journal, 1889