Authors often gnash their teeth at the nearly-universal advice that you should personalize your query letters. It’s time consuming to research agents individually, people don’t know what to say, and there’s something about it that just rubs people the wrong way.
It pays to personalize. Just do it.
In this post I’ll explain why and give you some tips on how to do it (and how not to overthink it).
Why you should personalize query letters
It’s not about kissing up.
When I was a literary agent I read thousands upon thousands of query letters. And one thing you notice when you’re reading this many: there’s a correlation between the good queries and the authors who personalize.
The author who goes the extra mile in crafting a professional, personalized query is likely also the type of author who has taken the time to learn the business, polished their manuscript before submitting, and isn’t cutting corners.
Sure, agents should give sufficient attention to every submission, and they largely do, but I always found myself paying a bit closer attention to the ones who were personalized. There’s a correlation between personalization and quality.
When you are querying a literary agent you are essentially proposing to go into business with them. Just as it generally helps to personalize a cover letter when you’re applying for a job, it helps to personalize a query letter.
Here’s how to go about it.
Address your query to a specific agent
First and foremost, even if an agency has a submission procedure that spans multiple agents, always address your query letter to a specific agent and personalize the query letter with that agent in mind.
Follow the agency’s submission procedures first and foremost, but when in doubt: target the query letter.
Also, make sure to double- and triple-check that you got the agent’s name right. When I was an agent, during one week an astounding 23% of the people querying me either didn’t include my name or got it wrong. Needless to say, this is one of the absolute easiest things to get right.
And unless the submission procedures say otherwise, it’s okay to query a different agent at the same agency if the first one passes. (Just wait a month or two after the rejection).
Lead with the personalization
Remember that the whole point of the personalization is to tip off the agent that you researched them individually in order to inspire them to pay closer attention to your query letter.
To achieve this, it follows that you should start with the personalization.
Now, one of my favorite queries of all time, which ended up becoming a bestselling series by Lisa Brackmann, put the personalization at the end, so it’s not a death knell to do this by any means.
But for maximum impact: make it the first line of the query letter.
Say something that can’t be copy/pasted about another agent
The bare minimum to personalize is to just say something that can’t be said about another literary agent.
“I’m querying you because you represent science fiction” or “I’m querying you because you are on the lookout for new voices” doesn’t meet this bar. You could just copy and paste that into a query letter and send it all around town.
“I’m querying you because you represent Robert Charles Wilson” or “I saw in a recent interview that you said X, Y, and Z” does meet this bar. It’s unique and specific.
Personalizing a query letter doesn’t really need to be more complicated than this.
Err on the side of the genuine…
That said, it really does help sometimes when the query letter is genuinely personal about why you queried the agent.
When I personalized my query letter to my eventual agent Catherine Drayton, I talked about how much I genuinely liked one of the books she represented, The Book Thief, although that novel was quite a bit different than mine:
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.
In a previous edition of this post, Rachel Stout talked about how when she was an agent, an author mentioned writing to her because he saw she was from South Jersey and moved to Brooklyn just like the novel’s protagonist, which prompted her to take a chance on a book that was outside of her normal genres of expertise.
In other words: be genuine about why you chose the agent. It’s fine to put yourself out there since you’re trying to make a personal and business connection.
But don’t be overly familiar
That said… don’t be weird about it. Don’t be obsequious and strike a kissing up vibe, and don’t assume a level of familiarity that isn’t earned based on how well you actually know the agent.
Don’t forget that even with Extremely Online agents, you may feel like you know them, but they don’t know you.
Back when I was an agent, few things set my teeth on edge more than authors who called me “Nate” (it’s Nathan) or who verged on the creepy.
And don’t overdo it
At the end the day, the plot description is overwhelmingly the most important part of a query letter. Keep your focus there, particularly when you only have 250-350 words to work with, including the personalization.
In order to do that, don’t go on and on and on in the personalization and give short shrift to your plot description. Just write a crisp opening personalization and move on to the rest of the query letter.
Where to find information for personalization
So how do you go about compiling this information?
Well, the most efficient way is to kill two birds with one stone. You should be researching agents individually anyway in order to gauge who you feel a personal connection with and to make sure they’re reputable, so as you’re going about this just jot down little notes about the things you find that you can use to personalize the query.
In my post on how to research a literary agent I have a spreadsheet you can use to compile submission procedures and tidbits for personalization.
Take the time to research and personalize a query letter
I know it might feel tedious to take the time to sift through unfamiliar databases and do all kinds of Google searches in order to research agents and query agents one by one.
Isn’t there a better way? It’s so tedious!
I don’t think there’s a better way. Yes, you can pay someone to compile a list of agents for you to query, but remember what you’re actually doing when you’re querying agents: You’re proposing to enter into a business relationship with a publishing professional.
There’s little public information to go off of, there are a lot of bad agents and outright scam artists out there, and it’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make in your career. The most effective strategy is to find an agent whose list and personality resonates with you and who you have a good gut feeling about.
But if you’re outsourcing the research: you’re going to be flying blind and may end up deciding solely on a single conversation.
Do the research yourself, take the time to personalize, and trust your gut as you’re evaluating agents.
Anything I missed or any great personalization stories? Let me know in the comments!
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Art: Detail of The Love Letter by Auguste Toulmouche
Originally published June 8, 2017