If your goal is to be published by a major house and you don’t have a personal connection to one, then you need an agent. A well-connected agent knows and regularly lunches with most of the New York City editors and can quickly get your book a hearing from the ones most likely to be interested in a book like yours. He or she knows who likes what sorts of books, who is looking for what particular topics to round out a list, etc. Agents are much-appreciated middlemen-editors trust them not to waste their time with unsuitable offerings.
Most top agents choose their author-clients through referrals from already established writers or other people in the business. Still, numerous submissions come in daily over the transom. Because they are so inundated with query letters, agents peruse them as quickly as possible and make snap judgments. Typically, the more experienced agents have an intern or young associate whose job it is to look through the “slush pile” (nowadays sometimes just a figure of speech as so many queries are sent electronically).
What might get your query letter noticed in this large “pile”?
A great hook. Obviously, there is no magic formula for creating a hook that will apply to every writer. Yours may grow out of your personal situation (“I wrote this book from prison with the help of fellow prisoners and guards”). Or, more likely, it will come from the story itself, perhaps its unusual setting (Mars in the year 2050) or its startling juxtaposition of characters (a British princess who leaves her husband for a Pakistani cab driver). If your plot is ordinary, then try to offer some insight from the book or an amazingly well worded passage that will establish the power of your writing.
Stellar writing. The letter must sound thoroughly professional and the writing should be more than just competent-it should stand out as intelligent, engaging, and creative.
Literary awards. Your having won awards, even if they are modest ones, shows that others have seen quality in your book. It also shows you have the wherewithal and the energy to submit your book to contests.
Marketing savvy. It helps if you show familiarity with marketing issues. For instance, you should know in what section of the bookstore your book belongs and into which of Amazon’s categories it will fit. The most saleable books treat topics for which there are fan groups or interest groups that can easily be made aware of the book. Compare your book to similars and state why readers of those books will find yours appealing. Can you show a familiarity with the blogosphere? Do you have a presence on book review sites? Anything you can say to show that you have a commercial orientation is very helpful.
Author platform. Show that you have at least the beginnings of an author platform. Do you have a small fan base already beyond family and friends? Can you boast of a great Website with a good deal of traffic? Do you do any public speaking to groups that would have an interest in your book?
What will make agents skip right over your query letter at a glance?
—If you don’t address the agent by name
—If your query is clearly part of a mass mailing
—If you don’t follow the submission specifications on the agent’s Web site
—If you claim to have a bestseller
—If you come across as unprofessional, through mistakes in your letter or by displaying a lack of knowledge in your approach to the book business.
CARLY CANTOR is a publishing industry veteran who has worked in-house at a New York publisher as an acquisitions editor and is a two-time published author.