The Quomplete Query Qit

By Wendy Keller

Today, as a note of kindness, compassion and good humor, we'll talk about the simple mechanics of query letter writing. I'll save off telling you how many hundreds and hundreds of queries an agency sees in a week. How few of them any of us can use. How little attention we pay to ones poorly written. Or how only the lowest man on the agency's org chart opens them first. No, I'll stuff your heads full of sugar plums and tell you clearly how to write query letters that actually get results: An agent or a dozen agents who are circling you like vultures, waiting to come and rip the book out of your hands for their own profit-and partly yours, too.

Step 1
Have a finished book proposal if you are writing non-fiction. Have it done well. Not just well. Impeccably. Be cogent, clear-headed and have on the tip of your tongue all the ways your intended project offers something New, Different, Better or More than all those competitors' books out there on the shelf.

Step 2
Get a listing of agents. There are many out there. Go to the bookstore. There are plenty of books that tell you all about us-from our favorite colors to how many books we sold last year to our hobbies. (Purple/more than I thought I would/gardening. Thanks for asking!)

Step 3
Select 30 agents who meet this criteria: They HAVE sold books like yours and they are STILL SELLING books like yours. (You can tell this by reading the listings of books they have sold and the list of types of books they are looking for.) I previously sold Christian books, screenplays, fiction and juvenile. I don't touch any of those any more. Want to know why? Not enough profit in three of them; Armani sunglass-wearing scoundrels controlling sales of the other (you get to unwrap the riddle).

Step 4
Call the agencies you have selected. Ask only two questions and then hang up the phone politely. Say, "I am a potential author. May I ask you two questions?" The busy person who answered will say "Yes." Question 1: "Is Xavier Fontainebleu still the correct agent for books on underwater basket weaving?" (This question can be modified to reflect your subject and the agent's name if you so desire). Question 2: "Is the correct address <email or physical mail>? The agency's preference for queries-electronic or surface mail-will usually be clearly stated in the listing in the agency book you are using. Thank them and hang up, unless they initiate asking you questions. (Rare, very rare.)

Step 5
Mail ol' Xavier a letter or an email that has been carefully crafted to get his attention. It should use his name. I often get letters addressed to agents who the writer assumes are undergoing a sex change operation very slowly. I can tell because they are addressed to Dear Sir/Madam. Worse still (those of you who have been divorced will understand-that is approximately 70% of my readers according to the Census Bureau), I sometimes still get letters addressed to me by my former married name. I have not used that name in the last seven of the eight years of freedom I have enjoyed. Reminding me of my dark past is not a good way to make a good impression. Xavier the agent might not be annoyed with this oversight, but his sister Madalena would be! That's why you asked for the correct name in Step 4! Use it!

Step 6
Start with WIIFM ("What's In It For Me?") Don't start with how many speeches you give, the fact that the book was channeled by Mother Teresa, how lucky I am to be getting the query from you, how humble you are, how you know you don't know how to write to save your own life, how Mark Victor Hansen better watch out because your book is so much better, how Grisham needs to look for work now that you're on the scene, or how your mother and several of the people in your last speaking audience told you that you really MUST write a book. WE DON'T CARE! Further, we don't believe you. Heck, we don't even know you! Start with what I, your ever-patient agent, care about. How many people in the world/country need to buy this book and why? Give me facts if you can. "Twenty-one million Americans suffer with this problem"; "GNP is reduced by X% per annum because of this problem, according to Yale University"; "One out of three people will need to make this decision at some point in their lives." Now my literary aide will be paying attention to you, because now you are talking our language.

Step 7
If your credentials aren't impressive, don't flaunt them. The fact that you speak is not impressive in itself. My German Shepherd "speaks," just ask him. The fact that you speak to 100,00 people a year, or that you are syndicated in your column (Jeffrey Gitomer) or that your happy little voice is heard nationwide on radio every day/week/month (or even just in Cleveland)-these things make me believe you've got a prayer of helping me sell your book. If you are the leading researcher, the inventor, the first somebody to do something, the only person who has your amazing story (W Mitchell) or you trademarked something that is actually making a difference and you can prove it (Meryl Runion), then tell me that. THAT impresses me. As an agent, my job is to quickly ascertain 1) Can I sell this book? 2) To which publisher? And most importantly, 3) For how much money? Who you are helps me answer those questions fast. Fast is good. Fast is critical. Fast is what happens, because I have 299 more queries to read this week. Next!

Step 8
Toss me a steak. I'm an ardent vegetarian with aspirations toward radical veganism, but when it comes to the content-the meat of your book idea-I want it in one cogent, crisp, luscious paragraph, delivered au jus without any parsley or whipped garlic mashed potatoes to distract me. Just thud! Put the content right there in the third paragraph, make it pristine so that I know exactly what you are writing about. 

Step 9
Now you've hooked me with your audience, wowed me with your credentials and fed me with the brilliance of your idea. Don't ruin this by getting cute or imperious. Get out of your own way. State, "This is a multiple submission. A SASE is enclosed for your response. I look forward to hearing from you promptly." Sign off and shut up. FYI, multiple submission means you are sending it to more than one agent at a time. (You must, or you won't have a book out until you're older than Methusaleh!) A SASE is an old-fashioned item, but it is a must. It is a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (or an IRC for our foreign readers!) It's how we respond if we're interested. No SASE, no response (unless you're really, really hot. Chances are, frankly, that you're not). You'll be left biting your nails, wondering if Fido ate the mailman and it never got delivered. (Obviously, email doesn't require a SASE!)

Step 10
Wait. Just wait. About six weeks. Call sooner and you're dead. In our agency, if you call while we have only your query, you are instantly rejected (unless we think you are going to be worth all the hassles you've just proven you're likely to be). Every minute we're on the phone with authors, we're not on the phone with publishers. Guess who has the money? Do not call to follow up on a query. We won't know where it is, most likely, and if you make us hunt through the "Rejected," "Considering" and "About to Send Back" piles, we will hate you. Not a good way to start. Give us all six weeks before you choose to follow up with any of us. Anyone who hasn't responded in that time isn't interested, is too busy to help you or is recently deceased. 

Wendy Keller
Keller Media, Inc.
Literary Agency & Speakers Bureau
23852 West Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 701
Malibu, CA 90265 USA
310.857.6828 voice
310.857.6373 fax


Want to write a book? Go to Rita’s web site and click on The Writer’s Room. Take a look at Rita's The Procrastinator's Guide To Authorship: Stop Putting Off Your Success. Find a free article about writing proposals in The Writer’s Room

Don’t procrastinate in going there now.

Rita Emmett, author of The Procrastinator’s Handbook and The Clutter-Busting Handbook, is a professional speaker who presents Keynotes and Seminars nationwide. She can be reached at 847-699-9950 and email is

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