This article was written exclusively for Cardinal Rule Press by Mark Gottlieb, literary agent at Trident Media Group.
One: The Hook
Having a strong sales pitch for a book can go a long way. We sometimes call this the elevator pitch. I like to work with authors that know how to speak about their book in a concise and interesting way. This is everyone’s first impression of a book, so the hook should go right upfront in a query letter in order to draw the reader’s attention in. I like to think of it as the thesis line for a query letter. In a snapshot we should get a sense of what the book is about in movie tagline fashion. Here are a couple of examples of good hooks:
A dark secret born out of World War II lies at the heart of a Sicilian American family in this emotional and sweeping saga of guilt, revenge, and, ultimately, redemption.
They say she’s a murderess. She claims she’s innocent. But Lucy has been known to tell lies…
Two: Comparative/Competitive Titles
Sometimes it is easier to say that a book is “this meets that” than it is to go into a longer description. That’s where the comp title process can be helpful. Dreaming up a good comparative or competitive title can help place a manuscript in the minds of literary agents and book editors trying to figure out where a book might go on their list, or where it might go in a bookstore. This is also helpful to a publisher when they are trying to figure out how much to offer for a book. Publishers will run what is called a profit and loss statement or a “P&L” and the magic numbers they will plug into that sheet are usually the numbers on books they feel are similar. We as author and agent would much rather be the ones to give books with stronger numbers to publishers as comparisons! Bookstores will also eventually ask the book publisher for comps they feel are similar, so a writer that has a few comp titles assembled will be miles ahead in the book publishing process.
Three: The Book
Of course we need to know more about the book and what makes it exciting! I speak more about the urgency of a book’s story in this interview. A couple of paragraphs should be devoted to some of the exciting plot details of a manuscript and perhaps speak to some of the development of the characters. Demonstrating some of the plot will be more important to commercial fiction, whereas literary fiction tends to be more concerned with character development. Careful not to spoil too much here the description! This is more so about enticing readers into wanting to know more and taking this opportunity to showcase one’s writing abilities. It is helpful to model these paragraphs off of the descriptive copy used on the back of book covers and book product pages. That will lend a comfortable feel for how this information is presented, especially since a lot of strong query letters go on to become jacket copy on published books! That is why writing a knockout query letter is so important.
Four: Author Bio
In the last paragraph of the query letter we should see the author bio, along with some more ancillary information such as relevant writing experience and writing credentials. Writing experience can mean many different things. Sometimes this is a matter of having been published in literary magazines or literary journals. Other times this can mean publications online or in papers. Writing credentials can include things such as an MFA, PhD or even attendance at a prestigious writing workshop such as the Yale Writers Workshop, Iowa Writers Workshop, or Breadloaf. A writer should tell us a bit more about themselves too. Info such as how they came or writing, what has influenced them and perhaps where they live and what they do in their day-to-day. After all of that info it might be good to include a link to an author website or author social media pages.
Five: Personalize the Address
If an author wants to get the attention of a literary agent, we cannot forget this important point. When opening a letter, it is nice to see that a writer took their time to do their research to know who the literary agent is and what they are about. For how awkward would it be to send a query for a children’s picture book to a literary agent that specializes in romance/women’s fiction? This is a way to make the query letter attention-grabbing, since this is a writer’s chance to make their letter unique to the receiver. For instance, a writer might consider visiting my Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn pages to learn more about me and the types of books I have been working on and they can mention something they learned in the opening of the letter. It shows that the writer took some time, care and attention to detail.
Surprise: Bonus Content!
In addition to the five points above, this item is something of a special surprise. A very lucky writer might approach the query letter with some pre-publication blurbs or endorsements in-hand. Having a quote from a bestselling or award-winning author can go a long way. Literary agents love to receive queries with blurbs since that helps make the query more attractive to book publishers. Some authors are only willing to provide endorsements after a manuscript finds a publisher, but others might make an exception. Some authors might provide a blurb based on a sample of the manuscript too. Keep in mind that it is about quality over quantity when receiving such endorsements.
Mark Gottlieb is a prominent literary agent working at book publishing’s leading literary agency Trident Media Group in New York City. He has ranked highly among literary agents across the industry for overall number of deals and other individual categories. While at Trident Media Group, Mark Gottlieb has represented New York Times bestselling authors as well as major award-winning authors. He has optioned and sold numerous books to production companies and studios for film and TV adaptation. Mark Gottlieb greatly enjoys working with authors to help manage and grow their careers with the resources available at Trident Media Group. In addition to having worked at the company’s Foreign Rights Department, he also ran the company’s Audiobook Department. Utilizing his drive and intuition for discovering talented writers, he is currently expanding his client list of authors. As a literary agent he looks forward to bringing authors to the largest possible audience.
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