Last week I shared the sad truth that even perfectly written queries usually only get the same amount of response as any other direct marketing – less than five percent. That three different agents can read the same first five pages and have three different reactions. That no matter what some writer’s website article may tell you, there is no secret formula for writing the perfect query.
But what about that five percent? What is so special about those letters that they lead to requests to read the manuscript?
Drum roll, please…
They describe stories the agent wants to read.
Yes, it’s that simple … and it’s that complicated.
Agents got into the business because they love reading, and like all book lovers, they have favorite genres and character types. And as part of being a business, they know what’s selling and what isn’t. So your query needs to hit that sweet spot – describing a story they personally want to read, and professionally think they can sell.
Unfortunately, most of the agents’ listings on websites such as Query Tracker or the Guide to Literary Agents don’t go into that kind of detail, although they will let you know if a specific agent is interested in your genre. Beyond that, if you check out their web site, follow them on Twitter, read their blog, and look for their recent deals, that should help you narrow down their interests. There’s also a hashtag on Twitter, #MSWL, where agents and editors post their current, specific wish lists (hence the abbreviation for “manuscript wish list”). And some of these tweets do get specific – agents will tweet requests as specific as “I would really love a YA Gone With the Wind with a robot from the future sent to kill Lincoln.”
The good news is, if you have a manuscript that hits an agent’s sweet spot, if you follow the standard rules about writing a good query (get the name right and no spelling mistakes), you’re almost guaranteed to get a read request. As a reader for an agent, I’m forwarded all the successful queries along with their manuscripts. While some of these letters have started with brilliant hooks, others start with “I read that you’re looking for…..” I’ve even seen grammatical errors in these queries.
It’s all about the story.
So that’s the secret to a query letter that gets requests: Send it to the right agent… and make sure you sell the hell out of your story. Emphasize how unique and compelling your main character is. Specify her goal and the roadblocks that make her take a different route. End your summary on a tantalizing question or problem.
If you target the right agents, you might even beat that five percent threshold.