The all-important query

A query is a pitch to a literary agent, asking him or her to look at your book proposal and hopefully represent your work.

There are lots of resources on the Web that explain how to write the perfect query letter. The one-page letter should give a summary of the book’s plot and theme, as well as why readers would buy it. It should include information about the author and why she’s qualified to write the book. And it’s gotta be catchy — this is the writer’s one chance to catch the eye of an agent.

I’ve already written my query. As soon as I finish my sample chapters and add them to my book proposal, I’ll start sending the letter to literary agents.

I’ve personalized my query for every agent I plan to send it to, explaining why I chose them. But the meat of the letter is the same. It includes my working title (which may change as I write), selling handle and comparison to another published book, three components I’ve already addressed on this blog.

Wanna have a look?

Dear [agent name here],

I hope you’ll be the right agent to take on my travel memoir, Madame or Mademoiselle? A woman’s solo journey through Africa.

The story of a journalist who leaves a stable Houston life to backpack through an undeveloped continent in search of adventure, this poignant narrative will inspire readers to take leaps in their own lives. Think Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari on estrogen, with a dash of optimism and a few dozen wannabe-suitors thrown in.

While this is my first book, I’ve been published for years in newspapers and magazines. I turned stories for three years at the Houston Chronicle, and I hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I thrive on deadlines and enjoy the editing process. I’m 28: full of potential and worth your investment.

Madame or Mademoiselle? will bring readers by boat to Timbuktu, to Cameroon to deliver a gift to a grieving polygamous family and to a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight, when even an independent woman admits she’s vulnerable. I tested the saleability of these stories through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months, an impressive figure for an independent start-up.

Please let me know whether you’re interested in looking over my 29-page proposal, plus two sample chapters. I’ve provided a self-addressed, stamped postcard for your response.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant

After hearing on Twitter that agent Jessica Faust would critique several queries on an Editor Unleashed forum, I jumped at the opportunity to submit mine. Faust is on my list of agents I plan to approach, so having her feedback would be useful. She’ll critique my query and four others during a live online discussion on Editor Unleashed on May 13 at 11 a.m. I’ll let you know what she suggests!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear YOUR suggestions. Is this short and sweet enough? Does it get my point across? What can I do better?

Finding an agent

So I’d like an agent to represent me. How to go about finding one?

For starters, I can weed out everyone who’s not interested in the genre of my book. I need an agent who represents authors of travel memoirs, adventure stories or narrative nonfiction.

The best way — in my newbie opinion — for writers to find agents who have represented books like theirs is to actually look at — you guessed it — books like theirs. Check out the acknowledgments page, where the author likely thanked her agent. (If she didn’t, the agent probably wasn’t very good anyways.)

My bookshelf, for example, is full of travel memoirs written by women. (Yes, I’ve read them all.) So I skimmed acknowledgments looking for agent mentions in Eat, Love, Pray; Tales of a Female Nomad; Around the Bloc; and Without reservations. Whatdayaknow! That produced a short list of agents who take on projects like mine. Even better, these agents have successfully sold travelogues.

I’m also a fan of Mediabistro’s Pitching an Agent series, which features a new literary agent every few weeks. These articles explain what types of projects agents are looking for, submissions that turn them off and other useful information that can give a writer hints about who to query. To access the columns, you’ve gotta pay an annual fee, but it’s reasonable, worth it and comes with other perks.

Then there’s the old-school agent directory. I own an over-highlighted Guide to Literary Agents, which has led me to a few gems.

And, of course, use your connections! Talk to friends. Follow other writers on Twitter and ask for agent recommendations. Go through your college alumni directory — When I did this for Northwestern University, where I got my master’s degree in journalism, I connected with a literary agent who happened to have experience representing authors of travel memoirs. Some would say that’s luck, but I say it’s looking hard until you find what you want.

Once you’ve discovered an agent that looks promising, check out his Web site for submissions guidelines. Some only accept e-mails. Others still prefer snail mail queries. And each has their own quirky rules about what they want from you and how they want it. Follow those rules, and you’re probably already a step ahead of other writers who haven’t demonstrated that competence.

Although my query letter is written — and I’ll share that with you in a future post — I won’t query agents until I’ve completed my sample chapters and added them to my book proposal. That way, when one (or two or three or four!) agent requests my book proposal, I’ll be able to send it straight away.

So which agents did I choose, and why? Here’s a sample of the dozen who will receive a personalized query letter. Each of these agents accept either travel stories, memoirs or narrative nonfiction:

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Do I need a literary agent?

Until I began learning about the publishing process, I thought only movie stars had agents.

Turns out wannabe authors do, too. But why, you ask, would a writer want to hire an agent?

Literary agents serve as intermediaries between author  hopefuls and publishers, helping writers polish their proposal, shop it around to publishers and negotiate contract terms. They take care of the money-related tasks required to publish a book, so the author can focus on writing. And they work off commission — generally 15 percent of whatever the book brings in.

They also help newbies like myself  understand the publishing process, which is the primary reason why I want one. As friends in the industry have explained to me, I don’t really need an agent to get my book published, but having one likely would increase my chances of selling my book to a large publisher. And since an agent would negotiate for me the best possible contract — partly because that pays her commission — I’d probably get a better deal with one at my side.

At least a dozen literary agents maintain well-read blogs that offer tips and ideas. Literary agency BookEnds, one of my favorites, has a few great entries about working with agentsMiss Snark, the literary agent stopped posting in 2007, but writers find her blog so helpful that they still refer to it. And literary agent Nathan Bransford offered an “agent for a day” contest on his blog, so writers could get a taste of what it’s like to look through piles of submissions. (I link to these agent blogs and others on the right-hand sidebar.)

Of course, plenty of writers manage to get published without the help of an agent. Some approach publishers themselves or take other routes that don’t involve agents, such as the increasingly popular method of self-publishing.

But me? I’ve got enough to worry about just crafting this story. I’d like to find an agent sooner rather than later, so we can interest a publisher in my manuscript while I’m writing it, instead of waiting until it’s complete. That would give me peace of mind — knowing I’m working on a project a publisher will actually buy — and provide me with an advance (aka income) to keep me financially afloat while I write.

Here’s the catch: I can’t simply hire an agent. They have to want me and my proposed book.

Writers get the attention of agents through a one-page query, a letter asking the agent to consider their project. It’s short and sweet, a summary of the project and a bit about the author’s qualifications, and written in a catchy way that entices the agent to read more. (I’ll dedicate a blog post to query letters sometime soon.)

If the agent is interested, she’ll request the writer’s book proposal, a document I explained in an earlier post that includes an outline of the book, promotion plan, working title and two sample chapters.