Query Letter FAQ: How literary agents and publishers will evaluate it

So you’ve decided not to venture into the world of self-publishing yet. That brings you back to the process of wooing publishers or literary agents to represent you.

If you are aiming for the traditional publishers, chances are they would want you to get a literary agency to review your manuscript first and then forward it to them.

You know the reasons why – too many requests, paucity of time and effort (for the publishers), quality issues with the slush pile, yada yada.

What is a query letter?

A query letter is a sales tool that you send to literary agencies and publishers to get them to get interested in you and your work. It’s the most important (well, second most, if you reserve that crown for your manuscript) written piece of work that will decide if, when and how successful you will be in getting published.

Can I not skip the query letter phase?

Sure, if you know the publisher, if you are a famous celebrity (and the publisher/agent approaches you), if you are published author with an enviable sales record or if you own the publishing house…plus a whole lot of exceptional conditions where your credibility as an author whose books WILL sell overrides all other concerns that the publisher might have. If you are like everyone else struggling and wondering how to break into the publishing industry, you are better off spending your time thinking of ways to make your query letter more effective than looking for shortcuts.

How to write a query letter? Is there a standard template or format?

As in a regular letter, your query will also have a structure and format. Start off with a greeting, use a good hook to grab the agents attention, follow it up with synopsis of your work, share a little bit about yourself, thank the agent for considering your query, and finally end the letter politely. Simple, huh?

Well, the query letter template might appear ridiculously simple, but the devil lies in the detail. Each project is unique, each author is different and each agent is looking for something special. Combine the three together, add some flavouring and the whole thing starts looking ominous. So practice till you get your query letter template perfect and then customise it for each recipient.

What a query letter is NOT

– It is not an informal conversation. It is a formal business letter (yup, even if your genre is humour). Focus on the content, tone and voice that you use in the letter.
– It is not a chance to talk about all the projects that you are working on or have completed. Talk about 1 project at a time.
– It is not a vehicle to attach your entire book. Let the literary agency read what they want and then ask you for more.
– It is not an opportunity to try out cute and gimmicky stunts just for the sake of getting some attention and standing out of the pile.

How will literary agents evaluate your query letter?

Literary agents will look at the genre, your credentials, your platform and the other aspects that they think are relevant from their own perspective as well as the publisher’s viewpoint.

Sometimes publishers are looking for authors for specific genres and they communicate these requirements to the literary agencies. Sometimes, for agents, it is just a matter of pitching an idea that they think publishers might be interested in, based on their past interactions with these teams.

As an author there’s no way for you to know beforehand (unless the publishers have publicly announced it on their websites, maybe in the form of a competition to discover new authors). But you can increase your ‘hit-rate’ by trying to find out what individual agencies are looking for and querying them.

In most cases, the right place / right time / right agency combination will decide if you get the offer for representation from a good literary agency.

11 thoughts on “Query Letter FAQ: How literary agents and publishers will evaluate it”

  1. Hi Sameer,

    I have read many of your posts and have found them to be really useful and informative. Great work, I must say.

    I have finished writing my first novel and am at the query letter stage right now. I was wondering whether it is okay to send query letters or sample chapters to multiple literary agents at the same time.

  2. Thanks, Vivek.

    Yes, it’s perfectly fine (in fact, recommended) to send query letters to multiple agents simultaneously.

    There may be some who insist on exclusivity. But they’d mention that on their website or if/when they request for the full manuscript.

  3. Hi,

    Your article was really helpful.

    I wanted to find a publisher for a 52-page comic book for children. Not many publishers accept proposals for such a book, and neither do literary agents.

    However, I did manage to interest one publishing house, which even read the book, and said that they don’t really see a fit with their current publishing plan and that I would surely find a publisher more suited to my work.

    Now, this is definitely a rejection, but were they being polite in saying that another publisher would be interested?

    Anyway, since then I cannot approach any publisher directly as they don’t accept query letters for comics. Would you suggest approaching a literary agent to approach these publishers? If so, who would you recommend for a children’s comic?


  4. Dear Sameer,
    Can you please provide here a sample of query letter?
    That will give me a clear-cut idea about it.
    Thanks in advance!
    Nagarajan R. V.

  5. Nagarajan,

    It can tough to provide one query letter sample that works for everyone. It needs to be tweaked and customised based on the genre.

    You’ll find many query letter samples on the net for various genres.

  6. Hi sameer. Fantastic post with detailed clarity. Thank you for posting this 🙂
    Well this publishing business seems tougher than writing he book! I am in the process of getting replies from publishers . tell me , is it advisable to mail literary agents while concepts are already with publishers?

  7. Hello sir…
    i have been through these nd its v. informative…i have been searching for an agent for very long

    i have written Romantic fiction, around 70,000 wrds..

    plz suggest me sum…. i hv submitted my manuscript to many traditional publishers.. but still waiting for the reviews…

  8. Hi Sameer

    I am a class 10 student of DPS RK Puram and have written a science fiction novel. I have gone through numerous revisions in order to polish it to a level that I see fit, and now want to take the next step of publishing it. But before I do that, I’d like to get an agent to represent me- I don’t want to follow the self publishing route, as I’d like to get traditionally published.

    Now the problem lies in the fact that I don’t know whether any agents are willing to represent teenagers. So should I mention my age in the query letters I send out? Will it pose a liability or help me out in the process?

    Do read and reply at your convenience,

    Thanking you

    Udbhav Seth

  9. @Aspirer: You surely can mail agents too. But they’ll want to know which publishers you’ve already contacted. If you’ve covered the spectrum, they’ll probably turn down your request.

    @Sana: Here’s a list of India literary agents.

    @Udbhav: Literary agents do represent teenagers, though the number isn’t very big. You can share your age with them. It won’t work for or against you, as much as the quality of your writing, the story, the target market etc.

  10. Hi
    Actually I am confused shall I self publish or search a literary agent to represent my work I am currently in studying tenth standard . please tell me if it would be better to self publish or find a literary agent to publish my fiction which I have completed.
    Please reply at the earliest
    Thanks for your precious time


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