An Open Letter To Literary Agents – The Art of Writing Letters

Dear Agents,

Authors have many resources on how to write a query letter: from books, to forums that provide feedback, to the agents themselves. In my own quest to get my novel published and the seemingly endless query process that accompanies it, I have noticed that many agents could use the very same critical eye of an editor as authors. Ultimately, authors are potential clients who might make an agent a lot of money. Failing to be professional in all communication causes that potential client to question how capable you are in the rest of your business affairs . My aim here is not to call out any individual agent but to provide advice to help improve the industry standard.

1. To agents whose guidelines request just a query letter and synopsis:

The only things you can learn from a query letter and synopsis are that an author has a good idea, knows how to summarize a novel, and knows how to market themselves. An author who can do these two things well is no guarantee of a quality novel. Asking for even just five pages of text tells you so much more about the style and quality of the work than any query or synopsis ever could.

2. To agents who only respond to queries if they’re interested:

This policy certainly saves you time, but leaves the author wondering if their query was received. At the very least, give an idea of your response time in your guidelines. Even better, send an automated response that you have received. This will save you the time spent on follow up emails asking if a query was received.

3. To agents with poorly written rejection letters:

An impersonal “Dear Author” letter is just as unprofessional as an impersonal “Dear Agent” letter. If you’ve decided to use form emails, a simple “Thank you for your query.” will substitute nicely as a salutation.

Second, avoid wordiness. Unless you’re sending feedback, a good rejection letter can easily be written in 50 words or less.

Finally, before sending out rejection letters, have a friend or colleague read over it. A poorly written letter can lose you future business. SOME EXAMPLES: Saying “I’m sorry you didn’t send enough to intrigue me” suggests the author should have sent more than your guidelines ask for. “I’m sorry your story just didn’t pan out” doesn’t really say anything relevant. Finally, “My boss has limited room for additional projects and this just ain’t it” really makes one wonder about your interpersonal communication skills.

4. To agents who do not accept electronic submissions:

All businesses of a certain scale now have email. I don’t really understand the waste of paper, postage, and time.

5. To agents who are unprofessional on social media:

Your official social media is your public face and as such a prospective client‘s first impression and should be just as professional as other correspondence. Authors do not care that your favorite TV show is back on, what your favorite food is, or that you and your friends are catching drinks when you’re in town. They do care what conferences you are attending, that your author has released their new book, that you’re closed to queries, and about the convenient resources for authors that you post. It’s unprofessional to make your prospective clients sift through the chaff to get to the wheat.

One detail I really love seeing is how many queries an agent has received and how many partials/fulls they’ve requested.

6. To agents who have responded personally:

Thank you. Almost every personalized rejection letter has been extremely professional. Several agents have even taken the time to help me improve my own query process, either in advice on their website, in their rejection letter, or in their response to my questions. I just wanted to take a moment to thank them and encourage more agents to do the same.

Trevor Boylan

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