What makes for a successful query letter? 💌
Today's guest is senior literary agent Adria Goetz.
Figuring out what a literary agent wants can feel like trying to solve an impossible riddle.
It can feel frustrating to receive rejections that don’t help you understand why a literary agent didn’t want to look further into your project, especially after you put so much time and effort into constructing your query package.
Sometimes tweaking your pitch can make all the difference.
If you receive multiple rejections, it might be time to step back and look at your query letter again. Are you being specific in the ways you describe your novel? Sometimes, all it takes for a mediocre query letter to become a successful one is changing a few sentences. Once you nail down a clear and concise blurb for your novel, you’ll be able to better hook agents into requesting a full manuscript, then hopefully inspire them to make an offer of representation!
In today’s interview, senior literary agent Adria Goetz goes over what she enjoys in successful query letters, what could be improved in mediocre ones, and how she builds up confidence in her debut author clients.
OUR SPECIAL GUEST TODAY IS…
Senior Literary Agent
Her current #MSWL includes picture books by author-illustrators, graphic novels, rom coms, thrillers, and book club fiction. If you’re interested in querying her, read more about her specific interests here.
What separates a strong, successful query from one that you pass on?
Using specific details! I often see queries that have a lot of vague language talking about the themes of a project, which feels sort of fluffy to me. I want to know the specific details of the story right away. If you can clearly and concisely describe the project and I feel like it has a strong hook, then I'm going to be really excited to check out the sample pages.
What's the biggest challenge facing debut authors today, and how do you help your clients overcome it?
I think uncertainty is the biggest challenge facing debut authors, and all authors really, right now. There is so much uncertainty with how things are going to continue to change in the industry as a result of the pandemic. I think a lot of debut authors are feeling like they're standing in quicksand and are searching for solid ground, so I try to help clients find that solid ground when I can.
The main way I do that is through transparency in communication—I share as much information as possible because when you're anxious and don't know what to expect, any little detail is appreciated. I also try to brace clients for bumps in the road that they could experience—when you've been told that your publication date could be pushed out or your book could get stuck on a ship for weeks or your editor could leave the industry, it's less overwhelming or surprising when it actually happens.
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What is one thing you wish emerging authors knew about the publishing industry or the traditional publishing process?
This is going to sound like a womp, womp, Eeyore type of answer, but I wish that emerging authors knew that rejection and frustration does not stop once you sign with an agent. I think a lot of newer writers think that once they sign with the right agent, everything is going to be peachy keen: they're going to quickly land the deal of their dreams, they're going to receive a lot of marketing and publicity support from their publisher, their book is going to sell like hotcakes. But in fact, there is still a lot of rejection and disappointment ahead. The process is very slow. Not every project sells. Not every book gets the support it needs. It's a bumpy road! My advice is to hang in there, control what you can control, ask questions, communicate clearly, and celebrate the little wins.
How can querying authors ensure their sample pages are engaging and intriguing?
It's a hard thing to articulate, but sometimes I'll begin reading sample pages and the writing is so fluid that it feels less like reading and more like a river has picked me up and is gently carrying me through the pages. I love when that happens. Pay attention to when your critique partners or beta readers say they "bumped" or "snagged" at certain moments of your writing. Those are usually the sharp bits that make things feel less fluid to read.
Can you share a client success story or a motivating anecdote for writers who feel may discouraged about publishing?
The first thing I thought of was The World’s Longest Sock, which is the debut picture book of author/illustrator Juliann Law. We began shopping this project right before the pandemic hit, when the industry was being thrown into chaos. We had to knock on door after door after door until the right one finally opened at WorthyKids, an imprint of Hachette.
One thing that is special about Juliann's journey is the way she mirrored the story she was telling. Her book is about two characters vying to knit the world's longest sock and they keep knitting and knitting and knitting and the reader watches as their socks grow. When Juliann first started drafting this story, she began knitting a sock. And like her characters, she kept knitting and knitting and knitting. She can now show you how many rows it took her to complete the original dummy, how many rows it took to query agents until we signed together, how many rows it took to sell the book, to finish the final art, to publish. It's fascinating and inspiring to see a physical representation of the publishing journey. Now she has a really fun, colorful visual aid to bring to author events.
Thanks so much for your advice! I find it so helpful in my struggle to get my query letter just right. I care deeply about my character, Randi, and I want my potential readers to care about her too!
I love the chapter breaks! I have wondered whether agents in the Epic Fantasy genre where series are the rule, not the exception, look for anything in particular in a query letter. A Chapter Break with one of them would be awesome. Keep up the great work!