If you seek to get published, you have probably come up against a great deal of frustration over what should and should not go in a query letter…
…and you’re probably totally overwhelmed by the advice you’ve gotten thus far.
While this is understandable – among a thousand different literary agents there might be a thousand different opinions – there is a basic truth that pervades every one of those opinions.
Through all of the noise, you can predict one simple reality that will dictate how long your query letter should be.
Consider the day in the life of a literary agent. They get up, go to work, and manage the careers of any number of literary luminaries. In fact, we can safely assume that the below list represents what gets them fired up on any given day they’re on the job:
1. Discovering the great American novel
2. Signing a seven-figure deal
3. Earning a large enough commission to take a vacation with their spouse
4. Reading query letters
5. Becoming the agent of the next Louise Hay or Spencer Johnson
Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Wait a minute.
Not so fast, “reading query letters.”
The truth is, no agent in the history of book publishing has ever gotten up in the morning and said, “Oh boy, I hope I get to read a hundred query letters today!”
Of course they haven’t ever said this. Literary agents have as much interest in reading query letters as casting directors have in looking at headshots and recruiters have in reviewing resumes.
In other words, they have no interest in these things at all.
The simple reality that pervades all of publishing is that the only value of a query letter is that it is a necessary step in the process of a publishing professional achieving their own goals. When an agent gets excited over a query letter, it’s not because they enjoyed the query letter itself – they’re excited for what the letter promises they will have in the future.
What this means is that query letters need to be only as long as is necessary to compel the agent to get in touch so that they can actually read your material. I’ve actually read query letters that were upwards of 400 or 500 words long, which is essentially a full page of single-spaced 11- or 12-point text. When an agent looks at a query letter that’s that long, do they think, “Sweet! Look at all of that query letter I get to read!”?
No. They do not. They’re probably thinking, “Crap, look at all of that query letter I’m supposed to read,” or maybe, “I wonder what I should have for lunch.”
The point is, a dense, difficult-to-read query letter will only reduce your chances of hearing back. If you were to review my cheat sheet on query letters (click here to get it), you would see that I recommend you try to keep your letter to under 175 words as a general rule of thumb. With such a short letter, you really will have to polish off your copywriting skills.
But if that’s a bit too extreme, you could do well to have one slightly longer. One of my clients got an agent and a really nice deal at a major publisher with a letter that was about 230 words long.
Either way, if you’re writing a novel before someone actually reads, you know, your novel, then you’re undermining your chance of hearing back at all – let alone with a positive response.
A query letter’s value is defined not by how much it says, but how quickly it compels the professional into action. And if you can compel them in only a couple of hundred words, then you’ve shown them your competence and professionalism right out the gates.
And then you can use the brilliance of your work to show them that their excitement about you was totally justified.
If you’re interested in the other mistakes undermining your ability to hear back from agents, click here for that cheat sheet.