Have you got any good hints for agent query letters, or how to find one? I’ve self-published eight books on Kindle, and with my new series (that isn’t self-published yet), I’d like to try traditional publishing, but all I’m getting are rejections. My self-published books get decent reviews, so I think my quality can’t be that bad…
First, a caveat. I used to belong to a writer email loop, and one time some new authors were sharing their difficulties with submissions. An established author, who had published a break out work a couple of decades ago, immediately informed everyone that this was not how the process worked and that they didn’t understand things. This person hadn’t had to submit their work for a very long time. They simply informed the publisher that their next novel was ready, and the publisher was overjoyed. They completely missed the fact that a debut author’s experience was vastly different and the industry had progressed in the last 20 years.
I haven’t had to hunt for an agent or shop my work for 10 years. Like many established writers, I have only my own frame of reference. My experiences may not be applicable to you.
Now on to the querying process.
Your question is telling me that you are misunderstanding the way this business works. It’s not about your reviews. It’s about your sales. Do you have sales? How many? Get those numbers.
Before you sit down to write your query, let’s gather some data.
- Genre of the work
- Word Count
- Prior sales and experience
- Top 5 choices for your agent
Let’s say that I’m self-published author Lorna Sterling. I have a fantasy romance series of 5 books, which I selfpublished. I chose to not enter it into KU. It sold a total of 30,000 copies.
My new fantasy novel is about a magic military academy focused on creating Pairs. A Pair is a team of two fighters bonded together by magical means which allows them to achieve synergy in battle. The members of a Pair usually consist of a Blade and a Shield, one person who is using offense and one person who defends. Sometimes there are variations, people who can use both offensive and defensive tactics or teams that have two Blades, for example. We are going to have a lot of fights in this book, so we need variety.
At the end of their training, Pairs enter a tournament that determines their placement. The best performing Pairs get cushy jobs like King’s Guard. The worst performing Pairs end up in the city watch or on the border protecting the Kingdom from some terrible threat, we will need to think about it.
I’m building this as we go, so let’s see, I need a hero, let’s name him Ludwig, because I’m feeling German this morning and the name means “famous warrior.” I need a heroine, we will name her Ella in keeping with a German theme.
They need solid motivations for entering this academy. Let’s say Ella’s mother came from a successful merchant family and she married a minor noble. Ella is the oldest of three children, with her sister and brother significantly younger then her, probably about 5 or 6 years. Although Ella has the Pair magic and it is very strong, her plan was never to enter the academy. She was just planning to take over her mother’s business interests, marry for love, and live a comfortable life.
However, Ella’s mother died under suspicious circumstances, and she has a strong feeling that her father might have caused that death. Immediately after her mother’s death, her father assumed control of Ella’s mother’s inheritance. He rapidly remarried and he is very determined to assert his control over his children. Ella needed a place where he couldn’t get to her until she reached majority. The academy provides such a place and if she manages to place in the top three Pairs at the tournament, she will be given a noble title, which will mean she will outrank her father. The title will allows her to wrestle the control of her siblings and the estate away from her malicious parent.
Ella’s challenge in all of this is that she is entering the academy during the final year, meaning she has 12 months instead of the usual 36 to prep for the tournament and find a partner.
We have Ella, so let’s go to Ludwig. Ludwig is hiding his identity. He comes from a prominent Pair family, famous for producing prodigies. Unfortunately, his father was set up by someone he considered a friend. These accusations led to a charge of treason, and when the so-called friend, let’s give him a name… medieval German male name google… Berold. When Berold came to serve the arrest warrant, Ludwig’s parents resisted and were murdered. Ludwig was taken away by his uncle at the last moment and raised far away from the capital, but he vividly remembers that night and watching his parents die.
Berold is now a highly placed lord in the court. Maybe he is the head of some Investigative Bureau or something. Anyhow, he is going to personally award the honors to the winners of the tournament, and Ludwig needs to be among those winners because he is planning to nuke Berold at all costs. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s Pair partner is killed.
Ludwig desperately needs a partner to realize his vengeance, Ella desperately needs a partner to free her siblings, they’re both difficult, their pairing should never work, but somehow it does, and so on. As the fighting synergy and feelings develop, can the two of them survive the steel gauntlet of the academy and put aside their goals to save each other?
Woo, the most predictable plot in the universe. So this is probably a fantasy romance or fantasy with romantic elements. We are going to note this but we won’t be pigeonholing ourselves in the query.
This could be an adult book or it could be a YA. The most common wordcount should be around 90-95K, so we can go about 10K over or 10K under.
Now comps, stories that are similar. So this is a little bit similar to Soul Eater, which is an anime where school children also form pairs, but there one of them literally becomes a weapon that their partner wields. It is also similar to Jayne Castle’s St. Helen series, where one person in a pair is a psychic talent and the other is a prism. I would have to read to see if I could find closer comps that have been published more recently. Ooh, I can reference myself. Reminiscent of Fated Blades. There we go.
Now I need to look at the agents and see if they represent people who write similar things. If the agent represents mysteries, says they only want mysteries on their website, and has no clients in SF/F space, that’s probably a pass. Once you found your agent list, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research. The relationship between the agent and a writer is very personal and requires a lot of trust.
Building the Query
Fair warning, I’m rusty, so this will sound a lot like a book synopsis. It will be slightly cheesier than the tone you want in a query because I’m used to writing for readers rather than agents, and it will also be too long. Ideally you want 1-2 paragraphs for the story summary.
I’m seeking representation for my novel BLACK BLADE, which is complete at 95,000 words. (Very important: you finished it. Here is how long it is.) I very much enjoyed SILVER STAG by Author You Represent. Like SILVER STAG, my novel explores the themes of coming of age, personal sacrifice, and finding love against all odds.
(Note how I didn’t specify the genre of the novel. I know what it is, but I’m not going to categorize my work. It’s not about the label, it’s about the story.)
Like many young noblewomen, Ella Whisper had simple dreams. She’d marry for love, live a quiet happy life, and eventually inherit her mother’s business. But on Ella’s 17th birthday, her mother suddenly dies. Ella’s father assumes control of the business, confines Ella’s siblings, and arranges a marriage for Ella against her wishes.
Ella’s only hope is the Pair Academy, a military school that produces exceptional fighters. Bound by magic into Pairs, the Academy cadets train for their graduation tournament. If Ella’s Pair wins the tournament, she can pry her siblings and her inheritance from her father’s hands. Ella has the magic, but she doesn’t have the training or a partner, and with the tournament coming up in less than one year, the odds are impossible.
Ludwig Blackwood is a prodigy, a standout even in the Pair Academy filled with superior fighters. But he harbors a dangerous secret. He’s the son of a traitor, and if his true identity is revealed, he will be executed. Ludwig spent years honing his martial arts, all for the opportunity to confront the man who had falsely accused his father. To exact his revenge, he must win the Pair Academy’s graduation tournament, and he is well on track until his partner is murdered. Even with his exceptional skills, Ludwig can’t win alone. But his only option is a weak, untrained girl who barely knows which end of the blade to point at the enemy, and if he takes his revenge, she will be implicated by his actions.
To win, Ella and Ludwig must forge a connection that’s deeper than magic. But can they do it in time and will it be worth it at the end?
I’ve previously self-published a fantasy romance series Gemstone Magic, which sold 30,000 copies.
Thank you for your consideration,
Important point to hit: make sure your voice comes through in the query. Don’t go too mechanical or too flowery. Just try to match your narrative the best you can.
And there you have it. One slightly cheesy query for your enjoyment. I very much enjoyed this break from my own writing, so my brain must’ve needed it.