How To Query A Literary Agent

Ye Olde Query Letter

Ye Olde Query Letter

I loathe writing. On the other hand I’m a great believer in money.

–S.J. Perelman

Many large publishing houses accept only manuscripts submitted by agents. Many agents aren’t interested in representing unpublished authors. So now what?

If you are an unpublished novelist, don’t bother a literary agent or anyone else in the book business until you have finished writing your novel. Agents and editors work at desks surrounded by stacks of completed manuscripts and are too busy to entertain “ideas” that may one day become books.

Writers of nonfiction who are also experts in their book’s subject may attract an agent by submitting a compelling proposal, outline, and sample chapters. But most editors and agents advise aspiring writers that time spent peddling an unfinished book would be better spent finishing it.

If you have a complete manuscript, you should approach one or more literary agents by writing a query letter; introduce yourself and your book, and ask permission to submit the entire manuscript.

Books About Literary Agents

At you can peruse a database of literary agents and select one most likely to represent writers who work in your genre.

Or search Amazon for literary agentsAmazon Link.

Most agents belong to the Association of Author Representatives, and their site offers a list of their members and more good advice about how to contact them. You’ll notice that most literary agents don’t include their phone numbers in their contact information — that’s because they hate phone calls from unpublished authors with unfinished books.

The Literary Marketplace also features an online directory of reputable literary agents, although these days it looks like you must register to gain “free” access.

Or visit Poe War: The Writer’s Resource Center, where I found the photo above and a great article by John Hewitt.

The Horror Writers Association has a great page devoted to frequently asked questions about literary agents at HWA Agents FAQ. Same goes for The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site, which features all kinds of advice for new writers, including an article on fee-charging agents.

The Nebraska Center For Writers also has a good collection of links and frequently asked questions for unpublished authors looking for agents.

Nicholas Sparks, the author of The Notebook has a nice site with a page called For Writers, with good advice for aspiring authors, including a link to the query letter Sparks used to sell his first novel, The Notebook.

Another nice collection of literary agent blogs and links may be found at: The Writer’s Resource Directory, including links to other samples and how-tos.

It’s possible to find more sample queries in the books recommended above, or by doing a google search on the terms “sample query letters”.

For an entertaining tour of some bad query letters, poke around on Miss Snark, Literary Agent.

10 thoughts on “How To Query A Literary Agent

  1. Pingback: Writing Advice from Cassandra Clare (part two) « Aerogramme Writers' Studio

  2. Moni

    Mr. Dooling;

    I wish to issue profuse thanks for what you have done here. Your words of wisdom will resonate with me for years to come. I just wanted to stop and let you know how much you’re appreciated. Again, thank you very much!

  3. Pingback: Rejection, Thy Constant Companion

  4. Pingback: The Art of Fictional Query Letters


    I have written four self-published novels, sold a total of 5,500 books through the efforts of friends, family and the publisher, but, despite following all the guide lines, have yet to attract a reputable Literary Agent. First timers beware of organisations such as First Writer, Raider etc etc.
    Just like you, I know my books are good and that is re-inforced by the number of complimentary letters and emails I have received over the years. Believe, and don’t give up until they’re nailing the lid down. Tell someone to put a copy of each of your books in the coffin, ’cause you never can tell………

    1. Sheila Garcia

      Your testimony struck a chord. I have just self-published my first novel, Lifesigns, to rave reviews of those who have read it. I am now understanding that I need an agent. I hear so much info which states that literary agents will not look at any self-published work. I know Lifesigns is good and have even had a pitch person consider it for a movie…
      It seems like an uphill battle.

  6. Paul

    Having finally pursued my dream of writing a book, I take very seriously the advice that is being made available by those who “have been there” such as yourself. Without a doubt the world of writing requires one to do their homework to avoid making mistakes AFTER the story itself has been written, which is tough enough without making a mess of the job afterward by not following proper guidelines when approaching agents or publishers. Thanks, Mr. Dooling.

  7. Richard Dooling Post author

    Dear Anonymous Coward:

    No way do you want an agent reading over your shoulder! Nobody knows what’s good except you and your readers. Any given agent can tell you one thing: Whether they think they can sell your book to an editor they know. Period. Full stop.

    Publishing is like every other industry or social organization: Agents know different editors, editors know different agents. None of them knows a damn thing except what they think will sell next year. Twenty-nine publishers turned down Harry Potter before Scholastic bought it. Are these the people you want looking over your shoulder telling you whether what you have so far is any good?

    Vladimir Nabokov said, “When it comes to to judging your own work, rely on the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs.” Okay, he was a wordy fellow. He was trying to say: “Give yourself goosebumps!” That’s how you know if it’s good. Other people, especially agents, can tell you only what worked last year. You’re writing what will work next year. Keep after it.


  8. Anonymous Coward

    You say to wait until my novel is finished before showing it to an agent or editor, but I feel weird waiting until I’m all done to show my book to an editor/agent type. It seems like someone should be reading over my shoulder to tell me whether what I have so far is any good or not . . .

Comments are closed.