Querying literary agents

Panda hiding in bambooLiterary agents, to many, are elusive creatures; difficult to find and communicate with in their native habitat.  Maybe like a panda or a snow leopard. Last month I wrote about whether you needed a literary agent. The majority of academic authors likely do not need one. Some, however, will need or benefit from one.

Briefly, an agent represents writers and their written works to publishers. They assist in the sale and negotiation between the writer and the publisher.

Let’s say you do want to try to secure one: how do you proceed? The first step is making a list of agents to approach. I wrote previously about some ways to target viable agents including website like Publisher’s Marketplace, the acknowledgments in the front of similar books, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, networking, and more.

When you have your list, what’s next? Short of an in-person meeting at a conference, most will connect with correspondence, usually email or letter. Check an agent’s website and see if they state a preference for method of contact.

Let’s assume they prefer to receive queries via email. The format of a query has been well established. There are some great books and websites that give great information on query letters. I suggest you follow the commonly accepted format in your hunt for an agent.

  1. Start with the agent’s name. Do not send to Whom it May Concern or Dear Sir or Madam. Target a specific individual not an agency.
  2. The first paragraph should be one or two sentences that explains how you came to contact them. Perhaps you know a client of theirs or admire a work they agented.
  3. The second and third paragraphs succinctly lay out the who, what, when, where, why. Present the overview of the project: a summary sentence, the status, the schedule, and your background. The information must be stripped down to the essentials. And it all needs to start with a great hook in that first sentence. Summarize your idea in this first sentence with an engaging statement about the work.
  4. The fourth paragraph should discuss the market and any major competitor (and how your book differs).
  5. The final paragraph should be an offer to send a complete proposal with a sample chapter. Important: don’t send any queries unless you have a polished final proposal and sample chapter(s) written and ready to go!

Shoot to have the whole email fit onto one printed page. The whole query might be only 15 sentences or less. Of course, sign it with your contact information and how to connect with you on social media, etc. No attachments please.

The goal of the query is to leave the reader wanting more. Succinct and tight language is essential. Write it; read it; edit it; hone it. Show it to your colleagues and friends and make it sing.

Very important: proofread it to ensure there are no errors. Also, please be conventional and don’t try to be quirky or out of the box. Stick to the format. And don’t be pushy.

Send the query(s) and then the wait begins.  Be patient. If you want to follow up, wait at least four weeks.  Be polite and acknowledge the agent is busy.

As you seek your goal, be attentive to all the small details. Your subject is elusive but not impossible to find.


John BondJohn Bond is a publishing consultant at Riverwinds Consulting. He has been in scholarly publishing for over 25 years. In his career, he has directed the publishing of over 500 book titles and 20,000 journal articles. His newest book is the new edition of You Can Write and Publish a Book: Essential Information on How to Get Your Book Published, Second Edition. He is the host of the YouTube channel “Publishing Defined.” Contact him at jbond@riverwindsconsulting.com.