Literary agents on personalization in query letters
I’m always looking for the two “C” words – concept and craft.
What's the most important part of a query letter?
Here's a quick hierarchy:
1) Adherence to the agent's submission guidelines—if an agent isn't currently open to submissions, if they don't represent your genre, or if you fail to follow their basic instructions, it doesn't really matter how good your query is. Expect an auto-delete.
2) The pitch—if an agent is open to submissions in your genre, then the most important piece in your query letter is the pitch. If you are able to convey concept and craft, you will have struck query gold, which means the agent will turn to your sample pages with keen interest.
3) Everything else—other aspects of the query letter aren't unimportant, but let's face it, an amazing pitch from an unpublished writer is still an amazing pitch, and a cliché or confounding pitch from a published writer isn't going to get anyone too excited.
(Exception to the above: an nonfiction author's authority on a subject is often times as important as the pitch itself.)
How important is it to personalize a query letter?
Personalizing your query won’t hurt and could help.
—Elizabeth K. Kracht
As noted above, the pitch is the most important part of a query letter. However, other elements can still help elevate your submission. Personalization, if genuine, tells an agent that you've done your homework and that you'd like to work with them because of who they are and the authors they represent, and not simply because they can help you get published.
Literary agents on personalized query letters
It's important to keep in mind that advice about query letters is necessarily generalized, and of course literary agents vary in what they are looking for and what will catch their attention. So here are some of the best quotes from lit agents we've interviewed as part of our Book Broker series.
"Personalisation is a good sign the author is taking themselves seriously, and asking me to as well."
"I think it is nice when an author takes the time to see how their book may fit into your roster, in a thoughtful way. I also don’t mind if they connect somehow to things in my bio like my college or former jobs or places I’ve lived."
"I think the best personalization is usually thematic or general—just saying you liked a book on an agent's list is nice, but if you can genuinely describe what it was that really resonated with you as a reader or a thematic link between those books is great."
—Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts
"Honestly, if the query spells my name right and falls within the category I represent, that’s enough personalization for me."
—Mary C. Moore
"I’m strongly in favor of personalization. This is a business that runs on personal relationships, and it’s good to start as you mean to go on. I really do think the most effective way to personalize a query letter is to find a book I’ve represented that’s in the same wheelhouse as your own and then mention that in your letter to me. Extra points if you read the book and it actually is in some way similar to your own."
"A personalized query only goes so far—I respect when an author takes the time to find out about me and my interests, but my decision to request a manuscript won't be based on that."
"I love a little personalization, without going overboard. Alluding to having read my bio or noting how my interests align with your project goes a long way. No need to do an internet deep-dive to get my attention!"
"I think there’s a fine line between personal and trying too hard... You want to let the agent know why you’re specifically querying them, and if you mention one of their clients, it should be because it relates to your query and/or you genuinely read and really liked the book you’re bringing up. I do want to get a sense of who the writer is, but that is best done by the tone and content of the query and their bio."
"It’s really important to target your submissions—it’s a waste of both yours and the agent’s time if you don’t. So to show that you know and feel an affinity with the agent’s client list is vital. Any actually personal detail that has been gleaned from a trawl of an agent’s social media, though, is always a little unnerving!"
"Effective personalization includes spelling my name correctly and identifying clients of mine that the writer thinks would make good comps for their book."