Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's Really NOT About Who You Know...

I think there's an idea floating around out there that you have to "know someone" to get an agent, or meet one at a conference, or somehow be connected. But the truth is that about 50% of my clients have come to me completely cold--via an unsolicited query letter. And I am often competing with really top agents for projects that have come in unsolicited, so I know that they are getting clients this way as well. 

To inspire you, I wanted to show you guys a few great query letters that not only hooked me but garnered multiple offers of representation and then sold in the US and also abroad. The one I'm featuring today is for a book that we ended up calling THE GHOST BRIDE. It sold at auction in the US to Morrow and in the UK to Hot Key Books, a new division of Bonnier. The author was choosing among a number of really good agents, all of whom requested her manuscript based on this unsolicited query: 

 Dear Ms. Bent, 

 Li Lan, a young Chinese woman in lush, 1890s colonial Malaya, hopes for a favorable marriage. But the proposal she receives from the wealthy Lim family is for their dead son, who begins to shadow her dreams. 

By day Li Lan visits the opulent Lim mansion under the aegis of the matriarch, Madam Lim, and is hopelessly drawn to the charismatic new heir. By night, however, she haunts the vast halls of the other Lim ancestral home, a ghostly reflection constructed of burned paper funeral offerings, where she must endure the courtship of the dead man. But when her attempts to break free prove almost fatal, Li Lan herself becomes a wandering spirit in the streets of Malacca. Doomed to wither away, Li Lan must uncover her dead suitor’s secrets in the elaborate world of the Chinese afterlife, with its parallel ghost cities, paper servants, and monstrous bureaucracy, before she is permanently severed from her body. 

TALES OF A MALAYAN GHOST BRIDE, a literary ghost story, is based on a peculiar historic custom amongst the Chinese in Malaysia called a spirit marriage. I've followed your blog and interviews with interest, and hope this novel will appeal to you, given your enthusiasm for literary and historical fiction. Book club fans of Lisa See’s “Peony in Love”, or Susan Waters' "The Little Stranger" may also be intrigued by this richly colorful world of Southeast Asian superstition. 

 I am a Malaysian who came to America to study at Harvard. TALES OF A MALAYAN GHOST BRIDE is my debut novel, complete at 120,000 words. Per your submission guidelines, I’m pasting the first ten pages below. 

Thank you for your time and consideration, 

Yours, Yangsze Choo 

Now, why is this letter so good? It has all the elements I encourage people to include in their queries: a great logline, a terrific summary, a fabulous hook, comp titles of other books that I love, a compelling reason for querying me in particular, and intriguing biographical information that is relevant to the book she has written. 

She starts with her terrific logline, which delivers the plot but also the emotional core of the story. You want always to include the emotional hook as part of your logline. It's two sentences, not one, which is fine. 

Then she has a one paragraph summary. When an author can boil the plot of their book down into one concise paragraph like this, and make it lively and interesting, I know this an author who has a real handle on her plot. She gets what's essential about her story and she knows how to present it. 

Then she has the great hook that the book is based on a real custom. She explains why she's querying me in particular, which I love to see in a query. Her comp titles are terrific and books I like. And finally, her biographical info ties into the plot of her novel in a really intriguing way. You'll see that she doesn't have traditional literary credentials like an MFA or publication credits, and that's okay. She did the exact right thing to do in that scenario and by telling me that she is Malaysian, explains how her personal story influences the story she has written. For agents and publishers, this is as valuable, if not more valuable, than an MFA, because it's an interesting tidbit to use when pitching the media about the book. 

So there you have it. Yangsze didn't have connections, all she had was a great query and an email account. She did her homework and pitched agents who represent this kind of book (and of course she wrote a great book, but that's the subject of a different blog). Hope everyone out there querying will take notice, and take heart, that sometimes talent really is all that you need to get ahead.

UPDATE:  Please check out Yangsze's new blog here and her Facebook page, with awesome pics of Malaysia:  https://www.facebook.com/yschooauthor


  1. Thank you! I just sent a query to you a couple days ago, but this is great advice moving forward and for anyone who hasn't queried you yet.

    It's so interesting how different agents look for such different things in their queries. I actually love doing the research for each agent! It's like a scavenger hunt. "Does she want me to mention similar books or books I enjoy, or does this agent hate when writers do that?"

  2. This is an interesting, and somewhat encouraging article. I believe what you say, of course, and I believe that naturally not everyone who gets an agent has done so through personal connections and elbow-rubbing.

    That being said, I still think this may be the exception to the rule, given what I have seen and heard. I don't at all intend to suggest that you don't know what you are talking about, as clearly you do. I mean only that your take on this has, based on my experience fallen into quite the minority. (I hope there are others of you out there with a similar view.)

    I concede that perhaps my interpretation of this being an exception to the rule may be based on a perception. Yet that perception about literary agents is quite pervasive in the writing world. You must already know that, else you would not have titled the post as you did.

    As a writer who feels more and more wary about even bothering to look for an agent when the time comes, (I am strongly considering self-publishing), this is somewhat refreshing. But I think perhaps agents as a whole might want to consider just how unapproachable they are beginning to appear to new writers at large these days.

    What can be done about the perception? I have no idea. Yet it does to me seem to be quite deeply entrenched.

    1. Ty, i hear what you're saying. as someone who's gone through an MFA program, the view of publishing was hard to pin down easily before I got an agent and a book deal. I would argue that my perception of publishing as it was presented via MFA related writers was different when I compared it to the experience of actual published authors who write for a living (or write and teach part-time). it's not so much that my professors or visiting writers didn't tell me the truth, but sometimes the process is so different for everyone (or happened long enough ago) that there's little to base your expectations on.

      honestly, agents aren't hard to approach -- there're conferences to meet them in person and all sorts of ways to learn about them thanks to blogs and twitter so when you email or talk to them you can say something intelligent and natural.

      It's just daunting to consider the things that have to align for a writer to land an agent. not just the quality and content of your project, but what kind of stuff they want to represent. They might already have a book like yours in the pipeline; they might not have the right editor connections to sell your amazing book. sometimes it's not about you but about the publishing environment.

      Consider what Jenny points out -- that the query cites not just why the writer is perfect to write the novel, but also why Bent is the best agent. Do that for every query and you find yourself doing lots of research and still getting lots of rejection.

      Let me say this -- i had a couple of referrals for agents from very good writers/friends. I did not get those agents because my book wasn't right for the agent. I actually got a decent amount of positive rejections -- agents that wanted me to succeed but couldn't help me succeed with the project I was pitching. Or I just wasn't the right fit for them (too literary in some cases, too satirical in others, too serious, too this too that). But those positive rejections kept me afloat and made me understand that agents WANT to find good writers but they have so much to consider that it's not always as simple as it seems like it should be.

      But if you have a book that's ready and your query is strong, then you just keep trying and write something else while those queries are out (so you don't sit by the inbox all day).

      I queried 80 agents for a short story collection i wrote for my MFA (some agents came to me after reading stories published in Granta, Narrative, and other places); I queried 120 agents for an adult novel (some of whom were people who friend-writers had connected me with); then I queried 30 for a YA novel that I wrote and never knew if I would sell.

      My agent loved my query and loved my MS but had no idea who I was otherwise. (in fact, I was so used to rejections that i had to read the email from her four times before I understood that it DIDN'T have the line "but I'm going to pass on it for now...")

      I was glad she liked it because she was one of my top choices when i queried, but I also knew by that point that my query was strong because I KNEW MY BOOK. and, of course, I suspect my agent would LIKE it, but consider Jenny Bent's post -- it's more about how well you know your work. because I couldn't predict that my agent (and later my editor) would love the things about the book that I thought were really weird (main character talks to an imaginary pigeon therapist and quotes Walt Whitman).

      So, yes, it's daunting. and when I think about whether my agent would have represented me had the sunshine been at a different angle or if my opening line were different I just start to drive myself nuts. even now.

    2. Beautiful, haunting, mysterious, intriguing. ;-)

  3. Wow. Just reading the letter made me want to read the book. Thanks so much for the advice, Jenny!

  4. The book does sound irresistible! Makes me think of Hayao Miyazaki's 'Spirited Away,' except historical fiction in print with a romantic twist! Can't wait to read.

  5. This is such a great post (and a great letter). Thank you for taking the time to share this. I also can't wait to read the completed novel! And I'm now totally fascinated by this concept. So interesting!

  6. Not only is your post helpful, but the query makes me want to read this book! Thank you for sharing this!

  7. I must say, Jenny Bent, that I'm shocked that a novel set in the 19th century in Malaysia got so many offers. While probably not as good, my 21st century novel set in China faces resistence. Lisa See does very well with novels set in China over 100 years ago, but novels set in 21st China don't do that well, which is surprising taking into account the influence of China in the world.
    Feel free to click on my blog to learn about China today.

  8. I'm just now working on my first query letters and this information is priceless! Thanks so much for the practical, and motivating material.

  9. What an inspirational post. I know many authors have given up the hope of finding an agent or finding the "magical" formula for a selling query. You breathed new life into the fading dreams of many authors. In the end, I think you have to make the agent want to read more just as a simple reader herself.

    I thank you for the many authors with failing dreams whom you helped with your post. For myself, I have given up the hope of finding that agent and winning query structure. May you have great success in finding high sales for your clients, Roland

  10. Thank you for sharing this valuable information with all of us out here, who continue in their efforts to find an agent for representation.

  11. Finding an agent is like finding a husband. You don't just, y'know hop from one to the other in hopes it's going to fit. You choose wisely. They do too. It takes time. It takes the right story- a good story!
    It also takes a query that not only hooks and gives a clear "sense" of story, but also a sense of its author too. This one slams every bit of that, and there is no wonder to its success! Well done and congratulations!

  12. That query rocks. I agree. I want to read the book right now! Kuddos to the author. Thank you for this great article.

  13. Such a helpful post, and encouraging for those of us who are hoping to break out of the slush pile! And the book sounds fabulous.

  14. Thank you: not just encouraging, but useful info, too. I loved that Yangsze didn't get tangled up in explaining her qualifications (or 'lack' thereof.

    PS - the first captcha I was offered looks like the starting point for a science fiction bio-hazard novel ;)

  15. As a friend, I've read the tantalizing pre-edited first 75 pages and can't wait to read the full final work when it is published. If you ever meet Yangsze in person, you'll find she is just as interesting as her writing. (and very humble as well!)

  16. Thank you for the excellent post. It's very encouraging and the visual example/explanation helps more than anything when trying to learn how to properly write a query.

  17. Thanks! This very encouraging for me. :)

  18. Thanks! Your advice was definitely helpful and encouraging for someone like me: unpublished but trying hard! :)

  19. Thank you miss Bent! Your words truly inspire and the visual defiynitely helps.

  20. This was an interesting and encouraging article to read!

    One question: when I've been doing my query, every single person says: start with a great, one sentence hook. Nothing about loglines, etc. Then, we're always advised: don't get too personal. No "my books is like this book", etc. And only use bio if it's something that truly qualifies you to write the book.

    So...is that also correct? Or do we need to follow the format here (which clearly worked), or is there truly no one answer to "how do I write a query letter?"