Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How to personalize a query

Nathan here! My friend Rachel Stout used to be a literary agent at Dystel & Goderich, and now she teaches a course on querying called Query Mastery, which provides live sessions, modules, resources, and community to help you hone your pitch.

I asked Rachel to write a guest post on the best approach to personalizing a query. Take it away, Rachel!

Anyone who spends more than a few minutes perusing articles and blog posts about writing, querying, and the publishing world in general (read: you) is already aware that the best shot a writer has of getting an agent to read their work is to research and to personalize their query letter to show that research.

Well, guys—good news. As a former literary agent and current query coach and consultant for authors (among other things), I’ve got some pretty good tried and true tips for you. Better than that, they’re super simple to implement.

Let’s go over some basics on research and personalization as well as some pretty important what not to dos.

It’s all in a name. Really.

Your first tip on personalization is to get the agent’s name right. Look, I know that sounds like child’s play and is too obvious for even the thought of a mention, but as an agent, I received queries with my name misspelled, addressed to an ambiguous “Dear Agent,” addressed to another agent entirely or even written in a different font that lead me to believe that the author was just copying and pasting dozens of names in haphazardly. And those letters weren’t necessarily anomalies. I’d wager a guess that I received them several times a week for five years running.

Even if your query is going to a submissions@ generic email address, ALWAYS use a specific name—and know why you’re using that name over any other name on the agency’s website.

Any agent who receives a query that is simply addressed “Dear Agent,” is going to (probably correctly) assume that this query has been sent out to a hundred other generic “agents” with no real care who got it as long as their business card stated they were in the business of representing and trying to sell books. If the querying author doesn’t seem to care all that much, why should the “Agent”?

(I will say, queries I received that were addressed to “Dear Agent Stout,” I did not dismiss because they made me feel like I was a super cool spy.)

Even the most carefully curated and personalized letters sent to a specific agent you’re really excited about need to be proofread. Focusing on those “more important” details often means that you forget to go back to the top to double check that the agent’s name is there and correct. Make sure you’re doing that—every time.

Little things help a lot.

Sometimes there are big important reasons you hopefully query an agent and wait for their reply, biting your nails down to the quick and jumping out of your chair every time you get an email notification. Those are your dream agents—the agents who represent your favorite authors or who are well known to be very successful in your genre. Definitely query them*,  but also keep an eye out for the connections you can make with agents that are a little more mundane, yes, but maybe all the more successful because of that.

[*Side piece of advice here. Never, ever be too intimidated to query any agent. I find that so many authors don’t think they’re “good enough” for big name agents or agents who have been in the business and doing it well for decades. Throw that nonsense out the window! At the end of the day, it comes down to the writing and the storytelling, not whether you’re a debut author or have a back catalogue of dozens of bestsellers. ]

What do I mean by that? I mean that any information you can gather about an agent, from anywhere, can be helpful. Sometimes you’ll find something that would otherwise seem forgettable or random, but sticks out to you as a perfect reason to query someone.

Here’s a little story to clarify. As an agent, my preferences for submission were pretty clear. There were some genres I simply wasn’t interested in because they just weren’t up my alley or I didn’t have any real experience with them. Crime and mystery were two of those genres.

One day, I came across a submission for a mystery about some crime or another. Now, normally, I’d skim through a misguided letter like that just in case, but would more than likely reject it soon after. This one, however, I requested. Why? The author did one very small, but very important and effective thing. He read my bio on the agency’s website.

Not only did he read those couple of sentences filled with pedestrian information about my background, but he found something in there that he could use. I grew up in South Jersey (I don’t think there’s any state in this country that is as small but as ferociously divided into North/South factions that no one outside of the state is even aware of as New Jersey) and made my home afterward in Brooklyn. This author’s protagonist also grew up in South Jersey before moving to Brooklyn.

That’s a small thing that probably had no mention in any other query letter to any other agent, but that author made sure to mention it in his letter to me. And I requested his novel.

This was my line of thought— first of all, this author is taking his time to reach out to me specifically. He isn’t spamming agents across the globe with a generic form letter, and, well, I genuinely might actually feel more of a kinship with a protagonist who shares a similar background to mine, so let’s give it a shot. C’mon, everyone loves to see familiar streets and landmarks in the backgrounds of movies or TV shows—and even books. It just makes it more fun.

So keep in mind that I knew, without a doubt, that the author had picked me specifically because he had put a little bit of time into looking me up and honing in on a connection. That made me feel like I could reciprocate by giving him some extra time and consideration. It also made me believe that the book could be more relevant to me than I might normally have thought.

Social media is where it’s at.

Specifically, as far as agents and most of the writing world is concerned, Twitter is where it’s at. And let me start with this right off the bat: no, I do not mean you should pitch an agent on Twitter. Please don’t pitch an agent on Twitter.

What you can do, though, is get some really great intel not only what an agent might be interested in on any given day or whim based on what they post on Twitter, you can also get a really great read on their personality. Are they sarcastic? Straightforward? Political? Really into cat videos or memes about bacon? Follow someone for a week and you’ll figure all of that out pretty quickly.

Once you begin reading about what different agents are looking for or like, you’ll start to see pretty quickly that it’s not all about strict plot elements or story types. A lot of the time agents will ask for things that are more ambiguously described and relate more to the tone of the book or the personality of the protagonist. Tone is an extremely important factor to consider and often goes overlooked when personalizing query letters and choosing comp titles (if you’re using them). Getting a sense of what makes an agent tick in the day to day world might give you a better sense of what that particular agent means when they ask for “irreverent yet well-meaning wit” or something as equally mind boggling.

If an agent has participated in an interview or guest blog post, you can bet they’ll probably tweet about that, too, and that’s where you can get some good, verbatim info. It’s a huge boon to you to be able to say to an agent, “I read in your recent interview with So-And-So about your love for both Project Runway and Planet Earth and I oddly have a novel that combines elements of these TV shows.” Not only does that sound like a nuts enough book that anyone would want to take a look just to see how that works, but it shows that you are able to fill a specific niche interest for that agent—and that you know it.

Stay casual.

However—and here’s what you want to be careful of—paraphrasing is much, much more effective than a direct quote. If you must quote someone, please make sure that your source is a) reliable and b) recent.

Having your own words quoted back to you, especially if they are from a blog post written three years previous, can be a bit alarming and off-putting.

Over-specificity bordering on obsequiousness is too obvious and feels too forced. It’s the casual mention or straightforward, up front one liner that sells the personalization to the query, not the fangirling.

Get the "why you're querying" right.

At the end of the day, if you truly have a reason for reaching out to any agent, it will come through in the query letter. Even if you simply know that this agent represents books in your genre or books that share a similar audience to yours, that can be enough. Make sure you state it somewhere in the letter (“TITLE is a 80,000-word work of women’s fiction with offbeat humor and a wry sensibility”), and the agent who is interested in that type of work will recognize that they are being targeted for a reason.

The more agents you reach out to, the better—and expect to reach out to a lot. Use industry sites like Publishers Marketplace and databases targeted to authors like Writer’s Digest to get broad reads on the genres agents are interested in (as well as their contact info) and resources like Manuscript Wish List and social media to get the more specific treasure troves of possible golden nuggets you can hit on and mention on your query letter.

What was your biggest personalization success? Whether you landed that agent or not, what was the most heart-stoppingly exciting bit of connection you found between an agent and your book? Querying fails are also welcome stories…

Nathan again. I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Full disclosure: I receive an affiliate commission via the links to NY Book Editors and Query Mastery, but I believe in these services. I mean, Natasa and Rachel met at a party at my apartment, and I've provided feedback on both services. Click freely!

Art: The Love Letter by Auguste Toulmouche


Cristen Bopp said...

Thank you for this thorough explanation on how to personalize a query. I have one question. In the end, "Get the "why you're querying" right section. If it is obvious by the query and the genre of my novel that I have reached out to an agent on purpose, I do or do not have to add a personalized tidbit?

Toni said...

Rachel, Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with us. While the information seems so logical and obvious, I would have been too nervous to assume to personalize an inquiry.

Nathan, Thank you for sharing.

abc said...


JOHN T. SHEA said...

Back when Nathan worked at Curtis Brown I amused myself by imagining absent-minded writers getting overwhelmed by the color scheme of this blog, and indeed Curtis Brown's similarly colored website, and addressing their queries to 'Agent Orange'!

But seriously, thanks to Rachel Stout and Nathan for this info.

Nathan Bransford said...


No, always add a personalized tidbit. Make it clear you researched that specific agent.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Research can include the agent's attitude towards personalization. One very prominent agent recently warned against overdoing personalization. He said agents get their egos stroked enough!

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