UPDATE 8/23/10: This post is now woefully out of date! Please consult this new handy-dandy replacement post on how to write a query letter.
First off, ask yourself if you want a response. Do you want to know if you’ve been passed over or are you fine just assuming you were passed over if you haven’t heard anything back in a few months?
If you want a response, you should go the old fashioned way. Write a letter to an agent, print it out, and include a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you don’t require a response, you can try emailing agents — but don’t expect that an agent will ready your letter or that they’ll respond. Most agents delete e-mailed query letters without reading them, and the rest read them and then delete them unless they’re interested.
Try to target your search to agents who are just starting out or seem less experienced. The big agents don’t really bother with query letters because they already have a full list, and they only take on sure-thing new clients. So try to find out who is just starting out, and you’ll have a much better chance that 1) your query will be read and 2) they’ll take you on as a client.
The letter itself should be short, to the point, and free of gimmicks. Just tell your story in a straight-forward fashion. It should be no longer than a page. Be concise. If you’re a good writer, the agent will be able to tell immediately just from reading the way you describe your story. Try to sound as sane as possible.
One thing you can do to attract an agent’s eye is to actually research them and tailor your letter to that particular agent. Find out what other writers they represent. If you have a thriller, find out who represents some of your favorite authors, and tell them what a big fan of you are of their client’s work. This works particularly well if you’re a fan of a lesser-known author and can draw a connection to your work (i.e. I see you represent so and so, and since I’m such a big fan I thought I’d contact you about…). Check the acknowledgements of your favorite books to figure out who represents whom.
A few query letter don’ts — Don’t be too boastful. Don’t say you are a published writer when you self-published. Don’t compare yourself to Dan Brown or Stephen King or any other super-famous author of the moment. Don’t tell the agent that your work is going to be the next ..1 New York Times Bestseller. Lastly, don’t ask rhetorical questions. So many letters start off along the lines of, “Have you ever wondered what would it would be like if you found out everyone around you is an alien?” My response is always “Um, no, not really.” And try your utmost best not to call a prospective agent — they’re going to want to see your work before they talk to you, so don’t try calling first. Let them contact you.
Let me know if you have any other questions about query letters or any other aspect of book publishing. Good luck!