Rufus Purdy, an editor and tutor on the forthcoming Write Here… Online novel-writing course, explains how to write the perfect submission letter to a literary agent.
I’ve heard a lot of writers moaning about literary agents. People say they’re lofty gatekeepers of the publishing industry, they’re only looking for authors who are already famous or who have at least 100,000 followers on social media, they’re not interested in new talent unless that person is writing a slightly different version of what’s sold by the shelfload over the past year, they make you wait for months before sending you a crushing, two-line rejection… And while there is a small element of truth to all those statements, most agents are very nice people, who do what they do because they adore great writing. I worked for the Curtis Brown literary agency for six years, and all my colleagues there were constantly on the lookout for great stories, told in a fresh and interesting way. And all were desperate to find talented new authors and get their work in front of as many readers as possible.
Your first point of contact with a literary agent will be the covering letter you send to them along with your synopsis and sample chapters. So what will agents be looking for in that letter? Well, a good covering letter should be short and it certainly shouldn’t go on for more than one page. And by a page, I mean a single page in Microsoft Word, with an easily readable, 12-point font (ideally Times or Times New Roman) and normal margins – not with lines stretched right out till they’re touching the edges of the paper. This letter should be written to a specific agent. Your aim in this letter is to make the agent you’re targeting feel as though you’ve singled them out above all others to represent your novel, so don’t use ‘Dear Sir’, Dear Madam’, ‘To whom it may concern’ or – worst of all – ‘Dear agent’. Using the agent’s first name is absolutely fine, but make sure you spell it correctly. Nothing screams sloppiness and a lack of attention to detail like getting someone’s name wrong in the opening line of a letter.
You want to grab the agent’s attention, so your first paragraph should deal with pitching your novel. You don’t need to go into great detail – you’ll also be submitting a synopsis, remember – but you do want the agent to be excited by the idea of the book you’re sending them. You should also let them know what genre your novel sits in (if it is, indeed, in a clearly defined genre) and what sort of books your novel would sit alongside in the bookshops. While you should avoid grandiose and ridiculous comparisons, you shouldn’t be afraid to liken it to work by other authors – especially if those are authors which that agent represents, or who are doing particularly well in the current book market. A sentence such as ‘this novel will appeal to readers who enjoy the books of Gillian Flynn and Erin Kelly’ tells the agent everything they need to know about your book’s place in the market, without you coming across as arrogant.
You should then introduce yourself to the agent and, if you can, tell them about why you chose to tell the story you’re sending them. If you’ve spent the past 15 years playing in midfield for Hartlepool and your novel is about the world of English lower-league football, then that’s something the agent should know. Flag up anything, too, that shows how seriously you take your writing. Mention any work you’ve had published, any prizes you’ve won and any writing courses you’ve taken. I would avoid talking about novels you’ve self-published, though, as, no matter how good those books were, self-publishing is – I’m afraid – no distinguisher of quality. Unless, of course, that self-published novel shifted thousands of copies and made the Amazon Kindle top 10. If you don’t feel as though you have anything to say in these areas – and the majority of authors approaching agents don’t – then just tell the agent something interesting about yourself. Try to pique their interest with a couple of memorable details – perhaps you grew up in a hippy commune, you won the Blue Peter Christmas card-designing competition when you were a child, you’re a keen falconer – so your letter stands out from the hundreds they receive each week. Don’t make jokes or go into self-deprecation though. This is you, formally introducing yourself as a potential client, and you want to come across as professional.
Then you need to talk about why you’ve chosen to target that particular agent. There’s a reason you’ve selected this person to write to, so tell them what it is about them that chimed with you. Is it that they represent your favourite author? Do they say in their online biography that they’re looking for books just like you’re sending them? Are they particularly dedicated to finding authors from a particular country or region? Did you like what they said about finding new talent in an interview you’ve read? Show the agent you genuinely want to be represented by them, but don’t be too crawling and obsequious about it. Just be polite and professional.
Finally, make sure you check the spelling and grammar in your letter, and any author names and titles of books you’ve mentioned. I’ve seen far too many covering letters in which the author hasn’t done this, and it just gives a really bad first impression.