Here are the things I look for in a query letter: a distinct pitch, a short tease of the plot (set up the story and make me want to read more), and a comprehensive bio. I take notice if it’s a referral, or when a query suggests the author knows the kinds of books I handle. I prefer a short, clear letter rather than one that is overwritten or opaque. By which I mean, get to it: Know how to talk about your work succinctly. And, in general, keep it to one book per pitch. When I read a query, I am going with my gut in deciding if I want to see more material. There’s no real trick. Your pitch may remind me of a novel I loved, or one I couldn’t sell, or something I recently read and passed on, or one I wished I had represented.
I don’t care as much about an author’s explaining the potential marketing strategy, and don’t need quotes from friends and family or workshop or conference readers about how much they love your writing. As for the bio, I admit I am partial to queries that show some publishing history, that the writer has done the groundwork of sending writing out and getting it picked up by journals or magazines. This is especially true of short story writers. It’s not mandatory (though it almost is for nonfiction), but it’s nice to know, when considering someone’s submission, that the editor of a magazine, journal, or Web site also thinks the writer is doing good work. Still, agents want to discover something exciting, and I’m always up for being surprised.
Lastly, some turnoffs: jokey queries; queries written by hand; stationery that features images of quills and ink pots and books; e-mail queries with hundreds of agents in the “To” field; e-mail queries sent from companies that solicit agents on behalf of writers; queries that describe the work as “a fictional novel”; and especially that spam query I received almost every day for six months about a novel called “Elizabeth.” Also arrogance. And desperation. Just be confident in your work.
What do you look for in a query letter? How much do you need to know about plot versus potential marketing tactics in order to make the decision to request a partial manuscript?