For those of you who asked, here’s a copy of my query letter, with some stats below.
I noticed you’re on the list of agents appearing at the Writer’s Digest Conference and saw that you’re interested in literary with a focus on place. I hoped you might be interested in my manuscript. EIGHTY DAYS OF SUNLIGHT is a 94,200-word novel narrated by Jason Han, who, after suffering a childhood “accident” involving a campfire and a bullet, spends his childhood being cared for by a doctor in Princeton, NJ while the rest of his family lives in a factory town near Scranton, PA. Years later, as they prepare for college, Jason and his older brother reluctantly work together to investigate their father’s suicide. After their investigation concludes violently, the brothers move to Pittsburgh and attempt to cohabitate peacefully while they settle their father’s complicated estate. Together, they explore the city once described as “hell with the lid off,” full of post-industrial landscapes and sultry coeds. The brothers also travel landscapes of guilt, betrayal, and secrets as they try to figure out what destroyed their family—and how to save what’s left of it.
EIGHTY DAYS OF SUNLIGHT has lyricism similar to Chang-Rae Lee’s NATIVE SPEAKER and Michael Chabon’s THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH. Its humor is similar to Chuck Kinder’s HONEYMOONERS and Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. EIGHTY DAYS’ attention to place is similar to Don Lee’s YELLOW and Stuart Dybek’s I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN.
The second chapter of EIGHTY DAYS was published in Avery and earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s April 2009 Family Matters contest. I earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008. The same year, I received a full tuition minority scholarship to the advanced fiction workshop at the NY State Summer Writers Institute.
Last year, I was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction contest and was one of five finalists for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, selected by Sherman Alexie and Colin Channer. I’ve published or have stories forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, The Kenyon Review, and Los Angeles Review, among others. I’m currently the fiction editor of The Fourth River, and this past summer, I worked as a stand-in for George Takei.
I would love to send you sample chapters if you’re interested. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely,
Writing titles in all caps is the proper formatting, but it still feels weird. Every time, it feels like I’m shouting book titles at people, which seems especially improper somehow.
When it comes to query letters, it’s hard to gauge success. Without taking a time-consuming poll of everyone who read it, it’s hard to tell whether the synopsis, bio, or other section made a difference in how people responded. When composing the letter above, I asked to see my friends’ and consulted Noah Lukeman’s excellent book. My success rate is detailed below, but I’ve purposely omitted all agency/agent names.
Between 2009 and 2012, I sent the novel out to 39 agents. I researched each agent/agency and was careful to email people who would be interested in my project. The math:
11 outright rejections based on the query letter alone. A number of people said they simply didn’t have time, and many felt the project wasn’t right for them.
3 agents asked for a sample, then rejected the book.
8 agents asked for the entire book, then rejected it.
1 agent offered detailed editorial feedback–really precise and sensible questions. I made edits and she then rejected the book, although she gave a very detailed explanation. Although I really appreciated her honesty and help, obviously I wished things had worked out differently. After her rejection, I addressed a number of issues she raised and the book was stronger for it. All in all, this process took about six months.
16 no-reply rejections.
If the point of a query letter is to get an agent to request a sample, then my query letter had a 31% success rate. To my mind, that’s not bad, considering you only need one agent to say yes. If you account for only people who responded (and definitely read the query letter), that success rate skyrockets to 52%
If you haven’t heard the news, Eighty Days was picked up by Thought Catalog Books and is forthcoming in the fall of 2013. How it got published is a long story, which I’m currently writing about for TC. At any rate, it took 6 years for me to write this book and 3 years to sell it, so right now I’m feeling like this: