agents-editorsDuring the recent Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society), agent Jeff Kleinman again led the event’s most popular session for writers, a gathering of an A-list of agents and editors, answering audience questions.

This year’s twist, appropriate for the day before Halloween: Each of the group was masked and unidentifiable (well, not really, but we appreciated the gesture). While we won’t share who said what, presumably to protect their guilt or innocence, we can tell you that those who participated included editors Sarah Crichton, Susanna Porter, Brenda Copeland, Calvert Morgan, Kristine Puopolo and Ryan Doherty. For more on any of them, visit

Agents included Jeff Kleinman, Deb Grosvenor, Elise Capron, Jennifer Weltz and Brandi Bowles. For more on each of them, visit

Here, in their own words, answers to some of those burning questions authors have about agents and editors and how they bring books to market. We’ll begin with the thing over which authors seem to express the most angst:

Masked-agents-editorsWhat Makes a Really Good Cover/Query Letter?

“I want to see a very brief introduction, that goes into a succinct description of the book, then goes on to tell me what their qualifications are, platform, etc., and of course written beautifully.”

“And hopefully they’ve spelled our name right.”

“For non-fiction– You can’t tell how an author writes from an agent’s cover letter, but you can tell from other signals, for example, if they’ve written for The New Yorker, that the person is also well respected in the community of writers.”

“For a fiction writer, a sense of the voice that’s going to be in that book. When it’s too technical about what’s in the book, that’s not for me. It has to give me a sense of the voice that’s going to be in the story–”

“But don’t write a cover letter in your protagonist’s voice!” (Lots of groans and agreement on this one)

“Yes, the voice and energy are important, but the other thing for me is a great title. If I get a cover letter with a really compelling title, that makes a huge difference to me. It sums up for me what I’m about to look at…”

“Unless the title doesn’t deliver.”

“That’s another question; hold that thought… What else goes into a great cover letter?”

“Comps (a comparison to another author/book) but it’s got to be right.”

“The problem is, most of the time they’re not (right), and it’s not necessarily the job of the author to understand that. So I don’t penalize an author for not having comps because they’re generally incorrect anyways.”

“You can’t use Stephen King as a comparison if you don’t really write or deliver the same type work as Stephen King.”

“Yes, comp titles can be extremely helpful, but they have to deliver.”

“And if they don’t, really they can be a turn-off, so it’s sometimes better to leave them off, and for the agent and author to come up with the comps together to pitch to the editors.”

“And there are three elements to a good ‘comp’ — Authors with similar credentials, a voice that’s somehow similar to a popular author, or plot or themes that are somehow similar.”

“And excellent sales!”

Struggling with your own query letter? We hope these insights give you some clarity and we’ll be back with more!

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