You’ve done it. You’ve written a beginning, a middle, and an end to your YA novel. You’ve spent weeks, months, and maybe even years pouring your heart and soul onto a once-blank page. And now you’re ready to query agents and publishers with the sole intent of bringing your book to life.
However, querying can seem like a daunting task. This book is so close to your heart, and it’s hard to imagine how other writers can so easily send their work on for critique and rejection? But believe me—it’s daunting for both the queryer and the queryee. Every day the inboxes of agents and editors receive new unsolicited manuscripts, which means you have a lot of competition as you attempt to prove that your book is ready for publication.
Since starting as an intern and now as a contracted acquisitions editor for Flux Books and Jolly Fish Press, I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of queries. I’ve seen it all, from the good to the bad. And though all agencies and houses work a bit differently, I’ve learned some ways that you can make your YA query stand out in the inboxes of your dream agents and editors.
1. Pick Solid Comp Titles
In a query, comp titles are already published books that you compare to your own manuscript. They’re the perfect way to show that your book can be successful in today’s market while giving the agent or editor a solid sense of your story. You can say something like, “My book is To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han meets Coraline by Neil Gaiman,” or, “Readers of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo would enjoy my manuscript.”
It’s important to choose your comp titles carefully, as they can really help an editor or agent connect with a book and see its potential. For example, a comparison I’ve seen too many times to count is Harry Potter—and this isn’t a great comp title. Though we’d all love for your book to be the breakout success Harry Potter was, it’s better to choose a book that will sell similarly to yours, is a little more unique and specific, and was published more recently.
When you’re picking your comp titles, keep the following four points in mind to make sure they’re as strong as they can be.
- Be realistic, and be wary of choosing huge bestsellers. Pitches with comparisons to books like this come through a lot, to the point that the comparison loses its meaning. Make your claim realistic for your book. (Don’t: “My book is the next Hunger Games!”)
- Be specific to YA and your genre. Show us that books similar to yours can be successful in your intended marketing category. (Don’t: “My YA contemporary about teen pregnancy compares to Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy The Way of Kings.”)
- Be recent, preferably choosing titles published in the last five or so years. YA is constantly changing, so it’s important to show that your book is still relevant. (Don’t: “Readers of Sweet Valley High will love my book.”)
- Be humble enough to know that your book isn’t the first and best of its kind. Show us that you’re widely read in your genre. (Don’t: “My book is so original, there are none to compare it to.”
When you’re picking comp titles, do so with specificity and finesse. Show the agent or editor that you know your story, your genre, and your marketing age category inside and out. For more information on choosing comp titles, check out this post from Penguin Random House.
2. Do Your Research
This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised by how far a little research can go when querying. For instance, I work for a small publishing company with sister imprints that exclusively publish young adult and middle-grade fiction. The websites clearly state that. Yet, we regularly receive adult submissions, picture book submissions, and even cookbook submissions. And it’s a sad thing because those writers took the time, energy, and courage to press “Send,” but that effort was in vain.
When you send your manuscript to an agent or editor, make sure that they are actively seeking young adult submissions. Visit the house’s or the agency’s website to find lists of the kinds of books that they’re looking for.
You can also visit websites like Manuscript Wishlist or scroll the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter to find even more specifics about what each agent or editor is looking for. Acquiring editors and agents will tweet things like, “I’m looking for a book reminiscent of The Book Thief from an #ownvoices author #MSWL.” If your book matches that description, let the agent or editor know, and you already have one foot in the door.
3. Know the YA Market
YA is a unique category of books—one that constantly changes and evolves. Thus, it’s important to keep up with those changes but also maintain the traditional framework. In your query, you should include your current word count, information about your characters and plots, and what makes your manuscript stand out. And these should all align with the basic needs of the young adult market.
One such framework is word count. Writer’s Digest suggests that YA is still probably the most flexible category when it comes to word count, but 55,000 to 79,999 words is ideal. This rule may be flexible, but if your manuscript is longer or shorter, there should be a very good reason for it. For example, if your manuscript is pushing 100,000 words, you might need to consider major cuts, refocusing the plot, or even splitting it into two books.
Another thing to keep in mind is your character’s age. Usually, in a YA novel, the protagonist needs to be between 13 and 18. Again, you might be able to push those boundaries to 12 and 19, but only with good reason. Otherwise, you’ll bleed into middle grade or adult fiction. I’ve seen submissions that claim to be YA but have a 25-year-old protagonist, and that just doesn’t fly.
Finally, be aware of the tropes and popular genres of YA when you’re pitching your book. Like discussed before, comp titles are a great way to demonstrate this knowledge. But you can take it one step further: when you’re discussing the genre, idea, plot, etc., of your manuscript, make sure you’re linking your book back to its successful YA roots but also show how your manuscript is different and how it shines.
Take a moment to imagine this scenario: You’ve written a fairy tale retelling, which has been a very popular type of YA story in recent years. You write in your query, “My manuscript is retelling the classic story of Cinderella, which has been popular recently in books such as Cinder by Marissa Meyer and Geekerella by Ashley Poston.” But you leave it at that.
Can you feel how that falls a little flat? It’s obviously a story that’s been told a bunch of times before. You need to take it one step further—show that you understand the genre you’re writing in and then show how your manuscript is approaching it in a way unseen before.
“In recent years, we’ve seen new takes on the classic tale of Cinderella in books such as Cinder by Marissa Meyer and Geekerella by Ashley Poston. But my manuscript spins the story even further with genderbent characters and time travel. The strike of midnight has a different significance when time isn’t a barrier.”
Show how your book fits in the framework while being its own thing.
4. Find Your Voice
One of the biggest reasons I love YA is because the voice in each novel is unique and engaging. Voice is one of the biggest things I look for when I am reviewing submissions; it’s something that will immediately catch my eye, give me a feel for the book, and suck me into the story.
The query should be no different. We want to get a sense for your writing and personality, and you can make that clear in your query letter through your voice. Description, word usage, and the plot points you choose to emphasize can come together to help us connect with you and your novel. Make your query letter clear and concise, but also make sure your individual voice stands out.
These are just a few ways you can amplify your query letter. Remember, you are pitching yourself and your book—not the other writers you think you should emulate. What other query tips have helped you craft great query letters? Share them with us in the comments or online!