There is a simple rule to perfecting your query letter subject line: follow the instructions set by every specific literary agent that you query. This might sound like a lot of effort, and it is! Nobody said that querying was easy. It takes time, and a lot of research. The truth is, literary agents are looking at how well you can follow instructions, as much as anything else. But a perfectly formatted subject line can get your query read faster (and potentially pushed to the top of their slush pile), and we all know that in this business, speed and attention are rare commodity. So you need to get it right.
How to start your query letter
As a basic rule, most literary agents will request that you start your query letter with the word “Query”. Why? Because literary agents receive lots of other emails that aren’t from querying writers, and will mostly likely have an email filter set up so that their queries go into a specific slush pile folder. They will also have their spam filters set so that anything including “Query” doesn’t get marked as spam. However, some have a separate query email address that does not require the word “Query”. Check!
How to format your novel title
Second, you might like to put your manuscript title, in all CAPS, like this:
Query: YOUR NOVEL TITLE
Query / YOUR NOVEL TITLE
Note: ALL CAPS is the correct way to format your title in the body of your query letter, too. Do not use CAPS for characters’ names, scenes, or anything else. It just looks shouty.
How to include additional information
Some agents ask for their names included:
Query for Agent X: YOUR NOVEL TITLE
Others ask for you to include your genre:
Query for Agent X / YOUR NOVEL TITLE / Genre
Some ask for the genre first:
QUERY: Genre – Your Novel Title
How to format your query letter
You’ll notice that I’ve included a range of dividers: colons, forward slashes, dashes and so on. You want to write a subject line that is clear, so first and foremost, be sure to exactly follow the instructions on the literary agent’s webpage. If they don’t specify, choose the one that is the most obvious. I am partial to a colon, but that’s just me.
Agents almost never ask for the pitch in the subject line. It just won’t fit, so don’t do it. This is what your query letter is for. The only time you might want to color outside the lines a bit is if your query was a personal referral, or if you’re submitting requested material, but in either case, you should have already been in touch with the literary agent for specific instructions on how to format.
When to adjust your query letter subject line
If and when you get a request for a partial or full manuscript (if so, congrats: you’ve written and formatted an awesome query letter), reply directly to the email, and don’t change the subject line unless they specifically ask you to submit your manuscript under separate cover, with a different subject line. Literary agents are busy folks; don’t make their life harder.
The only other time to adjust the query letter subject line is if you get an offer of representation, and you want to bump your original query up. In which case, it is acceptable to change your original subject line when you nudge:
Query: YOUR NOVEL TITLE – Offer of Representation
As you can see, there are a variety of query subject lines to choose from: follow the agent’s instructions, and keep it clear, snappy, and literal.