You’ve finished your book, you’ve revised, you set it aside, and you’ve reread it (revised some more ad nauseam) and decide it doesn’t suck. Now what? Well, if you want to be traditionally published, you start looking for agents. Someone who loves your book as much as you do and will shepherd it through the publishing process. But to find the right agent, you need to query them, and not just any old query will do.
As in previous posts in this series (Finding the Right Word, Conjuring Up Titles, Crafting Dialogue, and Opening Your Story), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, many of which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup links on the sidebar.
So let’s get started. And remember, I’m talking about full-length novels. Not non-fiction, not short stories, as those both have different query letter elements that I don’t address here.
Is Your Work Ready? Are You Ready?
This is a huge question. You can feel like you’re ready. You can envision your name in print, see your novel on the bookshelf, have already made a list of the celebrities who will play your characters in the movie version. But what about your book? Is it ready?
Alternatively, your book may be ready but you aren’t. You keep tinkering with it, hoping for perfection, while days, months, years tick by along with any chance of breaking into the marketplace. In one case, it’s the cart before the horse. In the other, it’s insecure writers holding themselves back.
Not sure if you are ready? Take a look at Jody Hedlund’s How Can Writers Know They are Ready for Querying? where she talks about things writers can do to determine whether they should be querying or not.
Your Story and the Marketplace
It also helps if you have a sense of where your story fits in the marketplace. This is why you must know your story’s genre (what section it should be in at a bookstore). It is also why some agents may ask you list comparable titles in your query letter. Not sure where your story falls? Book Country has a great genre map that displays all the different subgenres within genres like Romance, Mystery, and Science Fiction.
What about the line between literary, commercial and genre fiction? Miss Snark provides a great overview of the distinctions here. Nathan Bransford’s What Makes Literary Fiction Literary? is also worth a look.
Then to make things more complicated “upmarket” fiction is also on many agents’ wishlists these days. Chuck Sambuchino of the Guide to Literary Agents Blog says it bridges commercial and literary fiction in What is Upmarket Fiction? Defining the Classification. Another blogger calls Upmarket Fiction the Non-Genre Genre.
Different genres have different story conventions, different word counts, etc. For a great overview of word counts for different genres, take a look at Mystery Writing is Murder- Word Counts and Colleen Lindsay’s Word Counts and Novel Length.
Still think you are ready? Then take a look at these checklists (ranging from micro to macro issues) to ensure your manuscript is up to snuff before you submit:
Preparing Your Pitch
The pitch section of your query letter is the most important element. Full stop. Not the credentials or the ass-kissing as to why you are querying this agent in particular, although that can sometimes help.
Note that for some agents, the sample pages might actually be more important than the pitch, so be sure to take a look at my earlier Resource Roundup post Opening Your Story, but in terms of the query letter itself (not your whole submission, which may include things like synopses and sample pages), the pitch is uber important to get right.
The pitch is the part of your query, generally up to three paragraphs (depending on who you talk to), where you describe your story. It is a sales pitch – you are trying to sell the agent on your story, convince them that it is the best thing ever and they want to see the whole novel right now.
Think of all the backjacket copy you’ve read over the years, and try to model your pitch on books in your genre, emphasizing in particular the main character(s) and conflict they’ll face in the book. The tone of the pitch should also match genre expectations and hint at your authorial voice.
It’s a tough order for just a couple of paragraphs. How do you distill a whole book’s worth of action and conflict into just a few lines? The answer is you don’t. As Roni Loren says in Single Best Piece of Query Writing Advice I Ever Received, you write your query based on roughly the first third of your novel. The query pitch is all setup. It’s that teaser trailer that makes you want to see the movie even more.
The more attuned you are to strong pitches, the better your query will fare out in agentland. The Miss Snark’s archives are full of query pitches and one agent’s brutally honest impressions of what works and what doesn’t. Query Shark and the BookEnds Agency’s Workshop Wednesdays also provide critiques to queries people send in for feedback. Valuable stuff if you haven’t nailed your own pitch yet.
Query Letter Basics
But let’s back up a minute. There are other elements of your query letter besides the pitch. Take a look at There Are No Rules’s 5 Elements of Query Letters and Guide to Literary Agents’s Breaking Down the Query to get a sense of how the whole letter should look. Nathan Bransford’s post How to Write a Query also provides a nice overview.
Have your query written? Make sure you haven’t made these mistakes: Rachelle Gardener’s Top Ten Query Mistakes and JM Tohline’s Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents.
Knowing what your book’s comparative titles are is also important, especially for those agents who specifically request them in their guidelines. As agent Suzie Townsend says in The Art of Pitching:
Comparable titles tell me the targeted audience for a manuscript, it gives me a better idea of whether I might like it, it gives me a better idea of where I might sell it, how I might pitch it, how editors could pitch the book to their sales team. AND Comparable titles also tell me how well-read the writer is when it comes to their own genre.
Any way you can personalize your query for each agent can also help you stand out of the slush pile. But beware. As kidlit agent Mary Kole says, “Just like with citing comparative titles, if you’re not going to do [query personalization] well, don’t do it at all.”
Want to see queries that get results? Check out the Guide to Literary Agents blog’s Successful Queries series. Agent Rachelle Gardner also provides a nice overview in Anatomy of a Winning Query.
And remember, there’s always going to be contradictory query advice out there, as Nathan Bransford talks about in this post.
Do Your Research
One author claims that a well-written query, sent to well-researched agents should result in a high percentage of requested pages in How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material.
That may seem like an obscenely high percentage considering the number of literary agents out there, but one thing is true: The more research you do on agents, the better sense you’ll have of whether or not they’d be a good fit for you and your novel. And do yourself and agents everywhere a favor – if they don’t represent what you’ve written, take them off the list.
Writers in the Storm’s post Hunting Agents and Jill Corcoran’s post Researching Agents provide a great overview of how to find information on agents.
You could always purchase the current copies of Writer’s Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, or sign up for services like QueryTracker or AgentQuery. The Guide to Literary Agents blog also has series call New Agent Alert, which is a great way to stay on top of up and coming agents.
But no matter which agents make your list, be sure to cross-reference them with the list of agents at Predators and Editors to ensure they are on the up and up.
Managing the Process
You’ve got your query and your list of agents. You are ready to go. You could just go ahead and blitz all agents at once. No one is stopping you from doing that. However, for most agents, you get one shot, and you want to put your best foot forward.
That’s why most people recommend sending your queries in batches or waves. Pick a few agents and send them your stuff. Then wait to see what happens. This can be a long process, but it builds in time for the writer to receive feedback on their query or pages so they can then tweak them for the next round of querying. See Nathan Bransford’s definitive post The Batch Querying Theory and Agency Gatekeeper’s The Middle Way – A New Method of Timing Your Queries.
In addition to you query, agents sometimes want to see your opening pages or a synopsis of your work. A synopsis is an overview of your story’s plot, written in a specific format.Writer’s Digest’s Your Essential Synopsis Checklist provides a great starting place. Remember that some agents will want to see a long version or specify a shorter one, say two pages. I recommend having a couple of different versions of your synopsis ready to go for when you start querying.
It can get tricky trying to keep track of when you sent which query to what agent, especially when agents all have different response times (or nonresponse times as the case may be). The Writers in the Storm post Organizing This Mess – The Great Agent Search Part 3 provides an overview of using subscription-based tools like Writer’s Market or do-it-yourself Excel worksheets. PS. I’m using Excel and it’s going just fine.
Following Up, Requests, and Other Query Etiquette
When sending an agent a requested partial or full, it is a good habit to paste your original query letter into the document. That way if the agent is reading your partial away from their email – more and more true with the prevalence of ereaders – they still have all your contact and query information at hand.
Getting Past the Gatekeeper’s post On Checking In is a great resource for writer’s wanting to follow up with agents. This particular agent also believes that each writer gets one revision, if they go about it correctly (Getting Past the Gatekeeper’s “Here’s my revision, will you read it? How to Submit a New Draft). Follow her advice if you realize after much revising and hand-wringing you’d like to send a new version of your materials to an agent.
And remember, each email, each interaction you have with an agent, should be polite and professional, because at the end of the day, regardless of your dreams, publishing is a business.
What happens when you send the right query to the right agent? The agent will call the author and offer to represent them. Go ahead and cheer – after all this is a major accomplishment. But don’t let your joy overwhelm your common sense. There’s still work to do.
In fact, you should have a number of questions in mind when speaking to the person that will potentially represent you and your novel:
Most agents understand that they aren’t the only agent you’ve sent materials too, so do not be afraid to ask for references from current clients. You also want to give yourself enough time to contact other agents to see if they are interested in throwing their hat into the ring. BookEnds’s post You have an offer… is a good resource for this process.
Getting the call is a moment many writers dream of. But as agent Scott Egan cautions, Getting the Call Means Your Work Gets Harder, so be sure you are ready.
Don’t Give Up
The long query slog got you down? One blogger urges writers not to complain publicly, or stop writing, or get too impatient while waiting to hear back from agents in The Three Most Important Things Not To Do When Waiting To Get “The Call”.
Need help deciphering your rejection letters? Perhaps Adventures in Children’s Publishing’s The Writer’s Rejection Dictionary can provide some insight.
Alexis Grant’s post What I Learned from the Query Process provides a great overview of querying and ways you can learn from it.
What happens when you get close after countless rounds of queries and revisions? AuthorAllison Winn Scotch tackles this in Setting Aside a Beloved Manuscript.
Tinker with your query, trunk the novel and try something else, but whatever you do, don’t give up.
And as always, if you have any querying resources that you have run across, please share them in the comments. Thanks!