Here’s Part Two of my Querying series! (Find Part One: How to Write a Query Letter here and Part Three: How I Got My Agent here) This post is focused on the querying process and how to query a literary agent. I’m going to share my personal querying/how I got my agent story in the next post.
For this process, I’m going to focus on how to query a literary agent because that’s what I have experience with. But if you’re approaching a small publisher, the process is going to be similar when querying an editor.
First, you should not be considering querying until your book is as finished and as polished as you can get it. (If you’ve got a series or trilogy and aren’t sure when to submit, check out this post!) Assuming you’ve reached that point, let’s take a look at how to query a literary agent.
1) Write a query letter that captures what your book is about
Before you query a literary agent, you have to write a query letter. I talked all about this in my How to Write a Query Letter post. That’s is where this process starts!
2) Do your research and build a list of possible agents
When you go to query a literary agent, you need to make sure you’re submitting to someone who is right for your book. The publishing market is broken down by age group (children’s, middle grade, young adult, adult) and genre (fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, contemporary, thriller, historical fiction, etc). Agents typically specialize in a few of these categories, but not all. So if you’ve written a middle grade fantasy, you need to make sure you’re submitting to agents that represent both middle grade and fantasy.
Here are to resources to help you build a list of potential agents:
QueryTracker.com: Once you make a (free) account on this site, you can search agents and filter them by age group and genre. They also include an agent’s website, email, social media handles, and an overview of how each agent prefers to be contacted. It’s also kept pretty up to date. This was my number one resource for keeping track of agents.
AgentQuery.com: This site has even more information that Query Tracker, but isn’t kept as up to date (which is why I didn’t use it as much). But you might want to cross-reference them–if you’re into that kind of thing. 🙂
There are hundreds (thousands?) of agents on these sites. Take some time to read through and visit websites, then make a list of your top ten, then twenty others you really like. You may need more but thirty should be good to get you started.
You can also try reading the acknowledgments of books you like/think your book is similar to. Most authors thank their agents, so you can find some names and look them up. (This is how I found my agent!)
3) Take note of submission guidelines and follow them!
When it comes time to query a literary agent, following the directions is critical. As much as the databases are good for finding agents, they may not always be current. You should always go to their actual websites to check submissions guidelines. Some agents will just want a query, some will want the query and sample pages pasted into the body of the email, some will want the partial attached. Whatever they ask, DO EXACTLY AS THEY SAY!!
Agents get a lot of queries, and they don’t have an excess of time. If you don’t follow the submission guidelines, you become someone they definitely don’t want to work with. It also may take them longer to sort through your submission, which again, isn’t something they really have time for. If you want to make a good first impression, follow the submission guidelines as closely as possible. The only place you have a little wiggle room is with the sample pages. If they ask for 10 pages, but your chapter (or a good stopping point) ends on page 11 or 12, then it’s usually okay to add the extra pages. But don’t abuse this. The agent you’re querying won’t appreciate it.
4) Get a dedicated query email address
Before you query a literary agent, I suggest setting up an email address just for querying. It should be professional, ideally with some variation of your name. This will become your future author email.
I also made sure it was a separate email client than my personal email, that way if I had the app on my phone, I would know that if I got that notification it was a query response. This meant I wasn’t constantly refreshing my email. If an email came through, it would find me. (Though I did check in online roughly every other week if I hadn’t heard from anyone in a while, in case of technology/notification fail.)
5) Start sending out letters
Start with your top ten agents. Address your query. Follow the submission guidelines. Take a breath. And hit send.
I would suggest sticking with ten open queries at a time. You might get feedback from an agent at some point and want to make changes to your manuscript. If you sent the original out to everyone at once, then you have no one left to send your new and improved manuscript to. You also have to keep track of all the queries you send in case you get an offer and want to get in touch with an agent who has an open query (more on that later). This will be a lot harder and a lot more work if you have a ton of queries open. So I say start with ten. Then every time you close out a query, send a new one out.
6) Know what outcomes to expect
Before you query a literary agent, it’s a good idea to be prepared fo the most likely outcomes.
An agent likes your letter/sample pages and asks for more! (Yay!!) Some agents will go right ahead and ask you to send the entire manuscript. Others may ask for a partial, which is usually between 50-100 pages–the agent will tell you how much to send. DO WHAT THEY ASK!! Like submission guidelines, it’s usually okay to send a few more pages if it’s a better stopping point, but don’t go crazy. If they ask for 50 and you send 100, it’s starting things off on the wrong foot. Traditionally, if an agent asks for a full/partial, they’re expecting them within 24 hours. Which is why it’s really important to have your book finished before you start querying.
If an agent likes what they see, but think you/the project are not quite ready yet, they may tell you to keep them in mind for the future. File this agent away! It may not be the ‘yes’ you were looking for, but it’s still a good thing! It means they see something in you! (Also, this was what led me to my agent.)
An agent doesn’t want to read more of your book. (Sad face!) You’ll find this out in one of two ways. Some agents have a “no response means no” policy, which means if they don’t respond to your query, you can assume it’s a no. These agents will usually tell you right in their submission guidelines if this is the case. They’ll also let you know that after X weeks, you should consider them a pass (six weeks seems to be the average in my experience). The second way you’ll find out is with a rejection letter. These are usually form letters that say some variation of “Thanks so much for considering me, but I’m going to have to pass on this project. I wish you the best of luck.” Which leads me to number 7…
7) Reframe your thoughts on rejection
Rejection can be pretty disappointing–especially if you query a literary agent you really like and they end up passing on your book. But when you query a literary agent, rejection is a very likely outcome, and it’s important to be prepared for it. I had queried three books before I got my agent. You would think that at some point this would have started to get discouraging, but I found that the more I queried, the less rejection bothered me. I eventually realized that by the third time through, I had started to think about rejection differently.
I realized that I didn’t want to get an agent (or to be published) because I wanted to be validated as a writer. I write because it makes me happy. No one has to validate that for me. I wanted an agent because I loved to write so much that I wanted writing to be my job. As much as it may have sucked to hear that my book wasn’t wanted, I had to believe that in the long run, it was for the best. If an agent didn’t LOVE what I’d written, I couldn’t imagine they’d be able to put me in the best position to succeed.
It may be hard to see past getting an agent when you’re querying, but the fact that you’re looking for agent tells me that you’re probably not just looking to publish a single book. You’re most likely looking to build a life and career. If that’s the case, you deserve someone who loves your work and who will do everything they can to put you in the best possible situation, book after book.
When you only have ten letters out at a time, that means that there are a whole bunch of agents who haven’t had the chance to read your book yet. The agent who is the right fit for you could be out there and you just haven’t sent the email! Once I knew I wanted an agent who loved my writing (and got used to the idea that rejections came from agents I didn’t want), I started seeing every rejection as an opportunity. Each rejection gave me a chance to contact a new agent who might be The One. And if that one turned me down, it would still give me another opportunity to send another letter.
Clearly, I’m really good at manipulating myself into seeing the glass half full, but thinking about things this way really helped me! It also really helped to understand why I wanted to be published. Only you can decide why you want to be published, but I would encourage you to find a reason other than validation. I truly believe you will be happier if you do. If you want to see more thoughts on rejection, I talk a little about it in my Redefining Failure post.
8) Keep good records
As you’re building your list and going through this process, you’re going to find that every agent/agency has a slightly different procedure. Some will say if you don’t get a response it’s a no. Others will say if you don’t get a response after six weeks, flow up or resend your letter. Some will ask for a partial and say if you don’t hear anything in two months follow-up. Some will ask for a full. You need to keep track of who you queried, when you queried them, if they responded, and if they asked for more. You need to know who has your work.
I suggest a spreadsheet! Here’s a screenshot of mine.
My columns are: agent, their agency, date I sent the query, if they responded (an X for I got a “no” response, and O for closed/no response), when six weeks would be up (or when I should consider the query closed–six weeks is average but some are shorter or longer), and if I needed to follow up if I hadn’t heard from them. Then when I sent a query out, I’d highlight the row in green so I knew it was active. I took the highlight away when I closed it. If an agent asked for a partial, I highlighted it in blue and made a note of when I sent it and when I should follow up.
9) Follow up if/when it’s appropriate
Some agents will say it’s okay to follow up on a query if you haven’t heard from them after X weeks. You should absolutely do this–just make sure you wait until after the time frame they’ve given you. Also, nearly every agent I encountered encouraged a following up if they haven’t gotten to your partial within 2-3 months. (This is also something that helped me get my agent). In both instances, be brief and polite. Here’s an example: “Hello, I wanted to follow up on a partial I sent you on X/X/XX. Let me know if you’d like me to resend.” I also suggest replying to the original email and keeping everything in one thread. Agents handle a lot of submissions. Even if they liked yours, they may not remember it after a few months. Make it as easy as possible for them to see your prior exchange.
10) While you wait, work on something new and don’t give up
One of the hardest parts when you query a literary agent is how long it takes to hear back. Like I said in part one of this query series, an agent’s priority is the clients they have already signed. And that’s good! In the future, when you are one of those clients, you will want your agent to prioritize you. But that means as querying writer, you wait. And while you wait, you might as well work on something new. If you do get an offer, your agent will like to know that you have more in the works. And if the book you’re querying doesn’t get you an agent, you’ll have another book to send out.
I queried a book until I had a new one to submit (which took about a year), then I pulled the first book back and focused on querying the new one. But the nice thing was once it came time to do the next book, I already had a big long list of agents I thought would be a good fit for me, so I just had to double check that everything still lined up and they were still open to queries before sending a new query off.
11) When an agent makes an offer
YAY!!!!!! THIS IS SO EXCITING!!!!
How you get the news can vary from agent to agent. Some will email to set up a call. Others will just call–like mine did. (I didn’t pick up–I was straining chickpeas at the time. I called back REAL fast.) It’s okay to ask questions if you have them. If you have other partials/fulls out, it’s considered professional courtesy to let those agents know that you’ve had an offer and give them time (about a week) to read what you’ve sent them before you accept anything.
I’ve heard conflicting things about open queries. Some agents want to know if you have an offer even if they only have a query, others aren’t that worried about this. I guess it comes down to how much you want to work with the agent making the offer. If the agent was high on your list, you like what they’re offering and you feel like someone else would have to really blow you away, I think it’s okay to say yes on the spot–if you want to. (I did!)
On the other hand, if you don’t like what you’re hearing or there are things you’re on the fence about, take some time to think about it and check in with your open queries while you do. Though I should note, this only applies to open queries. If you have open partials/fulls, you really need to get in touch with those agents before accepting an offer.
It’s also okay to turn down an offer if it doesn’t feel right to you. Remember, once you accept that offer, your agent becomes your teammate. They are helping you build a life and career. You need someone who is going to put you in the best possible position. If you don’t think the agent making the offer is that person, say no. Trust me when I say, no agent is better than a bad or incompatible one. (I don’t have experience with this, but I’ve heard stories.) If you get an offer from the wrong person, you will get another offer from the right person–just keep going!
I hope this gives you a good idea of how to query a literary agent!
Now it’s your turn: Have you tried to query a literary agent before? If you have, do you have a tip to help others query a literary agent? If you haven’t yet, what’s your biggest concern as you get ready to query a literary agent? Tell me in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.