The Querying Process
(with thanks to Joe Crance and Mattea Orr)
The following discussion is for querying for fiction/poetry works. Non-fiction queries follow a slightly different process.
Let’s start with some terms so we have a common starting point”
- Literary agent—an individual who legally represents your manuscript to a publisher with the goal of seeking the best terms possible for you, the author.
- Query—a letter (normally an e-mail these days) initially sent to a literary agent, trying to get her to represent you. (Note: per one source, 75% of all literary agents are women, so we will use “she” for the common pronoun.)
- Simultaneous (simo) submission – an author submitting to more than one agent or publisher at a time. Most agents will list if they do not accept simo submissions (most do). If the agency does not accept simo submissions, they will often give you a timeframe (two weeks is common) to get back with you. If after that time frame they do not respond, it’s generally understood that you can begin querying other agents. Note: even those agents and publishers who accept simultaneous submission request that you let them know if you’ve accepted a contract elsewhere.
- Slush Pile – The pile of unread manuscripts and queries every agent collects.
- Unsolicited/Solicited Query – An unsolicited query is one sent without a prior request or relationship between the author and the agent. Solicited is when an agent requests a submission, such as when you meet one at a conference or a pitch day on Twitter.
- AAR – Association of Authors Representatives—a professional association of literary agents who uphold certain ethical values while representing you.
Before you begin querying:
It is expected that when you begin querying that your manuscript (ms) is complete and “publication ready”; i.e., content editing, copy editing, and proof editing are complete. This doesn’t mean there won’t be future editing by your literary agent/publisher, but you should consider it ready to go once you begin.
What is a query?
A query is a one-page letter sent to either a literary agent or a publisher to entice them to consider representing your ms to a publisher. The query itself should be short, sweet, and to the point. It’s a form of targeted marketing that tells your book’s story.
Why should I query literary agents?
If you are not self-publishing, you will more than likely need an agent to represent your work to a publisher. Note 1: none of the major book publishers and many smaller but substantial publishers will not accept your manuscript directly. Note 2: While there are some independent literary agents out there, most agents work for a literary agency.
Once an agent agrees to represent your work, and you’ve signed a contract with him or her, your agent will then submit your manuscript to publishers they believe will like your book and try to secure a publication deal.
While some publishers don’t require an agent, the query letter works for them directly as well.
How to write an effective query letter:
While there’s a fairly standard format for query letters, understand that each literary agency (and sometimes each literary agent within an agency) will add their unique requirements in terms of the entire “query package.” FOLLOW THE AGENT’S QUERY SUBMISSION RULES TO THE LETTER—as an agent will often see any deviation from instructions as a reason to put your work on the “slush pile” and move onto another author who followed instructions.
All that said, the query letter itself will follow a general format:
Personalized greeting Dear or Greetings (find the agent’s name—spell it correctly!)
- Hook paragraph:
- Summary paragraph:
- Bio paragraph:
The Hook Paragraph:
“When such and such event
happens, your main character—a descriptive adjective, age, professional occupation—must confront further conflict and triumph in his or her own special way. Sure, it’s a formula, but it’s a formula that works. However, MANY people use this, so it’s pretty common. Some other options for setting up your hook are below:
Give era and location:
Set in modern-day Jerusalem…
During the summer of 1889 in a rural Texas town…
Taking place in turn-of-the-century New York City…
Set up your main character:
The tale of Una Spencer, wife of Melville’s legendary fictional whale harpooner Captain Ahab…
A chatty cozy mystery starring 50-something college professor Bell Barrett…
Narrated by Cot Daley, an Irish peasant girl kidnapped from Galway and sent to Barbados…
Examples of hook paragraphs (from AgentyQuery.com):
Bridges of Madison County
When Robert Kincaid drives through the heat and dust of an Iowa summer and turns into Francesca Johnson’s farm lane looking for directions, the world-class photographer and the Iowa farm wife are joined in an experience that will haunt them forever.
The Kite Runner
An epic tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that takes us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the atrocities of the present.
The Da Vinci Code
A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.
The non-hook portion of the first paragraph:
- Title of your book: Always include it!
- Genre: So, you’ve written a historical romance time-travel women’s fiction with some adventure and paranormal elements. Don’t tell them all that! It’s a quick way to make them toss the query. If you can’t narrow down your genre to a few main ones, they can’t market it. Choose one genre, and maybe add ‘with a thread of’ another. Choose two at most. This is not the time to be cute, and you don’t need to highlight every single aspect of your story. If you can’t distill the genre, read some samples of them and narrow it down.
- Word count: Very important! Many agents won’t touch novels below or above certain word counts. Also, this is a strong indicator that you have completed your manuscript, which is also important. Agents won’t work with an unfinished story. This can be an estimate (90,000). Certain genres have certain standards. Romances and cozy mysteries tend to be lower, while epic fantasy tends to run higher, due to world-building.
- Relationship? Have you met the agent at a conference? Did they like your tweet on a pitch day? Do they have listed in their MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) that they love paranormal romance? If you have a special connection, mention it briefly. However, if you found them in a database, you don’t need to mention that.
The Summary Paragraph:
This can be the most difficult part. How to distill 100K word epic into one paragraph, and still retain the magic? That’s pretty much impossible, but you still have to try. Take your hook and expand it into a mini-plot. Read the backs of some of your favorite novels to get a feel for the formats and tone of the blurbs.
NOTE: DO NOT GIVE AWAY THE ENDING. Literary Agents like to be surprised just like readers do.
Brainstorm. Write down words, spit them out, rearrange them, try a bunch of combinations. This section should have the character, the dilemma they face, and the stakes if they make the wrong choice or action. Make certain the conflict is clear. Try to convey what makes your story intriguing or unique.
The Bio Paragraph:
Even if you’ve never published anything before nor won any awards, you can still add something to the bio section. Have you gotten a degree in History and you’re writing historical fiction? Have you attended a Writers’ Workshop? Are you a police officer, like your main character? Have you published a few stories in a literary magazine? Still, keep it short and sweet and directly related to this book. The agent doesn’t need your entire memoire.
The Closing Paragraph:
Say thank you! If the agent requests the first five or ten pages on their site, they usually ask that it be copy and pasted into the body of the email, rather than added as an attachment. Most agents will NOT open any attachments, for fear of viruses. The standard measurement of a page is 250 words, so a ten-page sample would be ~2,500 words. The about is important – don’t stop in the middle of a sentence. Do stop at a cliffhanger, if possible. This will help entice the agent to request more.
The Query Process:
- Write your novel
- Edit your novel (several times! See last month’s notes)
- Query your novel to several of your top picked agents.
- Wait some more.
- Receive your first round of rejections. Refine your query. Send more queries to other literary agents.
- Note: You will get rejected. A lot. Shrug it off.
- If misery loves company—nearly all major books have been rejected a lot. Harry Potter was rejected. Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected multiple tikes. The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected.
- Refine your letter. Send more queries. Make it a game, trying to collect 50 rejections in a year. That way you win either way!
- Repeat last two steps.
- If and when an agent is intrigued, they will ask for a ‘full’ or ‘partial’ manuscript, with details. Send them exactly as they request—no more, no less.
- Wait some more while they evaluate it.
- The agent either sends you a rejection or an acceptance.
- A rejection can be: “No, go away” or “No, not right now, maybe another book later.” This latter means they like your style, but this book isn’t right for them right now. Try again with your next book.
- An acceptance will likely come with some suggested revisions. It is up to you how much revision you are willing to do.
- Once an acceptance and revision is done, the agent will then submit your manuscript to different publishers.
- Oh, look! More waiting.
- The agent may not be able to successfully place your book. If so, you will have in your contract, your options to move to another agent, if you wish.
- If your book is accepted by a publisher, congratulations! You win! More revisions to come!
Do’s of Your Query Letter:
- Research your options! Some agents (see where to find literary agents below) aren’t the right fit for your book, your personality, or indeed, some are scams or fly-by-night.
- READ THE GUIDELINES. If the agent’s site says to include the genre, include it. If they say to include the first five pages, don’t include ten. If they ask about your social media presence, give a few examples. Each agent has a different requirement.
- Do address the query letter directly to an agent. This proves you’ve done some homework.
- Be professional. Don’t curse, don’t use text-speak, don’t ‘chat’, don’t use first person in the letter itself. Note: the story summary MIGHT use first person if the manuscript is in first person.
- Keep it simple! One page, 250-300 words, max. Single spaced, 12-point font. Left aligned.
- Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Agents get hundreds of letters each month and must skim through them all. Long sentences can be difficult to understand on a quick reading, and the agent loses interest.
- Try to keep the tone of your query similar to the tone of your story while keeping it professional. If you have a thriller, the summary paragraph should reflect this, as opposed to a YA slice-of-life book.
- Let someone else proofread it! Just like a resume, typos are death knells.
- IF the agent asks for comps (comparative titles like your own), include a few. However, don’t say, This is the next Harry Potter!’ This is hubris, over-selling, and a sign of an amateur.
- Make every word count. This is your entire novel, incredibly distilled. Have you ever had to keep a lot of information in 280 characters for a tweet? Similar idea.
- Do you research! There are lots of small and starting publishers out there that may not suit what you want. For example, many only do e-books, for instance, or have less-than-stellar covers/editing.
- Others may be scams, charging ‘reading fees’, or marketing packages, or only geared to authors and not to readers. This violates AAR ethics. See link in resources for a place to check them out.
- Pitch one book at a time.
- Leave the punctuation conservative! No exclamation points!! Certainly not two or three!!!
- Some agencies with many agents say “A no from one of us is a no from all of us.” Pay attention to this. Others say, “Another agent within the agency might be a better fit.” In the latter case, feel free to query another, AFTER you’re rejected from the first. Some may even pass on the query to a different agent within the agency if they think it’s a good fit.
Don’ts in the Query Letter:
- Don’t write, “This work is “copyrighted.” By U.S. law, your work is copyrighted the moment you write it. Saying your work is copyrighted wastes space and looks unprofessional.
- Don’t say this work is “partially auto-biographical.” Reason: all fictional works have some element of autobiography—you’re wasting valuable query space here!
- Don’t over-sell with hyperbole or cliché. “The best new novel of the decade!” “This story will knock your socks off!” “Enthralling, brilliant, one-of-a-kind!” This belongs on your cover when you get editorial reviews, not on your query. Don’t tell the agents what they will think. This also holds true with saying it’s ‘interesting’ or ‘intriguing.’
- Don’t apologize for being unpublished or a newbie.
- If an agent says in their online bio that she’s not interested in crime fiction, don’t pitch her in the first place, hoping to convert her.
Don’ts in the Query Process:
Once your letter is written and submitted, there’s still a chance to fall into standard pratfalls”
- Don’t send a query to every literary agent you like at the same time—what you learn in rejections from one agent might help you refine your query and hook the next.
- Generally acceptable/recommended to send 6-8 queries per week.
- Don’t follow up unless their website says it’s OK to follow up. “No response means a rejection,” is much more common than, “Feel free to contact us again if you don’t hear from us in six weeks.”
- Don’t reply to rejections, even to thank them. Even if it seems polite, it just adds to the amount of correspondence and agent must dig through each day.
- Don’t insult other authors, books, or agents in your query or correspondence. Agents talk to each other!
Where to find an agent:
- Find the books similar to your own and see if you can find who agented them. Sometimes that’s easy; sometimes not so much.
- Writers Digest Annual Guide to Literary Agents—published around September of each year.
- AgentQuery.com – about 1,000 listings and resource community
- Publisher’s Marketplace: publishersmarketplace.com
- Writer’s Market: writersmarket.com – 400-600 agent listings ($5.99 monthly subscription fee)
- Manuscript Wish List gives what each agent is looking for, searchable by genre: mswishlist.com
- QueryTracker.net – 200 publishers, 1000 agents.
- Absolute Write Water Cooler – list of editors and predators https://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?22-Bewares-Recommendations-amp-Background-Check
How to choose an agent:
- Are they looking for your genre?
- What are their sales track record (often listed on MSWL and other places). New agents are easier to get in with, but may not have the experience or contacts.
- Does their website look professional and geared toward readers? If it’s geared more toward authors, they may be looking to make money off of ‘reading fees’ or ‘editing packages’ rather than sales of your books.
- Do the covers of other books they publish look professional? The agent/publisher has control over this, usually. If they are crap, they’re cutting corners on such costs. This won’t help you much.
- Your agent should be a mentor, coach, cheerleader, and business manager, at least in part. It’s their job to market your work to the publisher. It’s a partnership.
- Read every contract carefully. Be aware of costs flowing FROM the author. Reputable agents don’t ask for cash up front.
Online Pitching Contests:
- Most of these are through Twitter, and if you’re unfamiliar with Twitter in general or pitching contests in particular, it would be a good idea to create an account (it’s free!)
- Make it anonymous if you’d like and follow authors or agents you like.
- See what kinds of things they post.
- If you don’t like an agent’s Twitter banter, they may not be a good fit for you to work with.
- You can search back through hashtags (they look like this: #) to see the kinds of pitches and tags used for past contests. Most bigger contests also maintain separate web pages with more information about the contest (date, time, word count, what you might win—sometimes they’re purely about exposure to agents for small publishing presses, sometimes they’re about finding a critique partner, or a mentor).
- The way most of them work is that you create a pitch for your book.
- Twitter allows you 240 characters (including spaces! and the punctuation!) so you really have to work to create a pitch that delivers as much of character, conflict, and stakes in a very short space.
- If you can’t get what you want to say to fit without devolving into semi-intelligible abbreviations and emojis, then you need to revise.
- Getting a eye catching “comp” (i.e., other art that your book resembles) can be an important way of getting an agent’s attention. Comps don’t just have to a book, they can be another medium, such as film, television, movies, or video games, and you can include more than one if you have the space.
- You also want a comp that is at least well known enough that it’s useful. This is true for you query letter, as well. Let’s say you’ve written a book that is a retelling of Snow White, but it’s set in the modern day and centers around thrilling political intrigue. You could comp it like this: “SNOW WHITExTHE WEST WING”. You could also you a more general comp such as “For fans of…”
- You will also need to reserve some of those 240 characters for “tagging” your Twitter post. This usually means including a series of hashtags, one of which will always be the name of the contest (#DVPit #PitMad #PitProm #PitDark, etc.), along with the genre of your book (#YA, #A, #F, #SF, #MG, #NA, etc.)
- Tags allow agents and others to search for pitches they might be the most interested in without having to read them all.
- Each contest will have its own rules regarding length, tagging, frequency of tweets (usually once an hour but sometimes less), etc. So be sure to read the rules carefully.
- General Rules:
- Others may retweet your pitch, but usually the “Like” function is reserved only for agents/publishers, so don’t “Like” other pitches. The author will see that and think they’ve gotten a request from and agent, but be downfallen when they see it’s not.
- If you like another pitch, retweet it! Spreading the word helps a pitch. Likely those authors will see your retweet and may also retweet your pitch in return. It can be a great way to build followers, make connections, or just be a cool person on Twitter.
- If you do get a “Like” from an agent, hurray!!! Okay, now that your heart has calmed down a little, spend some time checking out the agent or the small press.
- Check out their website, do they even have a website, would they be a good fit for you to work with, etc.
- If it seems like a good fit, then check to see if they’ve tweeted what to send them and what to put in the subject line of the query for queries they’ve requested through that particular pitch contest. Then, follow those rules carefully.
- AgentQuery.com – a place to search for an agent who might be interested in your genre
- Examples of successful queries: http://agentqueryconnect.com/index.php?/forum/25-aq-connect-examples-of-successful-queries/
- Query Shark: http://queryshark.blogspot.com/
- Query Critique Corner: http://agentqueryconnect.com/index.php?/forum/2-aq-connect-query-critiques/
- Pet Peeves of Agents: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/pubtips-pet-peeves
- A professional agent critique of a query letter, point by point: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-write-the-perfect-query-letter
- Absolute Write Water Cooler – has a forum to critique queries and ask about particular agents. https://absolutewrite.com/forums