On Querying

Things to do. Things not to do. Links to wise people with good advice.

Ah, the querying trenches. Navigating them can be equal parts crushing and exhilarating--but the payoff is so worth it. I got my wonderful agent, Peter Knapp of New Leaf Literary, from the slush pile. I didn't have industry connections or advanced writing degrees. I didn't win any contests, belong to any associations or meet him at a conference. So be encouraged: slush pile success stories happen! 

But this is a game with so many players that you can't win unless you know the rules--and follow them to the letter. One agent estimated that she got 35,000+ queries and took on 7 new clients in a year. (Her stats from the last few years are here, if you want a deeper dive.) So take your time to learn the query process and get your query right. 

None of the following advice is original--just culled from wise people and places over the last few years. I'm hoping that some of these insights and links will help you land the agent of our dreams.

When querying:

  • Make sure the agent you're querying is legit. Charging a reading fee is a giant red stop sign.
  • Make a spreadsheet of agents by agency name, agent name, date you queried, and response. Query 5-10 agents at a time.
  • You don't necessarily need to do extensive personalizing but make sure you're getting their name correct and that they actually represent your genre.
  • Never send a mass e-mail.
  • Always be polite. 
  • Follow their submission requirements (found on their website). If you don't, it can be an automatic rejection.
  • If you're not getting any bites for partials or fulls, you may need to rework your query. This is why you only query a few people at a time: so you can re-evaluate based on your response rate and, if needed, make a shiny, new-and-improved query to try on the people you have left on your list. Some agents will let you try again if you have substantially revised your query or sample pages; many ask that you don't.
  • It will take a long time for a response--longer than you think you'll be able to stand, sometimes. But agents are sorting through those tens of thousands of queries; reading each one; and doing eight million other things for their day-to-day jobs. Burnout is high. They're doing their best, and "aggressively following up" (as we used to say in my PR days) is not a way to endear yourself.
  • Go work on something else while you're waiting or you'll drive yourself crazy. (Another piece of advice I wish I could go back in time and take myself.) A lot of writer friends got an agent on the fourth or fifth book they queried. 
  • You will get rejected. It will hurt. Some of us got rejected 50+ times before we found the right fit of reworking our queries and honing our manuscripts. I'm forever grateful for a few agents who took the time to read early chapters and, even if they passed, gave me a few lines of constructive criticism to help me grow. It was of no benefit to them, and they had no reason to do it other than kindness.
  • Just keep repeating to yourself: rejection is a rite of passage for every writer. And it makes success taste that much sweeter.
  • Check back soon for upcoming posts on my own query process (because as a querying writer, I always loved to read those) and a post specifically for those feeling vulnerable in the query trenches. I see you checking your e-mail every two minutes, and very much in need of a pep talk--that post is coming for you.

And for those who are just learning about the querying process and how to write a killer pitch:

A rabbithole of Links on Querying:

And one final extra link for writing that most-dreaded document, the synopsis.

I hope this helps! Ready for more? Head on over to Resources for Writers.