How to Query: A Guide

The querying process is an exciting time.

You’ve finished your book, you’ve done rounds and rounds of edits, you’ve gotten approval from your beta readers, and you’ve crafted several drafts of the perfect query letter.

Now, it’s time to research what agents or independent presses you’d like to work with. But where do you start? How many agents or publishers do you submit to before you revisit your query letter? Or your manuscript? Or just…throw in the towel and give up all together?

Okay, that last question is probably a topic for an entirely different blog, but I do want to address a few key components of querying and how to know when it’s time to slow things down and take a step back. Here, I’m going to offer you a step-by-step guide to querying like a pro, so that you don’t have to make the mistakes that I did!

A note before we begin:

Although most publishers do not accept unagented submissions, there are exceptions, especially in the world of independent and small presses. In general, I recommend querying agents and publishers separately. There are many agents who don’t like competing with small publishers or having potential publishers eliminated from their submissions list (should you be rejected by them). It’s also good to give considerable thought to whether big 5 publishing is right for you. Many people assume it’s the goal because of the potential of a sizable advance and widespread promotion. However, big 5 publishing isn’t for everyone, and much of the creative and editorial freedom that independent presses afford their authors simply won’t happen in big 5. For these reasons, it’s good to do some soul searching before assuming that the material benefits of big 5 publishing outweigh all the losses.

All that said, querying a small press is not that different from querying an agent; the process is usually quite similar and requires the same steps! Therefore, everything below applies to small and independent presses!

Step 0.5: Format properly.

Yes, you read that right. There is a standard formatting guide in publishing, and if you send off your manuscript in single-spaced document with Calibri font and no first-line indentations at the start of every paragraph, you’re setting yourself up for an auto-reject.

Although there’s a bit of wiggle room, make sure you follow these basic rules of formatting:

  1. Make sure that your document is .doc, .docx, or .rtf.
  2. Have a title page. On the top, left-hand corner, include the word count and your contact info (you can include social media handles if you’d like). Place your manuscript’s title and your name/penname beneath it around one third to halfway down the page (centered). Finally, indicate the genre of your work at the bottom of the page (also centered).
  3. Make sure your manuscript is double-spaced and in 12pt serifed font (Times New Roman, Cambria, Garamond)
  4. Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style (this is a box you can check in the line spacing options on Word)
  5. With the exception of the first paragraph after a chapter or section break, indent the first line of each new paragraph by 0.5 inches.
  6. Use page breaks between chapters and begin new chapters about 6-8 lines down the page.
  7. Use a # or * to indicate section breaks.
  8. Make sure your em-dashes are working. None of this “–” crap. Make it a nice, long—

Step 1: Make a list.

The first step sounds pretty simple: make a list of agents you want to query. You might be wondering, “How do I know which agents are right for me?” Well, the first thing to know is that not all agents represent all books. Agents have personal tastes just like readers. They also have areas of specialization and connections with specific editors in the industry, and these factors inform the projects agents will take on.  

Just because someone is a literary agent, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right person to represent you and sell your book. It took me a long time to really believe this, but a bad agent (or the wrong fit) is worse than no agent. This is why research is so crucial, and in the age of the internet, there are countless ways to learn about agents.

One of my absolute favourite resources is the Manuscript Wish List, also known as MSWL. This website offers a wealth of information and very detailed pictures of what specific things agents are looking for in potential clients. For example, knowing that someone represents grounded fiction with fantastical elements rather than straight up high fantasy is extremely useful. Knowing what the agent’s tastes, likes, and dislikes are can go a long way in narrowing down who should be on your list.

Once you’ve found an agent you’re interested in, I recommend checking out the agent’s social media presence. It’s not uncommon for agents to tweet about what it is they are looking for under the hashtag #MSWL, and you can also get a sense of the agent’s public persona and personality by checking out how they behave on social media. Some personalities don’t jive well, and that’s okay! It’s good to do your due diligence before you start querying, because it can save you and the agent a lot of time.

Okay, now that you’ve researched your agents, make a list! There’s no magic number for how big your list should be, but I would have at minimum 30 agents that you would genuinely be excited to work with. This might sound like a lot, but it’s pretty typical for new authors to send out anywhere from 50-200 queries before they find the right fit. Heck, even for experienced authors who know how to craft a killer query, it can take dozens of tries!

Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether you should query your ‘dream agent’ first or ‘test the water’ with other agents before going for your dream agent. Understandably, many agents are uncomfortable with being used as a testing ground, but many authors also don’t want to naively query the person they most passionately want to work with right off the bat.

But here’s the thing—I really don’t believe in a “dream agent”. I believe that you make an educated guess on what sorts of people you might work well with, but there is no way to reasonably know if someone is your dream agent until you’ve actually worked with them.

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

That said, DO NOT query agents you don’t want to work with. Yes, the landscape is extremely competitive, and it may feel like any attention is good attention, but as soon as you start getting requests for partial and full manuscripts, you’ll be hit with the realization that you may not want to entrust your book to someone you aren’t actually passionate about working with. This is why you should never query someone you wouldn’t be happy to accept an offer of representation from, no matter how low your confidence gets and no matter how desperate you feel. What if that person ends up loving your book and actually wants to work with you? You’ve just wasted their time and yours, and you may have to say no to an offer because you reached out to someone you didn’t actually want to work with.

Our expectations shift very rapidly based on the level of success we perceive ourselves having. When you feel like you’re getting nothing but crickets, you might think you’d accept any offer of rep. But when you see that people are interested in your work, your attitude will quickly shift to be more discerning.

Save yourself the trouble, and make sure your list is populated only by people you want to work with!

Step 2: Personalize where Possible

Although you write a form query letter, it’s always advisable to personalize queries where possible. This isn’t to say you need to spend copious amounts of time justifying why you are querying a particular agent, but it’s a good idea to dedicate a sentence to why you think the agent might be a good fit for you. It could be something on their MSWL page that excited you or a client they already represent whose work you are a big fan of. Of course, this isn’t going to make or break your query, but it does make it easier for agents to pay attention and connect with your work when they see they aren’t just another name on a list of people you are mass-querying (more on this next).

Step 3: Query Only a Few Agents at a Time

Okay, so this step is probably one of the most important in the bunch. When you have your list, it’s tempting to just go through the whole thing and send out 30-50 emails over the course of a few days and hope for the best.

Don’t. do. It.

Listen, querying is a marathon. If you are a first-time writer, you’re going to end up revising your query letter and your manuscript multiple times before you start getting bites. There are always exceptions, of course, but odds are success won’t come fast or easy. Some lessons can only be learned through practice.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

To ensure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot and have all your wonderful research go to waste, DO NOT query all the agents on your list at once. Instead, start a spreadsheet with a minimum of three columns: one for agents’ names, one for the date you query them, one for their response time (if available), and one for the actual response you receive (including the date you receive it).

Start off by querying only 5-10 agents on your list and wait the designated response time and then some. If an agent’s response time is 4-6 weeks, I’d give it at least 8 before considering it a pass. Many agents send out form rejections, which is still preferable to a no response. Based on how your first batch of agents respond, you will have a better sense of how to proceed. Their responses will indicate where your submission package needs work, which I will get into below! But first…

Step 4: Designate a (reasonable) wait period.

I love it when agents tell me how long I should wait before I can conclude they aren’t interested in my work. Unfortunately, not all agents do this, and the actual response time varies dramatically between agents. For some, it’s as short as two weeks; for others, it can be up to twelve weeks. In some instances, I’ve gotten requests for partial or full manuscripts an entire year after querying!

So, for those without designated wait times, how long should you wait before calling it quits? There’s no easy answer to this, but I’d say that about 3 months is a reasonable time to wait before moving on. Yes, that means if your first batch of queries is sent out to agents who have 3-month waiting periods, you should wait those full 3 months before considering that first batch complete.

That said, if you have your responses from all but one agent, you can choose to move on at that point!

Step 5: Do not nudge.

It may be tempting to nudge an agent who hasn’t gotten back to you, especially if they don’t explicitly say that a ‘no response’ means ‘no,’ but honestly, it usually means just that.

As a rule, do not nudge agents over queries. If an agent has been sitting on a full manuscript for 9 months, then sure, give them a friendly nudge! However, unless you have a letter of offer, do not nudge agents who only have your query letter and opening pages!

Step 6: Evaluate

If your first batch of queries yields nothing but silence and form rejections, and you are absolutely sure you’ve followed instructions and queried someone who fits your work’s genres, then your query letter and sample pages aren’t doing their job. Rework your query and get some feedback on your opening chapter, then try again with another 5-10 agents.

But what happens if you get requests for partials or fulls followed by rejections? Rejections after partials suggests that the opening pages are strong, but that something isn’t working for the agent in the 50-100 pages following the opening. Sometimes, new authors work and re-work their opening pages to death, but the problems that originally plagued those opening pages persist throughout the rest of the manuscript. For this reason, if your partials are getting blanket rejections, it might be time to do a more thorough revision.

Hopefully, you get some feedback on partials, but it is not uncommon to get a form rejection on those too. In fact, I’ve gotten form rejections on fulls! However, if you are getting requests for fulls, then you are probably doing something right, and there may not actually be anything wrong with the manuscript at all! If agents are reading your partials and requesting fulls only to reject your book, it might be for reasons that have nothing to do with the book at all. The agent might not feel confident they can sell the book even if they love it, and in that situation, they may not be the right person to champion it.

So much of publishing depends on luck. The best thing you can do is keep working on other projects, but don’t give up if you are receiving positive responses on your book! If 15% of your queries are coming back with requests for partials or fulls, then your query letter and opening pages are working! This is a slow industry, and patience is a virtue that will spare you years lost on stress and anxiety. Keep on trucking, and be sure to keep a box of chocolate or a punching bag nearby. You’ll need it!

November 30, 2020

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