Query 101 (or many more)
August 6, 2019 § 16 Comments
In publishing, August is vacation month. Not that agents and editors are literally out-of-office all month (who can afford the Hamptons anymore?), but the pace slows. Agents catch up on reading requested manuscripts, editors gear up for Christmas releases. Writers come home from workshops and retreats, or send the kids to camp, and dive into another draft.
September is query season. If you’re on your hopefully-final draft, get ready. I’ve done the query process three times—twice successfully—and here’s 7 ways to kickstart your querying.
1) Start an agent spreadsheet, no matter how far you are from “done.” Note what each agent represents, whether they’re open for submissions, tidbits from their bio/social media/interviews, what query material they want to receive and how, and their response timeline. This takes 15-30 minutes per agent. Start adding 3-5 agents a week to your list now and you won’t have hours of agent research all at once later. Add agents who aren’t right for you, either color-coded or on another page, so you don’t look them up twice by accident. Plus, you’ll have names to share when your friend writing a different genre starts her query process. (Remember to double-check agent details immediately before actually querying.)
2) Subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (for a month, if cash is an issue). Look up what agents have recently sold, and whether or not those books are in your genre. Not all agents looking for X are actually selling X. Focus your time on the agents selling books like yours.
3) Read Query Shark. This blog, run by literary agent Janet Reid, critiques novel queries. Authors often revise their query several times, evolving from ‘meh’ to ‘send your book!’ You’re not writing a novel? Read it anyway. Seeing the mistakes writers make in summarizing their stories and trying to pique an agent’s interest is valuable for memoirists and narrative nonfiction writers, too. You’ll also absorb the format and flow of a typical query.
4) If you are writing memoir or nonfiction, write a proposal. Some memoirs sell on proposal and sample chapters. Some nonfiction sells on platform alone. You may despise “platform” as a fake thing that isn’t “real writing” or “real connection.” Assembling a proposal isn’t a joyful literary romp, but it is identifying your readership and how, specifically, your book will reach those people. Want to publish traditionally? The publisher wants to know who’s going to buy your book. Want to self-publish? You want to know who’s going to buy your book. You have a soul above social media and filthy lucre? Your readers want to be able to find your powerful, personal, necessary story that will change their lives.
5) Write a synopsis. Many agents want one. A book proposal will need an outline, synopsis and/or chapter summaries. Summarizing your story in 1-3 pages (750 words or less) is a great way to see if your plot—or the part of your life you’ve focused on—is compelling. If it feels unexciting in the synopsis, write a better synopsis…or a better book.
6) Agents all have personal submissions procedures. Attach the first 25 pages. Paste the first 10 pages into the body of the email. Send the first three chapters in 12-point serif font. Attach a synopsis, paste your bio into the body of the email followed by the first 5 pages and stand on your head while pressing Send. You’ll save time later if you prep the most-requested materials in advance. Make a folder on your desktop and save the first 5, 10, 25 and 50 pages as docs. Paste them into a email and reformat because the email will kill your formatting. Save the emails in your draft folder. Now you can easily copy-paste from email to email or attach the requested pages.
7) Plan to query in stages. You get one chance per agent, per book. Blasting 100 queries without testing the waters spends your chances poorly.
– First, query 5-10 agents who aren’t your first choice. Getting requests? Keep querying. No requests for pages or fulls? Sorry, your query sucks. Revise. Get an outside opinion if you can afford it. Listen to podcasts that analyze queries. Read #10queries / #tenqueries Twitter threads.
– Requested pages rejected? Something is wrong with your voice, style, pace, or where the story starts. Same deal: pause your querying & find the problem. If you want the help of a professional editor or query consultant, it’s much less expensive to pay for a look at your first 10-25 pages and synopsis. Apply those notes to whole manuscript.
– Getting requests for full manuscripts? Start querying your A-list.
– More than 3 requested full manuscripts rejected with no feedback beyond “I can’t sell this”? Something is wrong with your storytelling/structure. Pause your querying and undertake whatever editing plan works for you, whether that’s an online course, a book, a workshop or a pro editor. (If you’re getting useful feedback that you agree with, revise accordingly. If you’re getting encouraging “great but not for me” feedback, keep querying until you have 10 rejected fulls, then edit.)
Finally, query with energy but without hope. Treat it like a trip to the mall. You’d like to find a great new jacket, but you’re not devastated if your favorite store doesn’t have one. The “dream” agent is the one who loves your book and thinks she can sell it. Rejections are agents self-selecting out of the pool of “people who can sell your book.” Will rejections hurt your feelings? Absolutely. But you’re not going to get an agent (or get published) without them. Planning in advance and setting up systems for information tracking and submissions helps you approach querying as a shopper. You need a jacket; they need your business. It’s a mutual relationship built on trust and the desire to sell a beautiful thing to the people who need it most. Set yourself up for success, even before you start.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her on Instagram @guerillamemoir and in person at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference August 22-25. Exciting retreat news coming soon…(hint: beautiful beaches, up-close wildlife, and leaders whose names rhyme with Minty and Pallison)