Yes, But HOW?

January 28, 2020 § 11 Comments

vintage color poster of blonde woman in skirt and red sweater, hitchiking while holding broken red shoeYou’re close to done! It’s almost a book! What happens now?

I start querying, I guess?

Great! What agents do you have in mind?


When I finish editing a client’s book, I can usually give some suggestions, because I’ve spent ten years researching the query process. But my three or four names aren’t enough. Writers need to know how to find the right agents to query.

Start by setting your expectations: Yes, you may strike gold right away, but it’s more likely you’ll query 10-20 agents before revising your query, another 10-20 before revising your first pages, and another 20-50 after that. You may discover after 30 queries that your book is suited to a university press and you don’t need an agent after all, or realize you’d rather self-publish or use a hybrid service. By expecting to query 50-100 agents, in several rounds, you can be pleasantly surprised if Agent #16 is a big “Yes!” rather than moping over rejections #1-15.

100?!?!? How do I find 100 agents?

Search “literary agent” + [your genre]. Shady “publishers” like Austin McCaulay and their many-headed hydra of vanity presses will be right up top, so scroll down past the paid ads. You’ll find lists of agents assembled by places like Writers Digest, as well as agency websites.

Set up an Excel or Google sheet with columns for Agent Name, Agency, Genres They Represent, Open for Queries? Website, What I Liked About Them, What They Want (pages/attachments/etc), and any other categories important to you. Start clicking. Read each agent’s website and social media and enter their information. Enter other agents you like at the same agency. Some agencies say “A no from one is no from the whole agency,” but others don’t mind if you query all their agents in turn (not at the same time). Note their policy.

If an agent seems like a good fit for your book, write down books they’ve represented that you enjoyed or are like your book, anything nifty they said on Twitter, quotes from interviews that made you like the agent, etc. You’ll use this later for the “personalization” part of your query, where you tell the agent “This is why I’m querying you.”

If an agent is clearly NOT right—you hate a book they represented, something in an interview rubbed you the wrong way—write that down and color-code as a “no” for you. This helps avoid looking up the same agent twice.

Whoa, that’s a lot of information.

That’s correct.

Like it might take up to 20 minutes per agent, longer if I get sucked into Twitter.


I hate Twitter.

You don’t have to join Twitter to read it, and agents often post their extremely specific and offbeat interests, like “I’d love to read a travel memoir by a WOC.”

What happens after I add an agent to my sheet? Do I query them?

No. Research and make entries until you’re done for the day. Tomorrow, you’ll add more agents. I recommend adding 3-5 agents a day, which will take about an hour if you’re reading enough to know if they’re a good match. Some agents will be closed to queries or not represent your genre after all. It’ll take a few days to add 8-10 agents who are right for your book.

Then query them. While you’re waiting for responses, keep working on your agent sheet. Next week, query 8-10 more.

This sounds time-consuming.

You’re shopping for a long-term professional relationship between two people equally excited about working together. Imagine it as dating, but you’re in the traditionally male role: Yes, you have to be into the other person…but they’re getting a lot more messages than you are, so they can be choosy.

What about paid query services? Or websites where I upload my work and agents find me? 

Sometimes a big job needs a better tool. If you spill a thousand grains of rice, get a broom. But let’s say there’s a thousand overturned china teacups, one of which is sheltering a mouse. (Whoever created this metaphorical task is clearly sick.)

You’re going to have to pick them up one at a time.

Querying is a one-at-a-time job. Agents recognize queries from “We do all the work for you!” companies, and they are an automatic rejection. Part of what your query demonstrates is “I know how to function in this business,” and that includes communicating with agents yourself.

Websites purporting to showcase authors to agents are taking your money and delivering you on a platter to scam agents and vanity presses ready to take advantage of a beginner. (Here’s why agents don’t use them.)

Consider joining Publisher’s Marketplace for a couple of months as a partial shortcut. Agents (not all of them) report their sales (not all of them). Lists of who’s selling in your genre include links to agents’ profiles with querying instructions.

When do I do all this?

Start building your agent list even before you finish your book—between drafts, when you’re letting your manuscript rest to come back with fresh eyes. When the time comes, double-check that the agent is still open to queries, and don’t query until the book is DONE.

Finding literary agents is tedious but not difficult. Most of this work can be done at only the cost of your time, and most of the information is free and online.

You got this, beautiful writer. You can do it.

More info on querying here on Brevity:

Query 101

Defining Your Book (genre)

Readers Will Also Like… (comp titles)

The Late Bloomer’s Guide to Getting an Agent

The Golden Ticket (referrals)

And I’ll be teaching a live webinar Feb 1 (replay available) for Hidden Timber Press on writing queries, great first pages, and how to get a literary agent. Learn more/sign up here.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 11 Responses to Yes, But HOW?

  • As always, we are all grateful when you share the inside track. Slow and steady wins the race and your plan of researching and querying weekly is spot on.

  • geodutton says:

    A lot of solid advice here. I gave up querying my novel after a year and maybe 50 queries. Instead of a spreadsheet, I managed the process using, which is free, but for a $25 annual fee you get a ton of other info and features like advanced search. Everyone gets email addresses, links to their sites, listing of what genres they want and orgs they belong to, etc. The DB contains 1600 agents in US and abroad, has stats on all of them diced many ways. You can favorite, keep notes, stash your query letter, and discuss experiences with a particular agent with other users. You can also put agents on your do-not-query list.

    Storing queries helps you customize them for each agent. You report querying and when its rejected or accepted, you signify, and that feeds the database with response times, genres, types of rejections, etc.

    QueryTracker is run by a nice man named Patrick who has put together a nice facility that hosts a community of writers. It makes the query process easier, a little less daunting and less lonely. Oh, and it also lists publishers you might want to query.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thank you for this comprehensive rundown – I’ve heard good things but never used it, so I appreciate this so much!

  • Thomas says:

    What about when agencies ask for ‘new voices– POC (people of color), women, LGBTQ or ‘differently abled’, but you are just a plain old evil privileged cisgendered white male? This is, despite the ridiculousness of the concept (although Stephen King was recently excoriated for daring to suggest merit be the basis for judging art) an actual, true question. What do I do when EVERY. SINGLE. AGENCY. I research has that little codicil?

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Don’t worry. Though I cannot speak for “evil,” plain old privileged cisgendered white males still make up the majority of who is being published. Agencies are struggling to diversify, but being a white male author is not the reason they are uninterested in a literary work. It’s most likely to be about the quality of the writing.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      It’s very rare that an agency is *only* looking for those voices. Agencies specifically solicit those authors because the bulk of their queries still are people from traditionally more privileged classes – whites, males, MFA graduates, people with leisure time, etc. It doesn’t mean they don’t also want excellent books from those voices, just that they’re trying to expand their talent pool.

    • geodutton says:

      Well, what Allison and Jan say may be true, but in my experience of researching and querying dozens of agencies, it seems that a distinct majority of agents are women, and women authors make up a major portion of their lists. Most editors I’ve encountered are also women. So Thomas has a point worth taking into account, I think. Times have definitely changed in the profession, which is one small reason my current novel features a female protagonist in love with a gay guy. Let’s see how agents react to what amounts to women’s crime fiction from a cisgendered white male author.

      • Jan Priddy says:

        Women are more likely to buy and read books yet the majority of books and book reviews concern and are written by white men. These are widely researched and well-documented facts.

        [More women are nurses than doctors. That has not led to equity in health care or research or professional opportunities . . . this is the real world. It is not an equal playing field.]

        Just now the best selling (and most controversial) novel about immigrant experience was written as a romance/thriller by a white woman. She gets a great many things wrong and there are far better books already in print—both novels and nonfiction.

  • […] Solid tips on finding agents to query, via Allison K. Williams. […]

  • […] do a little more research—you of course researched this agent before submitting—but it’s worth revisiting her website and Twitter feed, and browsing the websites of authors […]

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