January 28, 2020 § 10 Comments
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.
Like it might take up to 20 minutes per agent, longer if I get sucked into Twitter.
I hate Twitter.
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:
Defining Your Book (genre)
Readers Will Also Like… (comp titles)
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.
August 6, 2019 § 15 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)
November 29, 2018 § 12 Comments
The first time I queried a book, I made a list of 100 agents and queried 35. Most were cold pitches: I found the agent online, researched what they represented and how to query them, and sent off my query+five pages. Or query+ten pages. Or +first three chapters pasted below. Or +fifty pages as a docx attachment and a synopsis of up to 500 words using only serif font and be standing in Virabhadrasana II when you hit send.
I jumped through all the hoops I was told to jump through. Most sent form rejections, or slightly personal rejections, or didn’t respond at all. Two agents asked for the full manuscript, and both of those agents were referrals.
A referral is:
A personal recommendation
From someone who has read your work
Preferably the work you’re querying right now
And knows the agent or editor well enough that their word is trusted.
Sometimes an agent who rejects your query suggests you try another agent, but most referrals come from fellow writers with a business or personal relationship with the editor or agent.
Referrals are little golden tickets to the head of the line. You may not make it out of the chocolate factory, but referred queries get read sooner and more carefully. The agent is more likely to ask for pages even if they don’t love the query, but they do love your mutual connection.
What isn’t a referral? Posting to Facebook:
I wrote a memoir about X can anyone tell me what agents might be interested in that subject matter?
This is largely futile. No-one wants to offer up a name and then the writer emails with Violet Beauregarde referred me because giving a name isn’t a referral. Plus, agents’ wishlists change. The agent seeking travel memoirs six months ago just got five good proposals in her inbox and doesn’t need more. For current subject- and genre-specific information, use the agent’s own website, Manuscript Wishlist and #MSWL on Twitter.
Just how many metaphorical chocolate bars are you going to have to eat to get your golden ticket? Maybe none—maybe you’re already close with someone whose agent is looking for exactly what you wrote. But most writers need to start unwrapping those Wonka Bars even before they’ve finished their manuscript.
1) Start making your agent list now. What writers do they represent, and do you know any? Look up writers you know or have studied with—who are their agents?
If you know someone connected to an agent you’d like to query, buy and review that person’s books. Does the writer teach? Attend their workshops and ask intelligent questions. Join their mailing list. Tweet about their work and retweet (with a positive comment) events and books they promote. If you know them in person and they aren’t your teacher, offer to read their work. You don’t have to be at the same place in your writing careers—it’s OK for newbies to say, “If you’re ever looking for a reader, I’d love to practice giving feedback.”
2) Finish your book. Your work reflects on the person who referred you. This is time for your best final-draft work, proofread and polished. Write your query, get feedback and make revisions.
3) Make it easy to say No. Your writer-acquaintance truly may not have time, or maybe Violet already referred three people to her agent this month. Phrases like “I understand you may not have time” or “if you think this might be a fit for Agent Gloop” or “I’m querying widely but if you’re able” let them off the hook. Even if Violet’s true feeling is, This is a dreadful book no way am I referring it, she might like the next one, so give her a gracious escape. But do ask outright: it takes more time to read between the lines than respond to a clear request.
4) Make it easy to say Yes. Paste your query and first 5 pages (or whatever the desired agent’s guidelines specify) below your email signature. If Violet’s feeling it, she can hit forward and it’s done. This also lets her skim your work to remember you’re a fantastic writer and she’ll look good by recommending you. If Violet would rather introduce you in a new email, she knows you’re ready to go while the referral is fresh in the agent’s mind.
5) Thank you note. Referring connects the other writer’s reputation to you, and it takes time from their writing day. Send an email or write a quick note. No gifts that cost, because that feels like pay-to-play. Write the email in a way that requires no additional response: your goal throughout this process is to take as little of the referring writer’s time and attention as possible.
Referrals are a golden gift. But they aren’t the only way to get attention. Steps 1 and 2 are basic literary citizenship, and we can all do them whether we’re querying soon or not. Sure, some of this feels like literary nepotism, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s part of being a writer, so get started—those WonkaBars aren’t going to eat themselves.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and currently in the query trenches again.