How To Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps

For novelists, the path to publication often feels like throwing a bunch of goop at the wall (spaghetti noodles? Gak? Caramel sauce? You decide!) and seeing what sticks. Individual agent and publisher tastes, industry trends, economic doom-and-gloom, luck, timing, fairy dust, even whether an agent got decaf instead of regular from the coffee cart guy just before opening your email — all of these invisible forces can influence an author’s ability to snag an agent.

But for every random twist of fate, there are plenty of forces writers can control — concrete steps to ensure the novel has the absolute best shot at find an agent home and ultimately, a place on the shelves.

The search for the right literary agent should be targeted, informed, and methodical. While most writers are familiar with the basics, in those exciting first weeks on the adventurous path to publication, many overlook the details. Details may seem overwhelming, but when it comes to finding the best home for your work and the launch of your writing career, a little extra time and care are worthwhile investments. Don’t shortcut!

6 Steps to Querying Literary Agents

1) Finish your novel.

This one seems obvious, right? You can’t query something that doesn’t exist. Yet, people do. Eager writers looking to get a jumpstart on what may be a long process reason that if they query early, by the time they get a request for material, the currently unfinished manuscript will be ready. Or, better still, their idea is so amazing that agents will make an offer on concept alone.

The truth is that querying unfinished novels wastes time. If an agent shows interest immediately, at best, you’re scrambling to finish, turning in something rushed and unpolished that will ultimately get rejected. At worst, you don’t finish, and then you’re forced to respond with an awkward apology, potentially blacklisting yourself from his future consideration.

So, before you send out that first query, complete your novel. And “complete” does not mean the moment you type “the end.” It means that your novel has been reviewed by other trusted writers, revised (probably multiple times), and polished until it’s the absolute best thing you have ever written (at least, for now!).

An exception: If you have an opportunity to chat with an agent about your novel-in-progress — say, at a party or a literary conference where you’ve paid for a critique or the event is set up specifically for you to meet agents — by all means, talk about your book. It’s never the wrong time for agent feedback in these settings, and even if your story is still in draft mode, you may benefit from an agent’s thoughts on your idea. Regardless, if an agent shows interest, this doesn’t mean you rush home, slap together the last few chapters, and send it off to your new agent bestie. It means that you thank the agent, let her know where you are in the process, and then, when you’re ready to query, you remind her of your meeting and her initial interest in your letter. Making a connection (and a good, professional impression) now is a great way to reintroduce yourself later.

2) Familiarize yourself with the querying and publication process.

I know you’re anxious to get your completed novel out there, but a little preparation will save you anguish and anxiety later. Take a few days to learn about the industry and in general, how the querying process works. Take notes on potential questions you can ask an agent once you receive an offer. Try to prepare yourself for the potential wait and for next steps.

There are lots of great resources out there on queries, synopses, and general information on how publishing and book contracts work, including:

  • THE SELL YOUR NOVEL TOOL KIT by Elizabeth Lyon. From Google Books: Lyon offers novelists the wisdom of her experience as an author, book editor, writing instructor, and marketing consultant. Step-by-step, she details what editors want, what questions to ask them, and how to develop a marketing strategy.
  • GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT: THE RIGHT WAY TO PITCH YOUR NOVEL TO EDITORS AND AGENTS by Blythe Cameson & Marshall Cook. From Google Books: An overview of the entire publishing process, this book is a must-have for any fiction writer.
  • AgentQuery. AgentQuery claims to be the largest, most current searchable database of literary agents on the web. It’s free, and it also includes articles and tips on querying, the publishing industry, and guidance for new authors.
  • Pub Rants. Agent Kristen Nelson blogs about the agenting and publishing business with topics like book contracts, pitch sessions, industry trends, queries, and tons of interesting info for authors. Check out her Agenting 101 and Queries series’ (linked in the blog’s lower right sidebar) especially.
  • Nathan Bransford’s blog. Nathan is a former lit agent turned author and tech industry guy. His site contains a trove of publishing tips and industry info, and he still blogs regularly.
  • Miss Snark. Miss Snark no longer blogs, but her archives — not for the easily discouraged! — are worth a perusal.

If anyone has other resource suggestions, let me know in the comments below and I’ll update the list accordingly.

3) Develop a list of targeted agents.

Once you have a handle on the process, start putting together a list of agents for your query campaign. Be sure that the agents you’re targeting represent your genre, are currently accepting submissions, and would be — to the best of your knowledge — a good fit for you and your project. Remember, this isn’t a generic email blast. Targeting is key.

I used Publishers Marketplace and AgentQuery to research agents. QueryTracker is another one. These are informational Web sites that list agents, genres, clients, recent sales, and contact preferences. QueryTracker also lets you set up an account to organize and manage your search through their website. Writer’s Market is a subscription-based service that contains information on agents along with agency terms and recent sales.

Once you’ve identified potential agents, Google them by name, too. Check out blogs where they’re mentioned or websites from their current clients to get a better feel for how the agents work. For example, if you prefer an agent who offers a lot of editorial guidance and new project direction, but one of the agents on your list turns out to be primarly focused on contract negotiations, you might want to reconsider querying him.

Some writers divide their list into top ten, tier two, and tier three so they can query in batches. This can be helpful if you’re looking to test the waters, make adjustments to your letter, and send out a new batch. How you approach the list is up to you. The important thing is that you do your homework!

4) Write a kickass query letter.

Yeah, the really hard part. There are lots of sample letters in the resources I mentioned (and you should definitely check them out), but here are the basic components of a good query letter:

  • Address the query to the agent by name
  • Title, word count, and genre of your manuscript (e.g., “I’m seeking representation for my 60,000-word middle grade fantasy novel, Wizards Who Live Under the Stairs.“)
  • You may want to include a sentence on how you found that agent and/or why you think he or she would be interested in your work. “As a regular Pub Rants reader, I know that you represent young adult authors and thought you might consider reviewing my 50,000-word young adult novel, Awkward First Kisses at Parties, or “I enjoyed your client John Smith’s Pioneer Girlfriend and thought my YA time travel romance might also resonate with you.”
  • THE MOST IMPORTANT PART: A short, exciting summary of your novel (a paragraph or two) that gives a glimpse of the main character and the primary conflict. Don’t give away the ending or over-inflate the premise — you want just enough to make the agent say, “Whoa, I want to know what happens to this guy! Send me more!” This is the most challenging part of the letter, because unlike the creative writing talent you harnessed to write your novel, a query letter is pure sales and marketing. If you’re stuck on how to summarize your story in an exciting and sales-y way, check out the jacket copy on books similar to yours. Jacket copy is designed to capture a reader’s attention and get her to read on, which is exactly your goal with an agent.
  • You may want to draw comparisons to other novels or well-known movies (“Readers who enjoy J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series will appreciate the magical twists and turns and lovable underdog in When Good Wizards Go Bad“), but this can be tricky. Done well, a comparison can give agents an idea of your intended audience and can show that you’ve already started thinking about marketing. But you also run the risk of confusing the agent with awkward comparisons (“My Friend Jenny is If I Stay meets Hunger Games…”) or false and overconfident promises (“My novel Vampy, Campy, and Trampy is sure to be the next Twilight!”). It’s a tough balance, but if you have a natural and compelling comparison in mind, go for it.
  • Your writing bio (the honest version) and related experience. Don’t lie or exaggerate publishing credits. Include only relevant credits (e.g., if you’re writing a YA werewolf story, you don’t need to mention your masters thesis on the theory of relativity), important contest wins, and any work or personal experience related to the subject of your novel (e.g. “After living on a farm for six months without modern amenities for a class project, I was inspired to write about the experiences of pioneer teens.”) If you have a current and well-trafficked blog related to writing or to your subject matter, mention it. Avoid self-aggrandizing or meaningless endorsements like, “My mom and all of her Scrabble club friends said it was the best book they’d ever read.” If you’re not published, that’s fine. There are lots of debut authors out there, and plenty of agents who love working with them.
  • A professional, non-aggressive closing. “If this project intrigues you, I would be happy to send the manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration, Mr. Smith. Sincerely, Sally Jones”
  • Your contact information (phone number and email address)

The query letter should be no longer than a single page.

Once you’ve written your letter, let it cool off a bit before sending. With fresh eyes, take another look to ensure it’s succinct, compelling, and totally error-free. Show the letter to some trusted friends — another set of eyes can’t hurt!

5) Launch Your Query Campaign

With your compelling letter and targeted list in hand, it’s time to start querying. While the body of your query — the exciting stuff about your book — will remain the same, your letter should be personalized to each agent and submitted per his or her individual submission guidelines. That means no “Dear Agent,” “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madame,” and certainly no cheeky “Dear Future Representative of The Next Great American Novel.” Most agents accept electronic queries, but some request them via email and others use forms on their website. Follow those submission guidelines carefully! Some agents want just a query letter, others want a letter and the first 5-10 pages of your manuscript, others want a synopsis. They’re all different, and many agents won’t even open submissions that don’t adhere to the guidelines.

6) Assess, Regroup, Retry

Responses to your query campaign will generally come in one of three forms:

  • Requests. You may receive requests for a partial or full, meaning an agent was intrigued by your letter and would like to review part or all of your manuscript. This is a good thing! Respond promptly with the requested material.
  • Rejections. If you get rejections, resist the urge to reply and tell the agent he’s a moron or that he’s missing out on the next J.K. Rowling. Be nice, and be professional. Either don’t respond at all, or just send a quick email thanking him for his consideration and wishing him well on future projects.
  • Crickets. Most agents have at least a form rejection, but it’s normal to not hear back for a few weeks or even months. Resist the urge to re-query or check in unless the agent suggests doing so on her website or submission guidelines.

If you’re not getting requests for your manuscript, take another look at your query letter. While it may be your novel itself, or timing in the industry, or any number of those random uncontrollable things we talked about earlier, it may just be that the letter isn’t doing its job in selling the concept of your novel. Since this is the shortest fix and easiest to test, give it a rewrite and try again.

If agents request your partial or full manuscript but ultimately decline representation, or if you’ve re-written your letter and you’re still not getting requests, then it may be time to take another look at your novel. If you’re fortunate enough to receive specific feedback on why the agent passed, take a look at it and see if it resonates with you (especially if you’ve received the same type of feedback from more than one agent). Yes, publishing a subjective business, but if five agents say “I loved the concept, but your opening is bogged down with too much backstory,” or “The main character comes off as cold and unsympathetic,” pay attention and consider revising.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Some authors find an agent on the first try. Others query hundreds before finding the right match. It’s hard to be patient, but use the time to work on a new project or take some time off from writing altogether. Go outside. Smell the roses and stuff.

(Seriously? Don’t listen to me. I got myself so worked up during the waiting period I called in sick to work and got up close and personal with Ben and Jerry as I manically refreshed my email every nineteen seconds. Not healthy, but true!)

An Offer? An Actual Offer?

If after requesting your manuscript an agent makes an offer (or even if she simply wants to chat further by phone), congratulations! That means you’re ready for the next set of important steps: Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle!

Until then, happy writing, and best of luck on your agent search!

Got questions? Let me know in the comments and I’ll answer in a follow-up post.

6 thoughts on “How To Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps

  1. Pingback: How to Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps « baileyiswriting

  2. Pingback: Twenty-Oneish Questions With YA Superstar Author, Sarah Ockler « Gemini Girl in a Random World

  3. Pingback: Q is for Query.. | R.K. Grow

  4. Sarah, do you know if it is ok to call the agent after sending query letter just to make sure he/she had received it?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Kate!

      In my opinion, no, calling is not standard practice and is not a good idea. Agents do not generally field calls from writers who are not their clients, and would likely be turned off by this. That’s assuming you could even find a phone number for them!

      However, many agents have guidelines about following up via email listed on their websites. For example, they may state that it’s okay to check in with a brief email (not a call) if you haven’t heard from them in 8 weeks. Conversely, they may state that if you don’t hear back from them, it means they’re not interested, so no follow up is necessary.

      Follow those guidelines to a tee!

      Most agents nowadays are very clear on their websites about how they prefer to be queried and contacted, so always check there first. If for some reason the agent doesn’t have a website, or doesn’t post specific guidelines about his or her query process, average response time, and follow up preferences, then I think it’s okay to check in with a status query via email just to confirm whether they’ve received your query — sometimes things do go into spam or get overlooked unintentionally. But I would wait at least 6 weeks after sending the original query to follow up again.

      Hope that helps!

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