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.

Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle!

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false](Just starting your agent search? You may want to check out How to Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps first, then come back!)

You’ve perfected your query letter, done your agent research, and sent your letters to a targeted list. You’ve crossed your fingers, rubbed the genie lamp, kissed your lucky troll doll. You’ve gotten requests, sent out partials, sent out fulls. You may have even suffered a few (or many) rejections along the way.

But then… what’s this?

An offer from a literary agent to represent and sell your work?

Congratulations! An agent! A real agent! You’re on the road to publication! He’ll sell your book for millions of dollars! She’ll rocket you to best-sellerdom! He’ll get you on Oprah’s couch with the literary elite! You’ll thank her in your acknowledgments and become BFFs for life! Right?


Making an Impression

As writers, we spend a lot of time trying to make a good impression on potential agents with our polished prose, personality, and professionalism. We’re so excited (rightfully so!) when an agent responds to our efforts—especially if we’ve already endured a few (dozen) (hundred) rejections—that we forget one very important point:

An agent interested in representing your book should work just as hard to impress you.

If an agent makes an offer, she’s already excited about you and your writing. She’s in love with your book, and believes she can sell it. She probably already has editors in mind that will love the project as much as she does. See? Your good impression was a success!

Now, it’s her turn.

Your agent works for you, and should have your career and best interests in mind always. Accepting her offer is the beginning of a long partnership—one that you must consider as seriously as you would any long-term commitment or career decision. Enter it with both eyes open.

Pre-Literary Counseling

I don’t know what the author/agent divorce rate is these days, but I bet it’s higher than failed marriages and, in some cases, more complicated. The souring of a literary partnership isn’t always predictable, but having an honest, two-way conversation up front might help you avoid future drama.

Before accepting representation from an agent:

  • Thank him for the interest in your work.
  • Let him know that you’re excited about the opportunity to work together.
  • Tell him that you’d like to take a few days to think things over and prepare your questions.

Don’t skip this crucial step because you’re worried that questions will scare him off, or that the offer won’t last. This isn’t a TV promo, it’s a potential business partnership. His offer is on the table, waiting patiently for your consideration and ultimate response. It’s not going anywhere unless the offer or the agent isn’t legitimate, in which case, that’s not the person you want representing your work.

Questions to Ask Literary Agents

Craft questions to help you learn about the following:

1. Working and communication style. Some agents offer more personal attention and career development than others. Some are heavily involved in the editorial and revision process, while others are more interested in selling and contract negotiation and will not spend a lot of time reviewing your work. Certain agents encourage you to call them informally and often, while others will rely more on email communications or scheduled appointments. What do you prefer? Don’t enter a relationship with someone whose working and communication style will overwhelm you, confuse you, or leave you wanting more.

2. Ideal clients. Ask the agent to describe her ideal client. Of course it will be you, but beyond that, get specifics. This will give you another perspective on her working style and help you determine whether you’ll be a good fit. If the agent likes clients who are highly involved in brainstorming ideas for their next projects and career path, but you’d prefer someone who just focuses on contracts and managing the author/editor relationship, this agent isn’t for you. Similarly, if you’re looking for a lot of hand-holding and the agent tells you she likes clients who leave her alone to do her job, that’s not a match.

3. Client load. The number of clients an agent has and wants will impact his time. Some have as many as 60 (or more!) clients to manage. If you want an agent who can provide personal attention and a more hands-on approach, look for agents with fewer clients.

4. References. Ask the agent to put you in touch with some of his current clients. You can ask them for firsthand accounts on what it’s like to work with the agent before and after the sale. You can also look at the blogs and Web sites of the agent’s clients to see if they’ve said anything about their agent experience. If an agent is reluctant to provide you with at least one client reference, be wary!

5. Sales and non-sales. You should have a good idea of the agent’s track record for selling books before you query him or her, but you can ask about additional details after you’ve received an offer. Understand how the agent treats your manuscript if it doesn’t sell—does she set it aside and get ready to shop around your next project? Does she revisit the original project later or help you revise for another round of submissions? Or does she drop you as a client if she can’t sell it in a certain time frame?

6. Genres / specialties and co-agents. You may query an agent with your adult historical fiction manuscript, but what if you decide to write a middle grade novel in the future? Non-fiction? A paranormal romance? A teen guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse? Ask the agent if she represents other genres you may be considering and if not, if she has a partner, co-agent, or referral for you, should you decide to write something different. There’s nothing wrong with using a second agent if your primary agent doesn’t represent what you want to do next, but it’s an important question to ask before you sign on.

7. Finances. Most agents will take the standard 15% fee from the monies that you earn (may be higher for foreign rights or other special circumstances). Be sure you understand the rate, and ask about how the money is distributed. Generally, the publisher will send your advance and royalty money to the agency, which will cut you a new check, less their 15%. Ask about how (and how often) your money is managed and distributed.

8. Breaking up. No one wants to think about ending a relationship before it even begins, but asking about it now could save you and your agent heartache (and legal fees) in the future. Find out about the agency contract and how and when either party can dissolve it. Also, ask about what happens if your agent leaves the agency, is unable to work due to illness, injury, or death, or if the agency itself dissolves.

It’s tempting to give an instant YES to that well-earned agent offer, but remember, an agent making an offer is already interested in you. She’s not going to change her mind just because you’re asking questions or taking a few days to think about it. Just the opposite, actually. By doing your homework, you’re showing potential agents that you’re professional, committed, and serious about your writing career—all qualities that make you a better client.

Danger! Bad Agent Warning Signs

If the agent you’re considering exhibits any of these behaviors, get thyself back to the querying board:

  • The agent is uncomfortable or terse in answering your questions, or responds with canned marketing-speak designed to evade your research.
  • She’s reluctant or refuses to provide client references.
  • He makes you feel like you’re wasting his time or like he’s doing you a favor, or he pressures you into making a hasty decision.
  • She charges a fee to read, consider, or submit your work, or charges more than the standard 15% fee for domestic sales.
  • He charges for or refers you to a paid editing service or “book doctor,” or charges for these services in-house.
  • The agent or agency is listed on Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Agency List or has a negative rating on Preditors & Editors: Literary Agents.

You should also Google the agent and agency’s name to scope out any bad press or client comments about them. If you do find any negatives, evaluate them carefully, considering the source and not jumping to conclusions. One ranted-about experience doesn’t mean the agent is bad or even at fault. But if you find numerous complaints or warnings, you probably want to steer clear.

A Not-So-Perfect Union

Even with your questions sufficiently answered and agency contract signed, sealed, and delivered, stuff might happen. Your book doesn’t sell. Your agent doesn’t responded to your emails. You’re having problems with your editor and your agent hasn’t stepped up to mediate. You’ve experienced a misunderstanding or miscommunication, or someone has made an outright screw-up.

Like in any relationship, things aren’t always sweet and rosy. It doesn’t mean that you have a bad agent, that you’re a bad client, or that it’s time for a divorce. It just means that you need to pick up the phone. Be open and honest with your agent about how you’re feeling, and see if you can find some common ground.

It’s unrealistic to expect constant perfection, but you should expect a willingness to communicate and a commitment to resolve issues as they arise. Sometimes what feels like an insurmountable obstacle turns out to be a laughable misunderstanding. Sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, it’s worth checking out before you make a hasty decision.

Ultimately, if you do decide to part ways, let your agent know that your seeking other representation before you jump ship. This is a business and should be treated respectfully, even if you’re the only one being respectful. If the partnership isn’t working and you just can’t reach an agreement, be honest about your intended departure and try to leave on good terms.

An Affirmation to Remember

If you’ve got an agent offer, that means you’ve achieved what most people never will—you’ve written an entire book. It didn’t happen overnight, and you’ve certainly poured a lot of blood into it. Give yourself and your hard-earned accomplishment the respect you both deserve—don’t settle for the wrong agent just because she’s the first to show an interest in your work. There are hundreds–possibly thousands—of hard-working, dedicated, talented agents out there waiting for your query.

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler”]This is your writing career, your passion, and possibly your life’s dream. Take your time, do your homework, and find the right agent to represent you. You deserve it!