The world of querying agents is gray and murky at the best of times. Signings and acceptances are rare, and rejections—when they are sent at all—are generally something to the effect of “your book is not the right fit for me at this time.” Not quite the feedback the aspiring writer needs! So how do would-be authors make their query letters stand out among the hundreds or thousands agents receive each month? Read on for tips and advice on your top six querying questions, from finding the perfect agent to making yourself marketable.
Question 1: How do I find the RIGHT agent?
One of the worst querying faux pas is to send out a score of emails to every agent you can find on the internet. When it comes to finding an agent, think quality over quantity. Spend time researching agents out there who sign books in your field, whether that’s sci-fi, fantasy, or cookbooks. Make a list of 15-20 agents who are actively searching for your type of book. If you need some help getting started, follow @WritersDigest on Twitter—they tweet weekly about agents seeking submissions in all kinds of genres. Two other great resources are Manuscript WishList and Publishers Marketplace. Or, if you’re looking for a book on agenting, try the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents.
Question 2: How many queries should I send out at once?
Okay, you’ve done your homework and created your list. Now how many folks should you plan to send your query to? Chuck Sambuchino, writing and agenting guru, recommends sending out 6-8 queries at a time. Why? You don’t want to run through your whole list at once, especially if you discover your query letter isn’t working. If you receive a bunch of rejections in your first batch, you know you need to head back to the drawing board before reaching out to other agents. Read more about this strategy here. Chuck also recommends you keeping on querying until you’ve contacted 80 or more agents! So if a few “nos” come your way at first, don’t lose hope.
Question 3: What should my query letter look like?
Creativity is encouraged when it comes to querying, but there are some basic guidelines all query letters should follow.
- First, be sure you follow any rules the agent or agency has posted on their website. A surefire way to get a rejection is to deviate from what the agent wants to see.
- Note that the vast majority of query letters are expected to be no longer than one page typed. Think of your query as an exercise in being concise!
- Start with a personal greeting (Dear Mr. Brown), rather than something generic (To Whom It May Concern). When agents see the latter, they know you’re sending out queries to anyone with an email address.
- Show some specs. Most agents want to know the genre, word count, and other pertinent information up front. This should be accomplished in 1-2 sentences.
- Give a brief synopsis of your story. This is the place to show your writing chops. Hook the agent from the first sentence, and don’t overload on details. One good recommendation I’ve heard is to think of this synopsis like the back of a DVD cover. Short and sweet and something that will make you want to see the movie!
- Tell the agent who YOU are. For non-fiction, this is especially important—agents will want to see that you have a platform and that you are an expert in your field. Keep your “about me” paragraph to 3-4 sentences, and be sure to mention any other published works or relevant industry experience (e.g. you are a member of RWA or SCBWI).
- Wrap up with another personal touch. Tell the agent why you want to work with them and how excited you are to be considered by the agency. Be sure to provide your contact information as well.
One of the best places to see query letter dos and don’ts is Query Shark, where queries from all sorts of fiction genres are critiqued. You can even submit yours and you may get it reviewed! Another good spot to look is Writers Digest’s Successful Queries, where dozens of agent-nabbing queries have been posted. There are also a bunch of agents out there who will post advice on blogs or on Twitter, so be sure to follow any agent you’re interested in to see what types of queries they respond to.
Question 4: How long will I wait?
Unfortunately, one of the hardest parts about querying agents is the (potentially infinite) waiting. Some agencies respond to every query, while others only respond to those they are interested in. You can take note of agents’ policies on their websites. For those who DO respond to everything they get, the turn time is usually in the 6-8 week range, though some folks will respond as quickly as a few hours from your submission.
If you get a “no” or a no-reply, the best thing to do is accept it and move on. Don’t go back to the agent asking for more feedback or send follow-up emails (unless the agent has specifically asked you to follow up after a certain time period). If you have a great book, you will find the person who wants to represent it!
Question 5: Can I query agents AND publishers?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that an agent is an incredibly important ally in the publishing business, and many publishers are closed to unagented queries. If you do know of a publisher who accepts submissions and publishes in your genre, then by all means, send them a query. But note that an agent can open so many more doors and represent you going forward in your career. Check out these links to learn more about the pros and cons of querying publishers:
Question 6: Do agents care about platform?
Alas, the days of being an Emily-Dickinson-esque recluse are long gone. Thanks to the power of social media, authors are expected to have an online presence. If you are a non-fiction writer, platform is absolutely essential. Fiction writers have it a bit easier, but you should be sure to have some sort of platform visibility. The easiest and best way to accomplish this is to have a professional website and at least one active social media site. Many agents will look you up (and ALL publishers will), so you want to make sure your life online is author-ready. This Forbes article does a great job of explaining what a strong new author platform looks like.
For extra advice on finding and securing the right agent or publisher, check out the links below! And if you have a success story to share, please let us know in the comments section. We love to hear how authors make the connection.