You’re Ready to Query Literary Agents…Now What?
A beginner’s guide to querying: research tips, free spreadsheet, words of encouragement
I began sending out my query letter in early November. Because I began this newsletter as a way to keep track of my progress towards traditional publication (while hopefully, simultaneously, giving guidance to other first-time writers or at least a mutual feeling of “we’re all in this impossible goal together”)…it’s time for some updates!
Everything about writing a book takes longer than you’ll expect. Sorry; did I just blurt out an Inconvenient Truth? Ignorance is truly bliss. If you knew it would take five years to write a book, another one to find an agent, two more to become published…would you actually do it? And yet people are publishing books left and right every day, so it must mean a) they know about this Inconvenient Truth but don’t know what “discouraged” means, b) they don’t know and doggedly keep going, or c) they are all blissfully convinced They’re Special and will beat those odds. Hang on to whatever keeps you going, because if allllll of those authors did it, so can you, no matter how long it takes. This is what I told myself while studying for an Italian driver’s license, and it worked.
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Here is another fun warning: researching agents takes longer than you think. Talk about rabbit holes: the minute you find one good lead, you’ll start looking into it and suddenly, somehow, two hours have passed and you’ve only gotten started on one query email.
Case in point: On November 14, when I sent out my query letter to the first three agents, it took me two hours. Three agents, two hours. This is because each one requires different formatting, specifications, or guidelines. You also want to research each agent to make sure he or she is a fit for your book, and then, I know this is probably the least popular bit of advice but it’s really important, personalize it.
Sounds a bit like sending out resumes, doesn’t it? Sorry to state another Uncomfortable Fact. But there are a few necessary evils in the world, and they are tests and exams, sending out resumes, and querying agents.
Needless to say, this whole process is a bit of a beast to take on. Below is my strategy for my own on-going agent querying process.
How to Begin Querying Agents
Prepare your query letter and synopsis before you begin to query. Here are two posts I wrote previously: The Synopsis, and Why You Should Learn to Love It and Gatekeepers and Query Letters.
In the months leading up to when you expect to begin querying, create your spreadsheet tracker. I don’t recommend getting too efficient and adding agents a year or even more than six months out because agents aren’t always accepting submissions. By the time you get around to querying, they might have closed their window. My spreadsheet is below (download it if you find it helpful!).
Rank prospective agents. Maybe it’s 1 through 5, maybe it’s stars and stripes or highlighting. Just be sure you differentiate between aiming-for-the-stars Top Agents and others. Note this doesn’t mean the others are low-tier. Low-tier means someone on your list isn’t the right fit for your book. Don’t waste your time and theirs by sending to an agent you wouldn’t be happy to hear back from. If you know you are putting your best work and best version of a query letter out there, have faith in yourself!
That being said, do not reach out to Absolute Top Agents first. You have done your very best with your query letter and believe in yourself, but you’ll inevitably edit as you start querying. Sometimes an agent requires a specific length, for example, forcing you to pare down your OG letter and…ta-da, it’s stronger. Against all your teeth gnashing at being made to cut down your perfect letter, it is actually better. Let yourself understand how your query letter could be improved before reaching out to everyone on your list.
Read every agent’s requirements carefully, tailor your pitch, send what they ask for, and please don’t forget to change the name in your heading.
Wait. Many agents specify they will respond in X weeks, some that they will respond only if they want to read more. My Round 1 was sent to 10 agents within about a week.
Agent Research Tips
My best strategy has been to comb through recent articles about top literary agencies, then search agents at those companies to see who represents what I wrote and is open for submissions. The idea here is that even a brand-new agent with few contacts will have the support of the agency’s network of connections and industry know-how. A tip: always filter for articles written in the past year or six months.
Another good Google search is for agents looking to build their author list. These are often newer agents, but again, once you begin to understand who the good agencies are, they’ll have stellar support to help you.
Apparently, querytracker.net is a goldmine. I haven’t dug into this quite yet, as I’ve found ample material with #1 and #2.
Have you read a book similar to the one you wrote? Or a book you absolutely loved? Peek into the end acknowledgements and note who the agent is. Maybe you should add them to your list.
Get investigative: search for instagram and twitter handles of the agent, see if they have a blog, search for any interviews they may have done.
What didn’t work so well for me was a tip I find a lot: comb through the #MSWL thread on Twitter. The #MSWL is the Manuscript Wish List. Agents who are active on Twitter might occasionally toss out what they wish someone would send them. I feel like this used to be super helpful, but now it has become such a popular hashtag that you have to comb through publishing industry news, other writers who are looking for an agent, or hyper-specific wish lists. A better, more time-saving way to utilize the #MSWL that doesn’t throw you into a rabbit hole (so many rabbit holes! Careful!) is to follow agents you find elsewhere online on Twitter. Then you can see what they’re up to.
Finally, Formatting—Nothing Fancy
Some agents will specify all or part of what they want to see in their inbox, or will even have an online form to fill out. For those that don’t:
Subject: The subject line of your email should be something similar to: “Query for [TITLE] - [Genre].” Real simple.
Body: The default of your email is fine. But agents will usually ask to read some specified length of your novel (the first three pages, the first full chapter, etc.). They want this to be copy-pasted into the body of your email, not an attachment. The formatting for this should be 12-point Times New Roman, double-spaced. It can be justified or not. Now how the heck can you move this into the body of your email without tearing your hair out over wacky formatting issues? Put it in a Google doc first, then copy + paste! I found this works really well with gmail, of course (since they’re in the same universe), so hopefully for other types of email platforms it does, too.
So…Where Am I in This Whole Thing?
I’m waiting on Round 1. I’ll adjust my approach based on the response (or lack thereof) that I get. If no one is interested even minimally, like no responses or anything (sniffle), then I’ll tweak my query letter. If some ask to read further, for example, an agent who is interested might ask to read the next five chapters, even the full book (and whether or not they choose to rep., congrats, a request for a full read-through is highly encouraging!), but decides it isn’t for them, then that means I need to keep looking for the right agent that my work resonates with…or, I realize this could also mean my book needs a lot of editing. If the former, I’ll begin sending it out more broadly. If the latter, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
Stuff I Like
You’ll need to sip something to keep focused and out of those rabbit holes while querying. Here are two coffee brands I almost always have on hand:
Budget: Cafe Bustelo. You don’t know consistently decent coffee for less than $10 (sometimes less than $5!) until you’ve tried this. It’s not gourmet, but it’s the most decent budget-friendly coffee I’ve had. I always keep some on hand for when I run out of my favorite…
Chef’s Kiss: Stumptown “Hair Bender” blend. It’s their most popular blend and works however you brew it, according to Stumptown. I exclusively use a cute lil’ Bialetti moka pot, which it’s perfect for.
Click here to download a Google Sheets copy of the Agent and Query Tracker Spreadsheet.