10 Tips for the Query Process:
With thousands of agents across the globe and agencies ranging from one-person literary agencies to huge, multimedia talent agencies, how do you find the right one and convince them that you're a good fit for their list?
1. Do Your Research:
When I worked at my first agency in Manhattan, I assessed several query emails daily. It was very clear when writers had not done any research about the agency or the four agents who worked there. Even though the agency was known for literary fiction and academic nonfiction, writers would send pitches for fantasy, sci-fi, children's books, and more. Agencies tend to have a focus and looking at their list of titles and clients will give you a good idea of their area of specialization. If an agency does cookbooks and sports memoirs, that means they have contacts in those areas of publishing and wouldn't be a good match for your YA title.
2. Seriously, DO YOUR RESEARCH:
Once you have a list of agencies you want to query, select the specific agents you want to contact and do your due diligence. See what titles they've represented by joining sites like Publisher's Marketplace or doing a deep dive on Twitter. You want to make sure that your book idea is a good fit for their list, but not EXACTLY the same as something they've repped recently. Agents are more likely to take you on if you've put in the work and can convince them exactly how your book fits into their list. Even take the time to read some of their latest projects and mention the ones you admire.
3. Don't Call:
Pre-pandemic, when everyone worked in the office every day, I often answered phone calls from prospective authors cold-calling the agency, looking to speak with an agent. Normally, they wouldn't even specify which agent they wanted to talk to at the agency! They would just say that they had a bestseller and needed to speak with an agent. Know that if you do this, you will most likely be directed to the agency's query email by the assistant on the other end of the line. While some may think this shows gumption and genuine interest, agents are generally busy and will not take your call unless you are a client or have been referred to the agency.
4. Follow Instructions:
So, instead of calling and talking to an assistant, research the proper channel and follow an agent's instructions, which are usually posted on their websites. Some agents might use sites like Query Tracker or Manuscript Wish List and others may refer you to a general query email address for their agency or their personal email. Unless you have a connection or have been referred by an existing client, follow those steps! If an agent says "accepting queries, please send an email with your name, bio, and a sample chapter," that is exactly what you need to do. Do not send an email with a pitch without a sample or a bio.
5. The Query:
Even if your book is absolutely amazing, it won't matter if your initial query is...not amazing. You want to hook the agent and tell them exactly why your book will succeed in the marketplace. Write an enticing summary for your book and a strong bio for yourself that includes any awards, prior publications, and your education. Also, attach a sample of your work as listed in the agent's instructions. If the agent doesn't specify, it is a good idea to send a sample chapter or chapters so that the agent can get an idea of your work.
6. Keep Your Query Focused:
Many writers are prolific and you might have a few different projects under your belt. However, it can be a big turn-off to agents (and later to editors and publishers) to push quantity over quality in a query letter. You may think, "I write a book a month, I'd be a huge asset to any agent or publisher". But, sending a huge volume of work to an agent might signal that you aren't a thoughtful self-editor and that you'd be hard to collaborate with, always eager to jump to another project without finishing the first. It's fine to say that you're working on a series, but telling an agent that you have 10 different writing projects in the works is a bad idea.
7. Sell Yourself:
Even though we want to believe that publishing is a meritocracy, it often boils down to connections and audience. If you are writing a how-to guide for young entrepreneurs, let an agent know that you've built a platform on TikTok that has 200K subscribers and that you've been a keynote speaker at four conferences this year. Or maybe you're a psychology researcher at a major institution and have a pop-psychology blog with hundreds of thousands of unique views. Whether it's a previous publication or a built-in audience of potential book-buyers, give the agent specific ways in which your book would sell.
8. Be Polite:
It's unfortunate that I have to include this, but I've read my share of queries ranging from crude to brusque to entitled. Even if you've had a rough go of it and feel a bit depressed in your search for an agent, starting an email with "You probably won't even read this," isn't the reverse psychology hack you might think it is. Don't give an agent a deadline by which to read your work or be overly confident and state that your books will earn them millions. Even if your book is truly spectacular, if you come across as rude or demanding, the assistant or intern reading your query most likely will NOT pass it on to the agent for whom it's intended.
9. The Follow-up:
In the digital age, we're not so used to waiting anymore and even a week can feel like an eternity. However, querying is a SLOW process. Generally, an assistant or intern is going through the query inbox and needs to read your query email and your sample before they can forward it to the agent with their thoughts and evaluation. Then, the agent also needs to take a look. Most agents and their assistants spend the vast majority of the time taking care of existing clients, especially if they are well-established. So, understandably, queries aren't their first order of business on any given day. Give ample time, at least 2 months, before expecting a response.
10. Don't Be Discouraged by a Lack of Response
It can be really disheartening not to hear back from an agent. However, 99.9% of the time it's nothing personal. Agents might receive anywhere between 1 and 50 queries a week and it would take a full-time hire to address every single query personally. Just because you didn't get a response or you received a "form rejection" letter, it doesn't mean that your book isn't good. Your book might be great, but it's just not right for the agent or not the right fit at the right time. So remember, no response does not equal "my book must not be any good". You may just need to keep trying!