After months of brooding over my query letter, writing and re-writing it, submitting it to public scrutiny on WriteOnCom and QueryTracker (more about this tool in a moment), and getting it to a point where I think it’s as good as it’s going to be, I finally used it last night. I submitted my first four agent queries. I can tell you, I hesitated over the “send” button for that first one. Did I spell her name correctly? Did I follow the submissions guidelines properly? I did put the correct agent’s name, didn’t I? Why am I doing this? I’m only going to get form rejections anyway… I’m told second-guessing and self-doubt come with the territory, and whoever said that was right. But that’s okay. If this makes us write better queries and causes us to query correctly, no harm done. Now, if it stops you ever doing anything, that’s a problem. At some point you have to press “send.”
So, as I now wait for feedback, and get ready to query more agents, I thought this would be a good time to share some thoughts on selecting agents to query, and give some final tips.
Most writers write to be read, and the best way to get your work read is to publish. It follows, then, that most writers are anxious to find a good publisher and, therefore, anxious to get an agent that will find him or her that publisher. In light of this, it’s easy for writers to want to query every agent and say yes to the first that shows interest. There are hundreds of literary agents in the US alone, so the chances of finding someone to take on your novel are actually pretty good. However, not every agent is worthy of your manuscript. As with any business, there are bad agents who really don’t know much about the industry, don’t have your best interests at heart, and really just want to separate you with your money as effortlessly as possible. They feed on your desperation to be published. So don’t be desperate. You should never be that desperate.
“But what if none of the good agents are interested in my work?” You have two options (as far as I see it): 1) go back and re-work your query, and maybe even your novel–the rejections may be indicating a fundamental problem with your work; 2) self-publish. Option 2 should not be entered into lightly, but it is certainly an option. But research thoroughly first. Read articles by agents, publishers, and experienced writers before going there. It’s a lot of work. In fact, I would recommend option 1 first. Most agents will let you re-query the same novel (after a reasonable amount of time has passed) if the new version represents a substantial improvement over the old one. I’m not talking about making spelling or grammatical changes. This usually means you have re-structured the novel, edited the mess out of it, and generally re-worked it. When you re-submit, you don’t want the agent to be re-reading what you sent him/her before. It must feel like a new novel to them. Alternatively, drop that novel and go with the novel you’re working on. Finish it, polish it, and query that one. Maybe the market’s not right just yet for novel 1. Let it rest. Maybe in a few years it will have it’s time in the limelight.
Remember: you’re not desperate. Develop a strategy for querying agents. Research, research, research! Go online and look up agents that represent your genre, or pick up a book like The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Visit each listed agent’s website. Go to their blogs. Look them up on Facebook. Do they represent your particular sub-genre? Are they even open to querying at the moment? What are their submission requirements (query letter only, or query letter plus sample, or query letter plus synopsis, or something else)? Are they independent or do they work for a large agency? How long have they been in business? Have they a large and/or impressive client roster? Do they represent authors who write books like yours? Are they interested in developing your career, or are they only interested in signing you on a per-book basis? Does the agent you’re considering seem like the kind of person you would get along well with (based on blog posts, FB messages, online interviews, etc.)? All of these are important questions to consider when choosing agents.
A quick note about newbie agents. Few “newbie” agents are really new. Most, especially those working for large and/or reputable agencies, have served an internship, and have apprenticed under an experienced agent before launching out on their own. The disadvantage with new agents is that they are still building relationships with publishers, and may not have as many contacts as the more seasoned agents. However, the main advantage is that they are building their client lists so they are more open to queries from new authors–and they generally have more time to read queries and submissions, so you may get a quicker response. If you’re considering a newbie agent, make sure he/she is with a reputable agency, or has a good background in publishing. If his website says that he just left an engineering job two weeks ago and is now working for himself and is open to submissions, you may want to pass.
You now have your list of agents. From your research, determine who are your “dream” agents–those agents who would be perfect for you and your project. Flag them as your A-List. Then select your B-List. Next, your C-List. Now you need to decide who to query first. Remember, in its current state, your novel has one shot with each agent. If you get a rejection, that’s it. You can’t re-query that same agent with that same novel without a major overhaul, as I noted above. So, you may not want to query any of your A-List first. You may want to send some queries out to B-List or C-List agents to see if you get any feedback. If they reject, that may be a sign that your query letter isn’t enticing enough. So tweak it, and go for round two, maybe hitting a couple of your A-List agents. This is just one approach to working your way through your agent list. The important thing is that you think it through–don’t just pick randomly.
“How do I keep up with the agents I’ve chosen, and which I’ve queried?” Some use Excel (or similar) spreadsheets. This was going to be my approach until I came upon QueryTracker, a neat website that helps you with every step of the process. It maintains a database of agents from which you can select as many as you want. QueryTracker stores your selections, and then allows you to note when you query each one, how you queried them, what response you got, when, etc. It’s free, though there is a “premium” user level you can purchase which gives some enhanced reporting. There’s even a forum where you can submit your query letter for peer review/critique. I seriously recommend you check it out. The only drawback I’ve noticed is that it’s database is not exhaustive. I have come across a couple of agents that are not in QueryTracker. There may be good reason for this (e.g., either they are new, or they’re not very reputable), but be aware that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of agent researching–at least not yet.
When you’ve queried, be prepared to wait. How long agents take to get back to you depends upon their workload, the quantity of queries they need to get through, and a host of other factors. Remember, reading queries is not the main job of the agent. The agent’s main priority will always be to his/her current clients. When you get an agent, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this. For now, we have to reconcile with the fact that most agents spend a small fraction of their day reading queries. Many agent websites will tell you how soon you can expect a response. As with all your dealings with agents, follow and note their guidelines and instructions.
I think I have just about exhausted this topic, and I’m not sure I have much else to say. If you are in the process of querying, I wish you every success. I’m in that position now, and I will no doubt keep my blog readers posted on how that goes.