Basic Querying – Ten Tips

I realized, as a result of some of the comments made to this blog (and as a regular contributor to various threads in Absolute Write Water Cooler) that a lot of aspiring authors don’t actually know why they need an agent, how to query, or what to expect. I didn’t either. So here are ten basic tips.

1. What is an agent? This is someone who will get you in the door. Most publishers will not even look at a manuscript unless it has been vetted by an agent. This is because so many of us are knocking at their doors.

Think of one of those  scenes in any of those ‘we’re trapped inside while they try to get us’ zombie movies and you get the idea of how under siege most publishers are. They do not want you to contact them directly. You need an agent.

2. How do I get an agent? Ahh, now, this is the $ 5,000 to six figure question. You can try to get one by querying. Or by a chance meeting, for example, at a writers’ convention or trade fair. Or by referrals from another agent/publisher or one of their clients. Or by friending them on Facebook through another friend and after a year of kibbitzing about politics and getting to know each other a bit, ask them if they might possibly be interested in seeing your manuscript.

(Btw, I let that agent know when I asked if I could ‘friend’ them that I was an aspiring author, upfront. And when I did approach the agent, I let the agent know that if they didn’t want to see my manuscript, or rejected it, that it would not affect our Facebook friendship.) 

I’ve done all of these. The first didn’t work, although I came damn close several times. Agents are under siege as well, so cold-calling (which is what querying really is) doesn’t work all that well.

The second and third approach worked for me, so did the last. But since most aspiring authors are stuck with the querying process, I’ll deal with that next.

3. What is querying? Querying is the extremely time-consuming and often highly ineffective process of deluging agents with a brief summary of the plot of your book until some of them ask to see more, in the hope that eventually one of them will ask if they can represent you.

If you query, you will almost certainly end up in a slush-pile. This is a mountainous heap of unsolicited manuscripts. You may be lucky enough to get asked for a partial or a full manuscript by an agent or an agent’s assistant.

What happens next is up to  you and the extent to which you have written a great (not merely good) story, polished and honed it, and whether you’ve queried the right agent for your kind of book. (Make sure it’s been spell-checked thoroughly, please, or you might as well toss the manuscript in the recycling bin. A few errors are probably okay; constant typos, not so much.)

4. How do I know to query the right agent? Check and keyword your genre. Research the websites of the agents who match your search. (There are books in the public library that have lists of agents: assume, given the lag between publication dates and contents, that these are out of date. Agents move. Agentquery has agents who are members of the AAR and thereby bound by a Code of Ethics. And it’s up-to-date.)

Pay particular attention to what the agent identifies as of interest. There is no point in sending a science fiction manuscript to someone who wants chicklit, or a crime mystery novel to someone who likes romance novels or anything at all to someone who is not looking for new authors. Target your search.  

5. What do I send the agent?  Send them whatever they ask for on their website. If they don’t specify what they want (some do, some don’t) , then send out the query letter and the first five pages. Not the first five pages after the prologue, or the first five pages that you like: the first five pages. Always double-space.

If they specify what they want, then send them that. Do not send them the full manuscript. Do not send three chapters if they ask for the first 30 pages. Do not send them the first ten pages if they ask for the first 30.

Do not send an self-addressed envelope; instead, in your query letter, indicate that a reply is not required if they don’t consider your work a good fit for their list. Unless, of course, unlike me, you do not have a Scottish heritage, and do not mind wasting your money.

6. What format should I use for my letter and attachments?  Use a nice clear font. I use Times New Roman, font size 12. Some use Courier 12. Do not use fancy fonts. If the submission guidelines for emails request attachments, send the pages or chapters as attachments. If they don’t, insert the required number of pages or chapters into the body of your email.

Some agencies have spam filters to block emails that have attachments so check this out on the website and if there is any doubt, include the material in the body of the email.

If you do use attachments, include a header with your last name, the name of the book or an identifiable part of it, and the page number on each page. Eg.:

Blair/The Beggar’s Opera                                                                                     1.

Do not do this if you are cutting and pasting these pages into the body of the email.

Frankly, in my view, snail mail is a waste of time but if you choose to use it, follow the guidelines specified on the agent’s website. Except for the SASE (see above).

7. What should my query letter say? I have blogged about this elsewhere on this site, so I won’t repeat the content again (a copy of my own query letter can be found here)  except to add the following:

Do not use letterhead if you are emailing your query. Address your query personally to the agent you have researched. Do not send it to “Sir,” or even “Dear Sir.” There is no need to date an email query, but I did anyway. And I signed it too. Include your word count. Mention the name  of your book and the genre.

Do not bother with a biography unless it’s relevant. Some agents will take notice of a creative writing course or writing degree; many don’t care.

8. What about attachments? If you are supposed to attach your content, don’t PDF it. Don’t worry about copyright: no-one is going to steal your work. Send it as a word document. Attach it in a format like Word-2003 or RTF that just about any computer can open.

Give it an appropriate name, like the name of your book, eg. The Beggar’s Opera –  30 pages. Refer to the fact that you have attached those 30 pages in your cover letter, in case you forget.

9.  How long do I wait? If an agent  is interested, you will be surprised how quickly they’ll respond. But it’s not unreasonable, if a few weeks have passed and you haven’t heard anything, to email again and ask if the submission was received.

Sometimes submission guidelines will tell  you it can take 4-6 weeks, or 8 weeks, or whatever. If so, diarize that time period and wait patiently.

Do not harass the agency. If that time has passed and you haven’t heard anything, it is reasonable to email and ask if they received your manuscript. But most times, silence connotes a lack of interest. If three or four months have passed, and you haven’t heard anything, treat it as a rejection. Move on.

If they ask you for a full manuscript, you had better have one ready. Personally, I think it’s reckless to query without actually having written the book. Not a problem in non-fiction, but a huge problem in fiction. If the agent wants to see it, they want it now. Not when you’ve finished writing it. That’s why you include a word count. A novel, by the way, should be around 80,000 to 100,000 words.

10. How do I deal with a rejection? It’s not personal, so don’t take it personally, any more than it’s not personal if you have your house up for sale, and no-one from the Open House makes an offer.

Expect to be rejected. Expect to be rejected repeatedly. In fact, these days, expect to be rejected dozens of times, maybe even hundreds of times. If you take rejection personally, maybe you should look at self-publishing. You will be a puddle on the ground otherwise.

The publishing business is hard, really hard, even for published authors. Toughen up. It won’t hurt hardly at all after the first 100 or so rejections. The first twenty or so sting. It does get easier.

Join Absolute Write (the Water Cooler) and whinge with other great, undiscovered writers about how many rejections you’ve collected. Believe me, it helps. (The Rejection and Dejection thread was a great support to me. The Next Circle in Hell is where I hang out now.)

Literature is a subjective business. Each agent has their own contacts. If they don’t think they can place a book through those people, they won’t take it on, even if they love your book. Often it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Do NOT send an email to the agent haranguing them or disputing their decision. If you do email them at all (usually not required), thank them for the time they took considering your manuscript. If they’ve offered feedback,  thank them for it. And then move on.

So those are my top ten tips.

For more information , take a look at my blog posts on querying and slushpiles and don’t give up. Check out Absolute Write: there is a whole world of like-minded, intelligent people there who can really help you through this.

And once again, the very best of luck!

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