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How to Query, Part 2: Actively querying
How to query agents (and stay organized while you do it)
This is Part 2 of my How to Query series. Click here for Part 1.
Reminder: I’m approaching this from the context of traditional publishing. Standards and norms shared in this series are for authors pursuing the trad route.
Today we are tackling the actual act of querying—sending emails to agents and staying organized while you do it.
Let’s get started…
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The little beam of light in the above photo highlights the word PLAN, which is fitting for today’s post, because you will indeed need a plan to stay organized while querying. The first thing you’ll want to do before you send any queries, is make a giant list of agents who you believe to be a good match for your novel.
Thanks to the internet and searchable databases, finding an agent that represents your genre and audience group is easier than ever.
Publishers Marketplace → A database of agents, editors, and book deals. Some pages are public-facing, but a membership ($25/mo) is required for full access. With membership, you can browse and search literary agents, and access individual agent pages. These pages show an agent’s contact info, recent book deals, best known projects, genres and specialities they represent, and in some cases, what they’re currently looking to sign.
Agent Query → Agent Query claims to be the internet’s largest free database of literary agents. Users can search by agent name, keyword, genre, etc.
Query Tracker → A free online service that helps authors keep track of their queries (more on this in a moment). The site also includes a searchable database of literary agents.
Manuscript Wishlist → Another free database that features both agents and editors. Each publishing professional has a page that lists out the types of projects they are actively seeking to represent or acquire.
Take your time researching agents. This isn’t a task you can complete in an afternoon but rather over the course of several weeks.
As you build your list, cross check it with Writer Beware, a wonderful resource put together by SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association) which documents scams or shady dealings by agents and other industry professionals. Weed out any sham agents you may have inadvertently included.
The golden rule of publishing is that money flows to the author. When you make money, so does your agent (their commission comes out of your checks). Any agent who charges you upfront (say, for editing or submission fees) isn’t legitimate.
After you have your list, consider googling each agent to see what else you can learn about their agenting style and preferences. Agents’ websites and social media profiles are good places to scan as well.
Once you complete this research phase, a few of the agents on your list may stand out to you as especially good fits for your project. This means it might be time to…
Put the agents’ names into a spreadsheet. Then consider adding a column for each agent’s…
Literary agency (so you can make sure you don’t query more than one agent within an agency at a time.)
Contact info (email address)
Number of sales, both in the last few months and overall (so that you can see which agents are selling projects well now and/or which have proven success over an experienced career)
General notes (such as successful projects they rep, why you’re querying them, tidbits that may be useful for the personalization part of your query, etc.)
Desirability (a score of 1 to 10, based on how eager you are to work with this agent. You’ll likely come to this rating by comparing buzz around the agent, their sales success within the industry, plus a general gut feeling of how well you’d jive with the agent’s style)
Compatibility (a score of 1 to 10, based on how well matched you think your novel is for the agent’s tastes/wishlist)
Do you need to make a spreadsheet with all this info? No. But it will keep you incredibly organized and it has the added perk of allowing you to sort your agent list by any of the columns. Sort the list by compatibility and you can easily see which agents you believe to be the best match for your novel. Sort by agency and you can easily scan which agents work at the same place and should not be queried at the same time.
The spreadsheet can also help you stay organized once the querying begins. But first, let’s talk about your querying strategy…
Querying in batches
I highly recommend that you query in batches, emailing about 5-8 agents at a time. Some people like larger batches, but I would not recommend querying more than a dozen agents in your initial blast.
Why? The batched approach lets you adjust and course correct depending on your initial results. If you get form rejections (a blunt no) for every query in your first batch, this may be a sign that something isn’t working in your query or sample pages. You can now rewrite/revise before you send your next batch of queries.1 Whereas if you’d queried everyone at once, you may have just blown your book’s chance with all those agents.
If your query gets you partial and full requests, and then rejections, this may be a sign that your actual story that needs work. An agent rejecting you at this stage may even offer feedback regarding what does and doesn’t work for them within the ms. (More on communicating with agent is coming in How to Query, Part 3)
Either way, querying in batches allows you to test the water. Are your materials working? If not, you can revise and try again.
Which agents should you query in each batch? I suggest a balanced variety of agents from your spreadsheet—a few that are high on your compatibility rating, for instance, and a few that are less so. If you query your eight favorite agents in one go and get all rejections, you may be discouraged to keep trying. Even still, keep in mind that the agent who appears only so-so on your spreadsheet may be the perfect agent for you. Your opinions of agents may change if/when you get a chance to talk with them one-on-one. (More on this next installment also.)
Craft your emails
Once you know which agents you want to reach out to in your first batch, head to your email client. It’s time to write and send some emails.
Remember to personalize your queries as often as possible and always follow each agent’s guidelines exactly as they specify. If you find conflicting guidelines in your research, default to instructions on the agent’s personal website and/or the agency website.
A breakdown of the parts of your email:
The TO field: You’ll email each agent individually (no bulk emails or BCCs!), so this should include ONE email address only.
The SUBJECT line: Some agents will tell you exactly what to write in the subject line so that it filters to the right place on their end and/or doesn’t end up in spam. If an agent/agency doesn’t have subject line instructions, an acceptable and professional approach is to use Query: [YOUR TITLE HERE].
The email itself: You should already have your query ready if you started this How to Query series with me during Part 1. (If not, head here to get a fill-in-the-blank query template.) Paste your query directly into the body of the email. Remember to double check your personalizations; you don’t want to send the wrong greeting/personalized tidbit to the wrong agent!
Sample pages: Most agency websites will include querying guidelines that specify how many sample pages agents would like to see with your query and how to share said pages (E.g.: pasted directly into email). However, it is possible you’ll run into a case where you can’t find an agent’s preferences. In this instance, the industry standard is to include your manuscript’s first chapter. Paste it directly into your email, below your query and email signature.
Everything look good?
Take a deep breath and hit send!
Once you start querying, things can quickly get messy and confusing. Who has a full? Who has rejected you? Who have you not heard back from?
You can add columns onto your agent spreadsheet and track query progress there. But if you’d rather keep agent info separate from querying info, I highly recommend QueryTracker.net.
Query Tracker is a wonderful resource tailored specifically to querying writers. Not only does it have a searchable database of agents, complete with their average response times, but users can make and manage lists of every agent they’ve queried, easily noting who has what materials.
You may be growing overwhelmed by all this, and I get it. It’s a lot.
You may also be wondering if you can just wing querying without all these spreadsheets and lists. And I suppose, yes, you could. But if you’re growing overwhelmed, that is all the more reason to get organized upfront. It will save you time later—and make the entire querying experience less stressful.
Once you’re actively querying, all you have to do is sit back and wait. (Easier said than done.) You may get your first response in a few hours. Or it could take days, weeks, or months! Either way, you’ll eventually get an email from an agent, and it may require a response on your part.
We’ll tackle this exciting (and sometimes complicated) phase in Part 3: Communicating with agents. If you have a question on the info shared in this post, drop it in the comments!
Until next time,
After the first batch or two, you may find it more useful to adjust to rolling queries, sending a new 1-2 every time you receive a rejection. This approach means you’re not waiting to hear back from a full batch (a perk, because agent response times vary widely) but are still sending new queries out as you wait.