Publishing · Writing

How to research and prepare for querying literary agents.

People keep asking me about this, so I thought it was worth making a blog post.

This is not “How to write a query letter” — you’ll find plenty of those posts elsewhere. This is what comes before that.

First: The most important thing is that you get your full manuscript into the best shape possible. Ignore any stories you’ve heard about people getting an agent with only a quarter of a draft written. You’re most likely not going to be one of those people. Also don’t think that because an agent is an editorial agent, they’ll take on your still-sort-of-rough draft and fix all the problems. Make your book as good as you possibly can. Get reads from critique partners. Work to the point where you’ve solved all the problems to the best of your abilities.

Only then, when the manuscript feels like a real book in a store — or as close to that as you can possibly achieve, only then are you actually ready for the next step. Take a deep breath, and get ready to do some research. And by “some” I mean…a lot.

(In my case, I actually spread my research spread out over the course of a handful of years, which made it less daunting. If you also choose to do that, remember not to let this task overshadow the work of the actual writing. The writing is 99.99999% of it.)

 

WHAT INFORMATION TO PAY ATTENTION TO:

To begin, you have to know what you’re hunting for. I highly, highly recommend starting by making a spreadsheet. Mine had columns for:

  • Agent name (and gender pronoun)
  • Agency
  • Submission guidelines (including whether you can submit to multiple agents at that agency)
  • Contact info (some agents’ emails are not on their sites but can be found in interviews and blog posts; if I found them I stored them in this column)
  • Estimated response time for queries (some agents only respond if interested, so I noted that too)
  • Estimated response time for requested material
  • Editors and imprints they’ve done deals with
  • Any clients of theirs whose books I felt particularly strongly about (obviously I’d list favorites, but it’s useful too to note if an agent represents work you hate)
  • Social media (links to public facing platforms where they’re regularly engaging)
  • Notes on what they’ve explicitly said they’re looking for (especially if it happens to match my projects)
  • Any other relevant links (e.g. a personal site / blog post / interview)
  • Any notable dates, like when they’ll be closed to queries / open to queries once more, follow-up times, if they’re listed (e.g. “If you haven’t heard from us after 6 weeks, feel free to check in via email.”)

Later, when I started querying, I added the following columns to the same spreadsheet:

  • Priority (listing the order in which I planned to send out queries and also splitting the names into batches)
  • A note of exactly what I had sent with my query (e.g. first 2 chapters; first 5 pages)
  • The date I first queried
  • The date I received a first response (either a request for more material or a rejection)
  • The date I received a second response (offer of representation or rejection)

(Color-coding is really helpful when you start querying. I had a color for agents who had queries, a color for agents who were next on dock, a color for agents who had the full manuscript, a color for rejections, a color for acceptances.)

Creating a spreadsheet like this guides you in your research, and helps you make the most careful and strategic plan for querying.

 

CONDUCTING SAID RESEARCH:

It’s pretty simple, really. If you’re reading this blog post you’ve already got the tools and skills to do this work. Find all the information that’s out there on the web, and fill in your spreadsheet as thoroughly as you possibly can. Then use that data to form a strategy.

Luckily, there are some places that have already compiled a lot of stuff:

  • Manuscript Wishlist. This site was recently revamped, and a lot of agents have pages on here listing their interests. Some agents share more than others on this site, in which case you can get a glimpse of their personality. An example: my agent’s MSWL.
  • If you’re specifically looking for an agent who handles children’s literature (including YA), the Literary Rambles blog has a great “Agent Spotlight” with tons of information. Some of the posts might be rather old, but even so they’re still a good resource. (Just make a point of checking to see when something was posted, so you have an idea of whether some stuff might be outdated.) Example: their write-up for my agent.
  • Writer’s Digest has a “Successful Queries” series listing writers and their agents and their actual query letters. A) These query letters are great examples to help you as you write yours. B) In these articles the agents actually offer their personal commentary on why the query letter was so successful for them. Ding-ding-ding! Here is your direct window into how those agents think!
  • Lee Wind has a blog especially focusing on agents looking for diversity. This is a collection of interviews with the agents speaking for themselves, which is a really great way for you to get to know them and their style and their personalities.
  • Query Tracker is a fun tool, but it can be obsession-inducing. It offers a system for you to track your queries much the same way my suggested spreadsheet above works — I preferred my system though, for the privacy and for the comprehensiveness. The most uniquely useful thing about Query Tracker, in my opinion, is that many writers share the details of when and what (genre / age group) they have queried, how long it’s taken them to get a response, and what that response is. (These community comments are listed by agent.) So you can sort of gauge response times, and you can also see how frequently (or more realistically, how infrequently) agents request manuscripts, and how often that leads to an offer. But obviously this is a very small sample of the querying population. There are plenty of writers out there who are not sharing this information. (I was a lurker.) And this doesn’t always account for whether a writer had a referral, or whether a writer might have pitched the agent at a conference and been invited to submit — these things might get someone a slightly faster response time. Another interesting thing about Query Tracker is that it compiles the data from the people who have used it to log their queries, and produces stats: “Top 10 Most Queried Agents” / “Top 10 Most Accepting Agents” / “Top 10 Most Non-Responsive Agents” / “Top 10 Most Rejecting Agents” — I warned you. It can turn into an obsession.
  • Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace are places where you can learn about the latest book deals. (PW is free and open to the public. Here’s the link where you can find general deal announcements, and here’s the link where you can find the rights reports for children’s books. PM is behind a paywall — I do recommend subscribing if you’ve got the disposable income for it, but it’s yet another thing that can turn into an unhealthy obsession.) From watching these deals you can take note of which agents and editors are working with your favorite authors, who’s selling debut novels, who’s representing the types of books you want to write. Even if it feels overwhelming at first, over time you’ll start to recognize names.
  • You should also check the acknowledgments of every book you read. Authors thank their agents there. I say read these no matter how you feel about the book, because it’s a good way to get a sense of what that agent represents and what their taste might be.

Those are just some examples of resources off the top of my head. But this should be obvious: google the name of the agent, and you’ll find the rest. If those agents have done interviews and blog posts, read them. If they’ve been featured in podcasts, carve out the time to listen. It honestly surprised me how helpful podcasts were. I’m nervous on the phone with new people, so I was very glad to have listened to a couple things featuring my agent before our first call. By the time we spoke I already knew the sound and cadence of his voice; it helped me to feel a bit more at ease.

This should also be obvious: look at their social media. If they’re very engaged on, say, Twitter, this is a really great way to get a sense for their personality. (I keep mentioning personality because I think personality is hugely important. The hope is that this will be a long-term relationship. You need a personality that works well with yours.)

Follow their platforms. Watch how they interact. Social media is also a great way to get a sense for how they communicate. Do you like their style of banter? What kind of vibe do you get? Do they write a lot of tweets that are meant to be funny jokes, but you find that you don’t really understand them? That might seem like a small thing, but communication is big. (People in publishing will tell you there are times when they need help deciphering an email from an agent. Sometimes they can’t tell if someone is joking. Sometimes they aren’t sure what someone is asking for. When this someone is your agent, that is not the situation you want.) Also consider that maybe you don’t want an agent who’s all over social media. (This is true of a few friends of mine, who have told me it would bother them if, for example, they were impatiently waiting on an email response and saw their agent tweeting.)

 

SOME WAYS TO USE THE DATA YOU’VE GATHERED:

  • Use your spreadsheet to figure out who you’re most excited about, and split your list of agents into tiers. Within the tiers, I recommend dividing them up further, into batches of 5 to 10 agents. I wouldn’t query more than a group of 10 at a time. In the event that you get consistent feedback from everyone in one batch, you can take that feedback, revise, and then send the (hopefully) improved manuscript to the next set. This is an ideal strategy because most agents are going to be unwilling to look at the same project again. Treat it like you have just one shot with that manuscript (don’t throw away your shot!), and then be pleasantly surprised if an agent invites you to submit a rewrite in the future.
  • Since you’ve compiled them all in one place, you can check whether you’ve followed each agent’s submission guidelines correctly — because many of them will ask for different things with the initial query. (But I would also still do a last check against the agency website before hitting “send” because typos / copy+paste issues do happen, and you might have accidentally logged that in your spreadsheet incorrectly. Also, if you gather this info over a long stretch of time, some of it might have changed if they switched agencies. Double checking is always a good idea.)
  • You also might consider strategizing some of your query order around response times. There are agents out there who are known for taking months and months or maybe even over a year to respond (again there’s Query Tracker to help you see that). If you’re really keen on working with them, maybe submit to them first, so that those emails are already out there in the waiting queue as you look to get responses from others.
  • Your spreadsheet should help you tailor your query letters. (Always, always tailor your queries.) You might even go so far as to completely change the format or your description of the novel based on what an agent has said that they prefer to see in the query. (Some agents want a complete synopsis. Some agents don’t need the ending to be revealed right off the bat. Some agents want more details about who you are.) Talk about the blog interview where they asked for feminist characters just like yours, where they mentioned loving a book whose readership you believe would be the perfect match for your story. Talk about their clients that you adore, whose books you think yours would be shelved beside. These things help you stand out, and prove that you’ve done your homework.
  • A question I have been asked too many times: When can you follow up with an agent who has your query in their inbox? Answer: You’re not gonna like this, but you generally don’t. Unless there is a policy listed on their website specifying when you can follow up. In which case, hopefully you’ve marked this information in your spreadsheet so you know to sit tight, or that it’s time to check in. (The situation is different if you receive an offer of representation. If one agent offers, you can contact all the other agents who have your manuscript and all the agents who have not yet responded to your query, and politely ask them to expedite their response.)

 

JUST A FEW SUGGESTIONS REGARDING THE ACTUAL QUERY LETTER:

  • Share your query draft with a friend or two whose feedback you really trust. Writing a description of a novel can be an awful, awful process. Showing it to someone will help you figure out if it makes sense, if it’s too messy, if it’s trying to include too many details. Try reading it out loud, too — see if you stumble over words, or if you start to bore yourself.
  • If someone who is familiar with your work is referring you to an agent, mention that first thing in the query to that agent. Agents are so busy they don’t have time to pay close attention to every sentence of every letter. Put it where their eyes are most likely to catch it. (An addendum: Don’t ask someone to refer you to an agent. Don’t do it. It’s tempting, but don’t. You can casually mention that you want to query that agent and see if the person you’re talking to offers a referral on their own.)
  • If your first batch is mostly rejection and all the feedback varies wildly, consider rewriting your query letter from scratch before you send it out again.

 

I hope this is useful! If you’re looking to read about my personal journey of finding my agent, that blog post is here. If you have questions, leave a comment and I’ll try to answer.

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