#amquerying No More: A Writer's Guide to Finding--and Signing With--a Literary Agent
From the outside looking in--and sometimes the inside looking in--the road to publishing your first book can seem labyrinthine, fraught with obstacles both seen and unseen. When should you query agents? How should you query agents? What does an effective query letter look like? How do you find agents who might be interested in your book? How many submissions should you send out? Should you grant an exclusive? When an agent offers, what should you ask them? What should you look for in an agent? What if more than one agent offers--what's the etiquette then? How do you decline representation gracefully? What do you need to know about the publishing submission process?
As a writer, I believe in sharing resources. After all, there are more than enough agents, editors, and imprints to go around. In hopes of helping some other anxious querying writer out there, I want to share some of what may have contributed to receiving five offers of representation from top agencies within three weeks of sending out my first query.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a writer is curiosity. We write to discover. We write because we don't know the answers until we tell the story; sometimes we don't even know the questions. So: apply that same curiosity toward building a list of agents to query. Remember that you are choosing them as much as you are hoping they choose you. This is business matchmaking, possibly for the entirety of your career, so only query agents with whom you'd be thrilled to work. How do you know? If you're able, invest in Writer's Market or a subscription to Publishers Lunch, the paid component of Publishers Marketplace that, among other helpful information, details agents' and editors' recent and overall deals. Are you familiar with an agent's writers or books? Are their books similar to yours?
For a free tool, visit Manuscript Wish List and search #MSWL on Twitter. Create a running list of agents to approach using Query Tracker. Search for interviews with or blogs by the agents you're interested in. Get a genuine sense of their personalities and what they love to read and represent. For example, on Manuscript Wish List, my agent, Hillary Jacobson with ICM Partners (damn, that feels good to say!) expressed an interest in literary fiction, "secrets and lies" books, psychological suspense, books featuring "a world like ours, but with a twist," and #ownvoices. In an interview, she seemed friendly and approachable, and she was actively building her list. I felt that flicker of excitement that said my book might be perfect for her. Don't just query agents because they work at huge agencies or represent famous and/or award winning authors. Query those agents because you think they might actually love your book.
2. Workshop Your Query Letter
There are plenty of resources online for how to write an effective query letter to literary agents--literally, just Google "how to write an effective query letter to literary agents." If I were to boil it down, though, I'd say this: first, address the agent by name. Then start with a hook--whether it's one line about why you're reaching out to them, specifically, or one line immediately bringing them into your book. Summarize your book in 1-2 paragraphs. Don't be overly detailed with plot. Pretend you're writing back jacket copy. In fact, go to your book shelf and read the back jackets of your favorite books--what made you want to read them? Now emulate that. Finish with a paragraph summarizing relevant education, awards, publications, or experience, as well as comparable titles to your book. Agents seem to like the "[Title] meets [Title]" or "[Author] meets [Author]" format. For example, Hillary might pitch my book to editors as "Celeste Ng meets Isabel Allende." Alternately, you can say who influences or inspires you. Mention the word count of your book. Then--and this is important--follow the agent's personal submission guidelines. They vary agency to agency and agent to agent. Some want the first five pages pasted into the body of the email; others want 10, or 25, or the first three chapters. Most do not accept attachments. Show the agent you are professional and respectful by following their guidelines to the letter.
Once you have a query letter written, workshop it. Show it to writer friends, or a teacher or mentor. Manuscript Academy hosts "10 Minutes With An Expert"--for $49, you can send your query or first page to a participating agent and chat with them for 10 minutes via phone or Skype to get feedback. I showed my query to a mentor and did the 10 minutes thing (and the agent subsequently requested my full manuscript).
Since I'm all about sharing resources, here's what I wrote to Hillary:
I just spent some time on your Manuscript Wishlist page and think my literary debut, THE BLUE HOUR, might be a great fit for your list.
After a boating accident in idyllic Canyon Lake, Texas, Celia Garcia wakes up believing she's dead--in purgatory, atoning for the one sin she's never told anyone: her role in the death of her beloved grandmother, Lita. As Celia begins a quest for redemption that could cost her the life she no longer recognizes as real, her husband, Rafa, turns to the medical community for help. But help doesn't come free, and as the bills mount, he is forced to face the consequences of the gambling addiction he's been hiding from everyone--including himself.
Celia and Rafa's daughters have secrets, too: thirteen-year-old Cat is developing romantic feelings for her best friend, Megan, and seven-year-old Margaret claims to be seeing her dead great-grandmother, Lita. Meanwhile, Celia's mother--flighty, selfish Zara--finally reveals a long-buried truth: Celia was the product of a yearlong affair with a man who threw himself into the Rio Grande to die. Zara is convinced that Celia has inherited her father's mental illness, while Rafa clings to the belief that Celia has a traumatic brain injury that the right doctor can fix. As the family hovers on the brink of catastrophe, Lita could be the crucial connection that helps them see one another-and the past-clearly . . . if they let themselves listen to her ghost.
Based on a rare disorder called Cotard's delusion, THE BLUE HOUR plays out on the blurred line between mind and spirit, asking larger questions about guilt, memory, and the nature--and danger--of belief. The novel is complete at 100,000 words.
Hillary, I hope that with its #ownvoices, family saga/secrets, psychological suspense, and a tinge of magical realism, THE BLUE HOUR will resonate with you. I'm inspired by the rich place, culture, and magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the multi-generational storytelling of Louise Erdrich, and the fast-paced drama of Tana French and Gillian Flynn novels. I hope THE BLUE HOUR reflects some of this inspiration, and I'm including the first 10 pages at the bottom of this email for your review.
I have an MFA from Texas State University, and my writing has appeared in Catapult, Narrative magazine, and Asterix journal, among other outlets. Three of my short stories have been Glimmer Train contest finalists. I also served as executive editor for Round Table Companies, Inc., co-writing eight books and editing upwards of seventy in my nine-year tenure. You can see some of my work at https://katiegutierrez.journoportfolio.com.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration! I hope to hear from you soon.
3. Submit, Submit, Submit
No matter how much you've researched and how great your query letter is, you will most likely get rejected. Probably quite a few times. A writer in a Facebook group I'm in said recently that people have to stop talking about J.K. Rowling's 27 rejections as if that's a big number--and it's true. I've seen writers on Query Tracker mention that they've sent their queries out upwards of 350 times! (At that point, I have to think something just isn't working, but the point is the same: rejection will come, and it will sting, and you have to move on.) The only real way I know of to beat the rejection blues is to keep submitting. If I get a rejection but know that 15 other agents are still reviewing my query, that's 15 other chances for success! Different writers have different strategies, but mine was to submit to 20 agents in my first round. I figured that at 10 rejections, I'd submit 10 more times so that there were always more than 10 irons in the fire. I used Query Tracker to keep track of my submissions, but you can just as easily make a spreadsheet. Just keep submitting.
4. Play the Game
With so many queries, it stands to reason that eventually, someone will request the full manuscript. Usually, the agent who requests will ask that you keep them posted should anyone else make the same request. If you get more than one full request, things can start happening fast. For example, I got a partial request one day after my first submission. The following week, a different agent requested the full; I let him know I had a partial out. Later that day, the agent who'd requested the partial and another agent both requested the full. So I emailed the agent from that morning to let him know about the two requests, and I let those two know about the others. Then I emailed the other agents on my list and let them know I had three full requests out. Within the next 7-10 days, I received 10 more full requests. I made sure to keep each agent in the loop, out of respect for their time but also, I admit, in hope of creating a sense of urgency. Eight days after the first three full requests, I got my first offer. Naturally, I emailed the other reading agents to let them know; that day, two more offers followed. Then two more the next week.
Let me first say that THIS WAS CRAZY! And it could have been a really messy process if I hadn't done my research. For example, if I'd let the first offering agent hang for way too long while I waited for the others to finish reading on their own time, or if I'd accepted an offer without giving the others a chance to make a counter-offer. These mistakes would have been easy to make: I was flustered, giddy, positively high with excitement and disbelief. But I did my homework. My emails looked something like this:
When I received full requests
First, I attached the email to the original thread and changed the subject line to: UPDATE: [original subject line with book title].
I queried you [amount of time ago] with my debut literary fiction novel THE BLUE HOUR. I don't know if this is the kind of development you like to be kept abreast of, but I just received a full request on the manuscript. I'll keep you posted as things progress on my end!
Thanks for your consideration,
When I received offers
Again, I attached this email to the original thread, changing the subject line to: UPDATE: Offer of representation for THE BLUE HOUR. For agents who were already reading the full, I wrote something like:
I know you've only had my full manuscript for [amount of time], but I wanted to let you know that I've received an offer of representation for THE BLUE HOUR. I'd like to give the agent an answer by [one week]. If you're still interested, could you let me know by then?
For agents who still only had queries, I wrote:
You may not have had a chance to review my query yet, but I wanted to let you know that I've received an offer of representation for THE BLUE HOUR. I'd like to give the offering agent an answer by [one week]. If that timeline is too tight to work for you, I completely understand. I hope you'll let me know either way!
I called this step "Play the Game," but really, it was more of a dance, with the end goal of respecting everyone's time by keeping open communication. Every time I got a new offer, I let the others know. Some asked for the names of the offering agents, and I gave them. Others didn't ask. I followed their lead there.
5. The Call
Let's be honest: we dream about The Call! I mean, I have literally dreamed about The Call. Multiple times. I imagined seeing the 212 area code pop up on my phone. The hope rising in my chest. The moments of anticipation before discovering whose voice it would be on the other end . . .
More realistically, the agents who offered me representation did so over email, and we then set up phone calls. :) It was no less exciting for the planning! But the planning gave me time to, you guessed it, do more research. In all of my daydreams of The Call, I never saw myself interviewing them. I saw myself shrieking, "Yes, yes, yes!" But it's important to remember that this is a huge business decision, and this is our opportunity to go deeper than our initial research to determine whether we are, indeed, a good match. These are some of the questions I asked:
* What's your feedback on the manuscript? Do you have ideas for revision/editorial suggestions?
What I wanted to know was: Do we share the same vision for the book? Is the agent editorially hands on? Is he or she prescriptive with edits, or could we potentially collaborate well? What did the agent love about the book?
* What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with? How many authors do you have on your list? How many do you intend to have?
You should already know the answer to the first question, but the next could be telling: will the agent have enough time for you? Do they sell to publishers you admire?
* What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors, or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
Are you comfortable with their strategy? Will they continue to submit your book even if it doesn't sell on the first round? How many rounds will they do if that's the case?
* How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists? Are you comfortable sending me an early submission list?
Does the agent think your book could be a lead title? (If so, go ahead and squeal.) Are they going to try to pitch your literary book as more commercial, and if so, are you comfortable with that? Does the way they pitch it--"X meets Y"--match up with your vision for it? I also asked for an early submission list to get a sense of where they would pitch the book--which is also telling. Is it mostly smaller or indie presses, or is it the Big Five and their imprints? Have the editors worked on mostly commercial fiction or literary fiction? Have they edited any authors you've read and admire?
Out of the five agents who offered, three sent me detailed submission lists, and I was able to research the editors on Publishers Marketplace and make educated assumptions as to why the agent was targeting these particular people--which told me how much time and thought they were already putting into the process. There was also plenty of crossover on the lists, which told me that the agents saw similar potential for my book. Good for me to know!
* What is your communication style? Email? Phone? Bi-weekly or as things happen? How often will you update me during the submissions process?
Are you comfortable with their style? Do you know you'll want to see every rejection, or do you just want to know positive feedback? Do you know you'll want more frequent check-ins than the agent's style indicates? Also consider how responsive the agent was during the querying process: Did they respond to your updates or ignore them until they made an offer? I actually withdrew my full manuscript from a top-ranking agent when she didn't respond within a week of my letting her know I had representation offers. The other agents had been so lovely and so responsive that I knew I didn't want someone who wasn't, no matter how much weight her name would carry.
* How do you handle subrights? Do they have a dedicated staff member to actively sell subrights in the agency or do they use a sub-agent for foreign and film?
This felt like a presumptuous question at first--how was I already going to be thinking about "foreign" and "film?" But it matters, and the more you ask, the more you learn. ICM has in-house departments for both and is aggressive with selling those rights, and I liked that; it ended up factoring in to my decision.
* How do you work on revisions with clients?
Many agents these days are editorially hands on, striving to create easy yeses for acquisitions editors, who (according to what I've been told) no longer have the time to make significant edits. Between a book with promise and a book that's there, they will take the book that's there. So how does your agent offer feedback? Line by line in the manuscript? In an edit letter? Over the phone? How will you collaborate to improve the book prior to submission?
* How do you work with clients as they’re generating new ideas?
All of the agents I spoke with asked me about my next book--thank God I followed advice and had spent time writing a rough synopsis. I was able to pitch them the idea, and they all loved it (yay!). Then we were able to talk about how they help a client develop projects. Some agents like to work with you to refine your ideas (and make sure you're not embarking on a project too similar to one they've just sold, for example, or with which they know the market is already oversaturated, or that isn't a logical follow-up to your first book). Hillary, my agent, told me she likes to be involved in the beginning, when we're developing characters and an outline. I tend to work on a first draft in private, not workshopping it until it's done. We both said we were happy to experiment and adapt our styles as necessary. This is another question that can help you determine whether you and the agent will really work well together.
* Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? If so, may I see it? What are steps for termination? What happens if you leave the agency? If we part ways, what happens to any unsold rights?
These questions are biggies. ICM doesn't have an agency contract until a publishing agreement is made, but the four other agencies--Defiore and Company, Sterling Lord Literistic, Folio Literary Management, and Don Congdon and Associates--all did. They varied from half a page to three or four pages. Thankfully, they were all very writer-friendly in that they could be terminated at any time with written notice. This was important to me. In a worst case scenario, I did not want to be locked into a contract for three years, or four, or five. All of the agents were happy to send over their agreements for me to inspect.
* Do you offer representation for one book or for my career?
This is also important. Are you talking to an agent who's going to go after a big sale for your first book and disappear if the results don't match expectations? Or are they interested in truly being a partner, developing your career over the long term? I knew I wanted the latter.
* May I speak with one or two of your clients?
Don't hesitate to do this!
And when you do, don't hesitate to ask candid questions. When I spoke to Hillary's client, she told me right off the bat, "Whatever we talk about stays between us. We're writers--women writers of color--and we need to help each other out." I loved that; it told me immediately about the kind of person Hillary represented. And our conversation helped me make up my mind. Of the five agents who offered, four had given me editorial feedback ranging from minor to significant. Hillary had one small comment and felt the book was otherwise good to go. This actually made me nervous. I'd discovered through my calls that I wanted an agent whom I could trust to be a great reader, and this was the only box I wasn't sure Hillary checked. But her client had had the opposite experience: Out of 15 offering agents (!), Hillary was the only one to say, "I love your book, but it needs a lot of work." Her client told me about their multiple rounds of revision and sent me Hillary's extensive notes after our phone call. This told me something I didn't know about Hillary, something I could only learn by talking to someone who'd worked with her. Of course, you can expect that an agent will put you in touch with people they're confident will have good things to say, but there are still things to learn from these calls.
6. The Decision
I was indescribably fortunate to receive offers from agents who, throughout the process, gave me no reason to disqualify them. They were all warm, responsive, professional, and passionate about my book. All of their contracts were author-friendly, and all of their clients gave them glowing reviews. Every time I spoke to someone new or returned to an agent with more questions, I hoped for something concrete that would tell me he or she wasn't the one. But these moments didn't come. Any writer would be extremely lucky to work with any of these agents. So what followed was a week of obsession, research, detailed pros and cons lists, and very little sleep, hoping that at some point, my gut would speak up. If you have multiple offers, or even if you've only received one, it's so important to give yourself time to fully weigh out your decision. Agents will understand and, I think, even respect that.
Throughout the process, I'd kept returning to Hillary. She's a newer agent and younger than I am, and she has a wildly successful track record in selling YA books, which mine is not. But everything about her told me she's hungry and ambitious and ready to achieve the same sort of success with adult literary fiction. (She offered to talk to me every day until I made my decision--dedication!) She's had amazing mentorship, and ICM is a powerhouse. I also felt like I could be myself with her. On our first phone call, we bonded over feeling like we needed to "prove ourselves" early on in our careers because of our youth, eventually simply coming to own it. Which meant I could talk fast and be bubbly and giggle and say "yay!" without feeling it undermined her perception of me as a "serious" writer. That was refreshing. And I suppose this was my gut chiming in.
Declining offers of representation is something I'm willing to bet no writer is prepared for. I felt like throwing up as I emailed four wonderful people who had given me such time and attention over the previous week. I wrote honest, personalized letters to each, and they responded with genuine regret but also incredible kindness and support. I feel like we managed to build real relationships in this 11-day period, which is a beautiful and unexpected outcome.
The lesson here: from querying to accepting representation, be honest, communicative, and thorough. Three weeks may not seem like a lot of time, but while I queried, it was essentially my full-time job--and ultimately, I think that's why it was successful. (Well, other than agents liking my book, which: yay!)
I hope this is helpful to you as you embark on what could be the bridge to the next phase of your career!