You know when agents say, “If you follow directions and sub guidelines, you’re already ahead of 90% of querying authors“
You’re probably thinking, “That can’t possibly be true.“
Well. It is. So let’s talk guidelines.
Bear in mind that, as always, there are exceptions, and things will vary by agency. I will try to cover all possibilities, but I might miss a few, so take everything with a grain of salt.
Let’s start with the very basics.
- What should you send with your query?
This will definitely vary by agency — and sometimes even by agents within the same agency — but these are the guidelines for Donald Maass Literary Agency.
(This page is easily accessible from DMLA’s home page under the “Submissions” tab)
As you can see, it tells you . . .
- what materials to send
- what to put in the subject line
- where to send your query
- where to FIND where to send your query
- and not to send attachments
Out of the last 20 queries I’ve read . . .
- 8 of them did not do the subject line right
- 5 of them did not include the word count
- 8 of them did not include the genre
- and 1 of them sent attachments
This is a random sampling. I read significantly more than 20 queries today, and there were many more mistakes.
Next up . . .
- Who should you send it to?
Agencies will have their tastes listed — usually a broad policy about what no one at the agency represents as well as individual tastes.
As you saw above, no one at DMLA represents poetry, screenplays, or picture books.
Guess how many screenplay queries we get?
(Hint: It’s a lot.)
For more specific tastes, I’ll use Caitlin McDonald’s page.
Guess how much military fiction and women’s fiction she gets?
(Hint: It’s also a lot.)
Why would you send a business letter to someone who won’t do business with you?
If they don’t rep your genre, they don’t rep your genre.
While we’re talking about genre . . .
- How many do you list?
One. Maybe two.
Do not list five. Or ten.
(You think I’m joking. I’m not.)
Do you not know what genre your book fits into? Is it obviously a genre that has not yet been invented?
(Hint: 99.9% chance it’s not)
- Go to a bookstore
Where would your book fit?
- Read some books
Look at what genre they are.
- Read some more books
Reading is always a good idea.
I am forever ashamed to say I did this very thing. The very first book I wrote was a YA fantasy, but . . . I’d only read adult historical fiction and middle grade space opera for the previous five years. I had absolutely no idea what my book was . . . so I figured it was obviously a new category. That there was nothing like it.
Reader, it was not.
Moving on . . .
- Who should you query?
I know there are agencies with lots of great agents, so it’s hard to pick between them. Some agencies allow you to query more than one agent. Some do not.
For example, here is DMLA’s policy.
Pretty straightforward, right? You can query multiple agents, but not at the same time. You can query the same agent after six months and lots of revision (unless it’s an R&R). Not “I did some line edits.” Not “I changed one chapter.”
Some agencies allow you to query only one agent. Period. If you get a no from one agent, it’s a no from all of them. This may seem harsh, but you have to remember that within agencies, a lot of us share queries. If there’s a project that isn’t right for one agent, but we think another agent might like it, we’ll usually pass it on.
Okay, let’s move on . . .
- When should you query?
When the book is DONE and POLISHED.
There is a notable exception to this — non-fiction is often sold on proposal, not on a completed manuscript. Research what each agency’s policy on this is.
But for fiction submissions, FINISH THE BOOK. POLISH THE BOOK.
Which brings us to . . .
- What should you query?
Notice that I am saying the book. Singular. Just one. Uno.
You may have multiple projects going on. That’s okay! Good for you!
ONLY PITCH ONE. Pick your strongest completed book and query that one.
(Guys, I kid you not, I once got a query pitching twelve books.)
“But Rae,” you may say, “what about all of the sequels I have planned and/or written?”
I will say this a thousand times and stand by it: “has series potential“
It’s a beautiful phrase. “STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE stands alone, but has series potential.”
(P.S. If you have all of the sequels written, don’t get too comfortable with them. A publisher may only buy your first one. You may do revisions that render your sequels unusable. Any number of things might happen.)
Tangentially related is . . .
- How much should you query?
Obviously, you should only send the amount of pages an agent asks for in their submission guidelines, but there’s another component to this question.
This is a much more flexible part of following the sub guidelines, but it’s still important.
Always include the word count, and always know what the standard word count for your genre is. There is always wiggle room, but be aware of it regardless.
(One query I received listed 900,000 words. I also received a query for a 30,000-word adult thriller. Guys. No.)
Don’t know what the average word count is for your genre? Literary agent Jennifer Laughran has you covered.
Yes, there is always flexibility. Yes, these are not hard and fast and always true. But they’re a very good starting point. And they are true enough of the time that anything over or under is the exception.
So now you’ve sent off your query!
. . . . . and you haven’t heard anything back.
So . . . .
- When should you nudge?
To nudge, or not to nudge, that is the question.
Actually, there are something like a zillion questions, most of them along the lines of What if my query got eaten? and What if the agent accidentally deleted it? and What if they aren’t answering because they hate me?
Agencies differ widely on this, but many of them will have something posted to help you with this.
For example, some agents have a “no response means no” policy, meaning that if you don’t hear from them, they aren’t interested.
Other agents will have something more specific posted, such as “if you don’t hear from me within 8 weeks, please nudge.”
Some will post their query progress on twitter or a blog.
But what if they don’t have anything posted?
Opinions differ, but I would personally say to wait at least 8 weeks.
Do not nudge after a week. Do not nudge after a day.
(Yes, this happens.)
And always bear in mind that agents sometimes get behind in their queries.
Remember that they have multiple clients with multiple manuscripts.
And they may be . . .
- negotiating multiple deals
- dealing with any number of publishing things that come up
- reading requested fulls
- requesting ten billion things from a pitch contest
- having a personal or family crisis
- taking a week off to breathe
Unless they post something about it, you just don’t know. Please be kind and considerate.
- What do you do when you receive a rejection?
- Keep querying.
- Adjust the query.
- Tweak your manuscript.
- Write something new to distract yourself.
- Stress-clean your house.
I’ve been asked about replying to rejections with a polite “thank you” note. My personal suggestion is to not do this with queries. If it’s on a partial or full, and the agent gave you some feedback? Go right ahead. Otherwise — especially to form rejections — just keep querying.
Most of the people who respond to form rejections are assholes who want to yell at us. Quick “thank you” notes are usually just skimmed and deleted. Trust me, we don’t think it’s rude if you don’t respond to form rejections.
So that’s it!
Query etiquette from start to rejection. Obviously, there are a lot more things that go on if you get signed or get a request. But this is just the basics, like I said.
- Follow the sub guidelines — you’ll be ahead of most querying authors.
- Read instructions.
- Keep querying.
- Don’t be a dick.