How many agents should you query at once? And other questions

I just sent out my very first queries this past week! Through research and my (admittedly limited) experience, here are a few tips I picked up along the way.

1. How do I know my query letter is bullet-proof?

My first draft of my query had grammar mistakes and was unclear to follow. Have people both in and out of the industry look and your query, because your query is the first impression you will make. People who are not involved in publishing in any way (like friends and family) are perfect for gauging how well your query letter captures interest. Is the story itself enticing?

I also had the opportunity to pitch to an editor at the Atlanta Writer’s Conference last May (they’re having a fall one in November, check it out!) who gave me feedback and suggestions for further improving. I strongly recommend having your query looked over by industry professionals, who know what to look for.

2. Which agents should I reach out to?

I started at Manuscript Wishlist, but other resources include Writer’s Market and Publisher’s Marketplace. You can use the search in MW to find agents who represented the genre you write and read through what it is that will grab their attention. Know your story’s strengths–my novel has a diverse cast, and many agents were interested in representing minority characters and writers.

Never, ever blitz an entire list of agents. Do your research first to find someone who would really want to represent you.

3. How many agents should I query at once?

I wouldn’t query more than eight at once, ten as an absolute limit. The reason is because you might have a weak query letter without realizing it; querying fewer lets you experiment and adjust to what works and what doesn’t. To keep track of who I reached out to, I created a spreadsheet listing potential agents in alphabetical order, with other columns for what agency they represented, what date I queried them, and what their response was. This helped me keep track.

4. Can I customize my query for a particular agent’s interests?

When you read through an agent’s manuscript wishlist or their personal preferences, you might find that they say they prefer strong female characters, diverse representation, character-driven novels, etc. They may even list their own favorite books or books they already represent. You can mention these books in your query if they are similar to yours (this gives agents a comparison for reference) as well as aspects of your book the agent might like. This shows that you have done your research.

5. How long until I get a response?

Be prepared to wait. Thankfully, most agents will have a blurb on their website about how long it will take to get back to you. I’ve seen response times ranging from two weeks to three months, but in general it seems like 6-8 weeks is pretty common. Unfortunately, not every agency or agent will give you a reply, and after a couple months you may have to move on and query a next set.

If you’re antsy about how long it might take an agent to get back to you, you can look that agent up on QueryTracker, where querying writers post how long it took to get a response and what that response was.

6. Do I even need an agent in the first place?

This one depends. If you really want to get published by one of the Big 5 Publishers, you’re going to need one. However, if you have a more niche book, you might not need one. Just do your research on what it is you’re selling and what it is people are buying, and be mindful of scammers (most agents get a 15% commission on advances and royalties, so beware of anyone who asks for more).

And this came up multiple times while researching agents: If you’re trying to get fiction published, the manuscript needs to be finished first, whether you are looking for an agent or not.

7. When should I give up?

Kathryn Stockett famously got 60 rejections before The Help was published, and that book eventually went on to become a movie. Publishing takes persistence, but if you notice that you’re only getting rejections, it might help to go back through your manuscript or query to see where agents are shaking their heads. Ask someone to look over your work (or return to Question 1) and in the mean time, follow agents and publishers on Twitter and other social media to stay on top of trends and what the publishing world is looking for.

Who knows? That story they’re looking for could be yours.

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