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An introduction to querying literary agents

I wrote this as part of a general info post for a Facebook group I’m in. The level I’ve aimed at is introductory, so my apologies to those who are already well into the querying trenches; you can probably skip this.


Basic Query Structure Info

  • The query should be about a page in length, so the story blurb should ideally be under 350 words. Shorter is usually better; 250 is probably average.
  • Query letters are teasers, not synopses. No need to cram the whole plot in.
  • Similar vein as above–don’t spoil the ending. But you CAN spoil a plot twist, if it is a main selling point (ie Gone Girl).
  • The successful query is one which gets Dear Agent to read pages. No more, no less.
  • Name/include as few characters as you can get away with. “Character soup” (way too many proper names) is impossible to swim through.
  • Answer these three questions at a minimum: Who is the protagonist, what do they want, and what gets in their way?
  • Specifics are your friend, e.g., “Caiden is shunned for his unseemly tap-dancing habit” rather than “Caiden is an outcast”. Details are exciting, vague is boring.
  • Make your stakes personal and–again–very specific. As an example, “everything s/he loves will be lost” is not very useful because that could describe any old book. Be specific to YOUR story and YOUR characters. What is it that only they can lose? What is it that only they can care about?
  • Biographies can be simple, and Jessica Faust has suggestions for what to include.
  • Do NOT query until you are done. Nothing annoys an agent more!
  • Proofread.

Things not to do: How to frustrate an agent in 5 easy steps, by Jessica Faust


Basic Query Resources:

  • Query Shark Blog – Run by Janet Reid, a very well-known literary agent. Do read the archives in full. Yes, every single entry. Yes, it will take a long time. Welcome to trade publication, an industry which moves in an alternate timeline to the rest of reality. If things Taking a Long Time is off-putting, then you’re going to find the whole process from here on out an absolute chore.
  • Query Letter Hell – The Absolute Write forum is a gruelling but worthwhile experience. Sign up for free, get your 50 posts in on the forums, then stick the query up. A good query letter takes time to learn and critiquing others is the best way to improve. (PS: the password for this forum is “vista”)
  • Query Tracker – for researching agents and tracking your query stats, but is also useful for protecting yourself as a writer. If an agent is crap or unreliable, other authors will be sure to mention it in the “Comments” section.

The above may seem like a lot of work in order to produce a 250 word letter. However, a good query will often expose weaknesses in the manuscript. This is part of why QueryShark is so worthwhile–a lot of the queries Janet dissects are actually manuscripts which aren’t query ready. It’s also common for agents to use your query as part of their pitch, and (eventually) for editors to use your query as part of the blurb, so your query could potentially go quite far.

**Example problems a query can highlight: insufficient stakes, insufficient character motivations, lack of logical plot progression, weak craft, passive Main Character (i.e., your MC doesn’t DO anything, stuff just happens to them), avoidable cliches, incorrect target market, incorrect genre or age category, etc.

Addendum: there are a LOT of resources out there for authors but these ones were essential *for me* so I am recommending them. Other writers may have other suggestions to build on, too.


How to know when your query is ready:

There is no firm point for when a query is ready. But if your query meets one or more of the following conditions:

  • It got a stamp of approval from QLH
  • It got a stamp of approval from Query Shark (you can submit to her blog)
  • You’ve spent weeks on research and Query revisions
  • The letter has good feedback from a wide range of people

…then it may be ready. In the end, the only way to know is to test it. Send the query out in batches of 10 at a time. A “good” request rate to aim for is 10%, so you’re looking for at least one partial or full request from your first batch of 10. If no bites, consider revising query and/or opening pages, then query the next batch, and so on.


Querying: the difficult stats

  • The average agent reads 3,000 queries a year, requests full manuscripts from 10% of submissions, and takes on 3 new clients (these are rough estimates, remember that agents vary a lot.) Chances of acceptance are therefore roughly 1 in 1000.
  • However, most queries are an easy rejection for many reasons (wrong genre, not to agent’s taste, MS isn’t ready, on and on). In realistic terms, your real competition is the 10% of people who get full requests.
  • All that said, rejection is very common. People like to cite JK Rowling, but in fact she signed with the second agent she queried, which is phenomenally quick. A glance through twitter might show you some better stats: writers who have hundreds if not thousands of rejections, some times even multiple agents, before getting their debut on a shelf.


Some general query-related thoughts:

  • The more unusual your book, the broader you should go in categorising it. Calling your book a “paranormal detective thriller romance fantasy adventure with scifi elements and a semi-dystopian setting” is awkward, because nobody will know what that is. Honestly, just call it fantasy (or whatever your biggest category is). Don’t give agents a reason to reject by pigeonholing your genre into something niche.  Let the only reason they reject be for the pages you submitted, and nothing else.
  • There is a pervasive myth that you need connections to secure an agent, or that you need to attend conferences, or do workshops, or that you must have previous publications, or (a big one) that you need to pay for private editor. These are very much not true. You *can* find agents through those routes, and some writers have used editors, but none of those are necessary. Plenty of writers land agents through regular, old-fashioned cold-querying.
  • On the subject of professional help: Getting someone to write the entire thing for you isn’t advisable. It won’t be your voice, and it defeats the process of using the query letter process as a kind of final manuscript check. Besides, a lot of query ‘experts’ are frankly appalling. QueryShark runs a query-help service which is probably good, but it won’t be cheap, and you still have to write it; she only helps you revise.
  • Trade publishing moves slower than self-publishing. It’s all about the long-term game, building a career and connections with patience and persistence. For some writers, trade publishing is unequivocally a better career path, but the same is true in reverse. Do your research and consider what’s best for you.


MASSIVE CAVEAT: Obviously I’m not an agent, so take everything here with a pinch of salt. I’m only passing on what I’ve learned and experienced but there is a world of information out there, and you will need to find your own way in the end.

Please feel free to send in comments or corrections, especially if I have made mistakes or left anything unclear!

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