The inevitable journey for authors and maybe illustrators (although I’m not sure illustrator’s follow an identical pattern) is if they want to become traditionally published, or if they want to secure an agent, they must query. You’ll often notice the Twitter hashtag #amquerying in frequent use by the most hopeful among us. What exactly is querying and how do you do it correctly? Well, read on and find out.
If you Google how to query, or how to write a query letter, the results are super saturated. It can feel overwhelming where to even start, even though you already started! Let me shine some light on the entire issue for you in one clear, concise explanation.
As with any endeavor, a little bit of research before action is the gold standard. Too often, eager beaver writers read a couple articles, find a couple prospective agents, and begin blasting out query letters. Let me just save you a bit of regret by imploring you to stand fast, hang on, and relax. Deep breath. Put your best foot forward by taking a little time on this one to gather your thoughts, and your knowledge, before moving to application.
What Querying Is
A literary query is simply a request from you to a prospective agent for representation. As with any industry, decades have gone by that have shaped the current, modern expectations of a query. Every agent, agency, and publisher has different requirements. Many state exactly what they want to see and how they want to see it.
If you Google literary agency, you’ll find companies like Writer’s House, Albert Whitman & Company, Trident Media Group, Bradford Literary Agency, Curtis Brown Ltd., Transatlantic Agency, Upstart Crow Literary, Dystel, Goderich & Bourett LLC., John Hawkins & Associates, The Knight Agency, Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Flannery Literary, Ripple Grove Press, and the list goes on and on and on. You’ll come across many literary agents, as part of these agencies, who also maintain profiles and query requirements on website like Publishers Marketplace, Query Tracker, or Agent Query. You’ll also stumble across user managed lists of agents and agencies from other blogs which are wonderful resources if they’re kept up to date.
Most often, you’ll find these basic similarities in query requirements:
- Instruction on whether the query should be by mail, electronic form, or email.
- What content should be included in the query
- Often an introduction of why you’re querying a particular agent or agency, a catchy summary of the manuscript, reasons why the agent, agency, and/or publisher would find your manuscript valuable to their portfolio, and then a brief description of yourself.
- For children’s books, the query letter is often followed by the entire manuscript whether in the email or as an attachment depending on the query requirements, or for larger books and other genre’s a section of the manuscript may be included. Some select agents or agencies will ask you not to send in manuscript content until after they’ve read and accepted the query letter. But most often, all or a section of the manuscript content accompanies the query letter.
- Who you should send the query letter too and whether they or the agency is even open to queries.
Some Query Particulars
You may think to yourself, as most authors have, with thousands of literary agents available they should be jumping at the chance to represent MY work. Well, that would indeed be nice if it was the case. Instead, the thousands of literary agents are inundated by tens and hundreds of thousands of queries, some solicited and most unsolicited.
Unsolicited queries are unexpected queries. They’re coming without referral by someone they know, which means they are likely the lowest priority to review. You may think that in this modern age of immediate communication, agents wait all day at their computers for that next query letter so they may read and respond promptly. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever received hundreds of emails a day, you would realize a pile of unread information immediately begins growing. This pile, called a slush pile, not only grows one day, it continues to grow and grow and grow. Most new authors find themselves quickly at the bottom of a very daunting slush pile, waiting for an agent’s response who really does have the best of intentions.
Solicited queries are a different animal and thus carry a different level of weight with an agent or agency. If you can move from unsolicited to solicited, you’re already ahead of the game. This might mean you meet an agent at a conference, speak with them about your manuscript, and they like the idea, asking for you to send them a query. If this wonderful phenomena happens, this is the information you include at the very top of a query letter.
Dear So and So,
It was wonderful meeting you at Such and Such Conference and learning about you and Company’s literary interests. As you requested, below is a query for my 200-word children’s book, Goo Goo Ga Ga.
This type of information immediately gets you near the top of the slush pile, focuses the agents attention, and possibly gets you past any agent assistant gatekeeper. Another way to skip over some slush pile people is a referral from a represented author. Let’s say you just happen to be friends with published Author A, who has been working with super Agent B for a number of years. During casual conversation, Author A asks you what you’ve been up to, and you mention your personal interest of writing. Because remember, we NEVER try to sell and convince our friends or family with ulterior motives. Focus on the friendship first, and if they’re interested in knowing more about something, they’ll ask. Well, it just so happens that Author A loves your story concept and, based off what they know about Agent B, they really think the agent would consider representing your work too. Again, this is top of the letter information.
Dear Agent B,
One of your represented authors, Author A, firmly believes you may be interested in representing my 200 word length children’s book, Goo Goo Ga Ga. Based on your profile at Company XYZ, especially your previous experience as an Elementary School teacher and your personal hobby as a bug collector, I couldn’t agree more.
Now, most folks simply aren’t running into their agent of choice nor do they have an inside track to friendship. So, the unsolicited query letter really is the path for you. Don’t be afraid though. This is still a way to turn your publishing dreams into reality.
A great resource in improving your ability to select and query is researching agents and agencies. Many, many agents have done interviews regarding their query wishlist, books they love, what they look for in a new author for representation, a history of their current represented authors, personal hobbies, locations, important conferences, etc. This information is INVALUABLE to the querying author. Do not bother an agent, or yourself, querying content they are clearly uninterested in. Focus your efforts the strong likelihoods instead.
One such incredible resource readily available is Query Shark. Eventually, everyone new to querying comes across The Sharks with their incredible insight and in-depth critiques of real people’s queries. It’s spoken of just about everywhere that no one should send their first query until reading the entire Query Shark archive. It’s a daunting task and everyone skims it their first time, or two, until realizing most answers really are there if you dig for them. If you’ve truly read the archives and have a new question, the Sharks just might read and review your query.
The Importance of Tracking Queries
This is an area many authors and illustrator’s don’t do well. It’s not because they’re incapable of it, it’s just not always second nature. Part of the querying process is growing in your ability to manage a business. Yes, writing and illustrating is your business! Unless you don’t care about succeeding or making any money, it’s time to enhance your skills.
With my engineering background, spreadsheets came second nature, so I suppose here I can really shed some light. From the very beginning of my author journey, I created and managed a spreadsheet. I called it a Publishing Activity Matrix. With so many agents, agencies, and publishers out there, the last thing I wanted to do was accidentally lose track of who received what, when, and how. So, I created a very simple spreadsheet to track the following information. Each numbered point is a different column in the spreadsheet and I encourage you to do the same.
- Date (the date at which you submit the query)
- Destination (agency or publisher company name)
- Sub-Destination 1 (the website or main source of the destination above)
- Sub-Destination 2 (the agent, assistant, or coordinator name you submitted to)
- Description (a bit of information about your query, such as Email query with pasted manuscript, Online electronic form, or Query letter and manuscript by mail).
- Sub-Description 1 (here I typically enter the name of the manuscript I sent)
- Sub-Description 2 (perhaps a second manuscript sent at the same time)
- Sub-Description 3 (perhaps a third manuscript sent at the same time)
- Status (this is the final kicker column – it’ll either be blank [Waiting for response] or filled out [Rejected Month Day, Year] or [Offered Representation Month Day, Year] and so on and so forth
This spreadsheet can become your best friend! You may think, gosh, I’ll only send a few queries, why have a spreadsheet? Well, sorry to break it to you, but if you are average, and most of you are, especially if you’re reading this post, you’ll be sending in a LOT of queries. Many folks, even after having representation, leave an agent and enter the querying world again! So, don’t forgo the spreadsheet!
The spreadsheet can also help you know when it’s OK to request an update. Most agents and agencies post timelines for review on their websites, which range from 2 weeks to 6 months. Some agents and agencies say if you don’t hear from them, it’s a rejection while others say if you don’t hear from them in X amount of time, that it’s OK to request an update. I’ve found some agents respond well to the request for update while others ignore those as well.
What Querying Isn’t
Let’s end on this subject. Querying is not easy, for the vast majority of the population. It’s not quick nor is it an exact science. Agencies are run by people. Agents are people. People are interesting at best and unexplainable at worst. You may think someone will love your work but the reality is it may not even garner a response or a personal rejection letter. Querying is not for the faint of heart. If you can’t handle rejection, don’t bother querying. Maybe self-publishing is more your style (which, unfortunately, is often just delayed rejection).
Querying also isn’t a sure thing. It can frustrate the calmest of people and stupefy the most intellectual because it all boils down to two people, considering each other, for a long term relationship.
So, consider all of this as you query. Be selective of who you really would want to have a long term relationship with, then do your research, track your progress, and improve your craft while you wait. Don’t wait passively, but always improve, grow, and continue working on your projects.
Have questions or comments? Track me down on Twitter – @Rhys_Keller.