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DIY MFA: Querying Agents (Part Six)

Welcome back to your Do-it-Yourself MFA program.

You have your possible agent list, clearly arranged by my ranking system from 1-3.  Now it’s time to start querying.

It’s not really a surprise that agents would like you to query them one at a time, after all, if they’re dedicating the time to read your audition, they don’t want to think of their own time wasted because you’re auditioning for hundreds of others and may go with someone else.  At the same time, you will be 98 years old if you query agents one at a time.  A nice compromise is to have no more than 10 queries out at a time (um…and y’all know that when I say it’s okay to have 10 queries out at once, I mean write 10 separate emails to 10 separate agents.  DO NOT bcc 10 agents on one email.  Believe me, they talk to one another, and this will bite you in the ass.)

So you’re going to start a second spreadsheet, this one titled “Queries” and in it, you will track the following information:

  • Name of agent
  • Name of agency
  • Date query was sent
  • Method of query (was it email or post)
  • What was sent (just the letter, the letter and proposal, the letter and the first 5 pages of the book, etc)
  • Date you heard back
  • The agent’s answer

Pay attention to the agent’s answer.  Was it a flat out cookie cutter rejection?  Did they invite you to query again if you made major changes?  Did they say they’d be interested in hearing about a future project?  Note all those things.  You’ll use this spreadsheet in the future.

Once you have your two spreadsheets in order (the first one ranked, and the second one ready to go), you’re ready to write your query letter.  Queries consist of four parts (and are never longer than a page):

  • Opening paragraph–drag them in with a great first line.  Let me repeat that–drag them in with a fantastic first line that makes them want to read the rest of the letter.  Give some basic information such as the name of the book or the type of book.  If someone has introduced you to this agent, state that relationship here (do not make up an introduction if there isn’t one.)  If the person represents a book you know is similar to your own, mention it here to establish why you’ve chosen to write this particular agent.
  • Second paragraph–explain what the book is about in one paragraph.  Think of the sort of paragraph that would appear on the back of the book to entice the reader to pick it up.
  • Third paragraph–a brief biography containing your writing credentials such as where you’ve published, degrees you’ve earned, or your blog info.  Make sure you mention what you’re currently working on to show the agent that you’re not a one-book pony.  I wouldn’t go on and on about all of your future projects, but I’d add one sentence in about how you’re currently at work on…(and then fill in the blank).
  • Fourth paragraph–closing and thank you.

Agents expect this format because it allows them to read quickly.  Their eye can go to the paragraph that matters to them most and find the info they’re looking for quickly.

Make sure you address the agent directly (do not write “to whom it may concern” or Dear Agent).  And be super honest.  If your first book is self-published, do not say that you have a published book, instead, say it’s self-published and talk about the sales record.  These small details matter because this is a relationship built on trust.  The agent would rather have you honestly admit that you found them on agentquery, you have a small blog, and no other publications but you can write the hell out of a query letter and have a fantastic book idea in your back pocket to boot.

Do not waste an agent’s time or your time.  Keeping things brief is a way to be respectful.  Don’t make huge claims like you’ve written the next Twilight.  Even if you believe that.  All you’ll get is an eyebrow raise because how could you possibly know?  On the other hand, you should mention that it would appeal to the same type of audience that reads Twilight.  It helps the agent picture the book and understand how they can convince a publisher that it’s marketable. Making sure you’re querying an agent who represents your type of book is also important–think about how annoying it would be if your boss kept slapping work down on your desk that was entirely outside your realm.  Would you be grateful for the new opportunity or would you be annoyed that your boss isn’t paying attention to your job description?

Every once in a while, an agent will ask for an exclusive look.  An exclusive look is when you agree not to query any other agent for a set period of time and allow only the agent asking for the exclusive to decide whether or not to represent you.

You will need to decide whether or not you want to give them exclusive access to your project.  If it’s a great agency, it’s worth your while to give them two weeks (make sure you set the duration of time–don’t leave it open-ended.)  If it’s not a great agency, you may want to think twice.  You would never give an exclusive look on a query, but I have given an exclusive look on a manuscript.

Oh, and spend a lot of time proof-reading and editing your queries.  They’re the first impression you’re making on the agent.

And only send what the agent asks to receive (and again, pay close to attention to how they say they want it sent.  If they say “no attachments,” they mean “no attachments.”)  Sending more is not going to be endearing or get it read.  If they don’t specify what they want, just send the query letter.

Lastly, how to pick your ten: you cannot query two agents at the same agency at the same time.  Therefore, make sure you only have one agent on your list from each agency at a given time.  If one agent rejects it, you can write a different agent at the same agency (the only time this isn’t true is if they have one central online submission form–in that case, once the agency rejects you, that agency is closed for this current project.)

Go with your gut in determining your ten and get a thick skin.  You may endure a bunch of rejections before you sign with one.  Don’t get emotional–just lick your wounds for a few minutes and send out the next one.  Think of it as simply a task you must do rather than a personal rejection.

A side note–sometimes junior agents or those building their lists are a great choice because they’re “hungry”–they’re not mired in focusing on their established clients and they’re more likely to take a risk with a new author.  If they’re part of a larger agency, they have the benefit of the agency name plus the help of more established agents for advice.  So don’t shy away from new agents.

Okay, so you send out your queries and now the responses start coming.  It can go one of several ways:

  • Standard rejection (enter it on the spreadsheet and move on.)
  • Personalized rejection with some advice (if it resonates with you, take it to heart.  Otherwise, enter it on the spreadsheet and move on.)
  • A partial request (yay!  Send them what they ask for and enter it on the spreadsheet.  Do not get too excited–a request is good, but it isn’t an acceptance.)
  • A full request (yay! Send them what they ask for and enter it on the spreadsheet.  Do not get too excited–a request is good, but it isn’t an acceptance.)
  • An offer of representation.

Obviously, what you want is that last point–an offer of representation.

My advice, this is the point where you leave the confines of email and you have a conversation over the phone.  Before you sign is the time to decide if you’ll work well together.  I told my agent things about me such as how I work.  I asked her questions about the way she works.  We decided it would be a good relationship based on what we could know in that moment.  And that’s what this is–a leap-of-faith relationship based on a mutual love of writing and books (including your own).

Your agent will probably ask you to sign an agency agreement.  Read it and have a second person (perhaps someone with a law background) read it too.  And then you’re on to the next step–selling the book or proposal.

Okay class, any questions on what was discussed here? Please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them in the comment section below. Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover so your question may be answered in a future installment (see below). So keep your questions about agents.

Heads Up and Looking Back: topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. Are You Ready to Be an Author?

3. How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

4. Why You Need an Agent

5. How to Get an Agent


7. What Happens Next–Waiting for a Book Sale

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers

1 comment

1 Deanna { 08.02.10 at 10:47 am }

Great info as always. Thank you

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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