Lessons and Resources I’ve Gained While Querying
- Posted by Jessica DeLand
When I set out to start querying for the first time, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew the basic idea — you find an agent, send a query letter, and hope for the best — but I hadn’t the faintest clue how to begin or what that process really looked like. After doing a bunch of research and slogging through the query trenches for the past few months, I’m by no means an expert, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned during my journey.
This was one of the biggest head-scratchers for me when I got started, but by far the most recommended resources in the general online community are Publishers Marketplace and Manuscript Wish List. You do have to pay per month to use Publishers Marketplace, but it lists pretty much every agent out there, and it also has tons of other helpful resources for authors. Manuscript Wish List has a more limited pool of agents, but it’s free and agents go there to detail exactly what kinds of books and authors they’re looking for, so both sources have their merits. Between the two, it’s pretty easy to put together a list of potential agents who might be interested in representing your manuscript.
Once you’ve found some agents who are a good fit, the first thing you need is a solid query letter. It should include a two to three paragraph pitch for your book; a brief bio; your book’s genre, age group, and word count; comparisons to recent books similar to yours (though some agents prefer not to have these); and a personalized section about why you chose that particular agent. And this all needs to fit on one page, single spaced, usually with double spacing between paragraphs. It sounds overwhelming, but Scribbler and Reedsy both have great blog articles that can help you get started, and you can find real-life examples of successful query letters online:
- How to Write a Query Letter.
- How to Write a Query Letter in 7 Simple Steps.
- 100+ Query Letter Examples (That Got Authors an Agent).
Next, you’ll need a compelling synopsis. A synopsis is a full walkthrough of your entire book from beginning to end. The rule of thumb is to keep it one to two pages single spaced, but some agents have specific length requirements. I’ve seen as short as 100 words and as long as 1,500 words, so double check if the agent has a preference before sending it off. Also, be aware that not all agents ask for a synopsis, so make sure it’s listed in the required materials before including one. For more detailed help on writing a synopsis, reference these blog articles:
- How to Write a Synopsis.
- Bestselling Authors’ Guide to Writing a Book Synopsis.
- How to Write an Incredible Synopsis in 4 Simple Steps.
Many agents, but not all, will ask you to include sample pages with your query letter. My experience with this has varied wildly. I’ve had a few ask for the first five pages and others as much as the first 50. Some want the first chapter, while still others want the first three. This all comes down to the agent’s personal preference, so make sure you have those first 50 pages polished as bright as possible so you’re prepared to offer whatever that specific agent requires.
For those of you who write nonfiction or picture books, the requirements for sample pages are a little different. With nonfiction manuscripts, agents generally want the full book proposal in place of sample pages. With picture books, if your manuscript is shorter than the requested sample pages, they usually ask you to just include the entire text, so double check that you’re submitting the right thing before you send it.
Other Querying Requirements
In all the research I did on querying, I didn’t read anywhere that I might need to provide more than the standard query letter, synopsis, and sample pages. And for those agents who still want queries emailed or even mailed, this still appears to be true. However, over half the agents I’ve queried are using a website called Query Manager that allows them to include all kinds of personalized questions and requirements. Below is a list of all the ones I’ve encountered so far that you should be prepared to address:
- “Short bio (Tell us a little about yourself and any writing credentials you may have).”
- You should already have this as part of your query letter, but some agents ask to have it included separately too.
- “Describe the Potential Target Audience for Your Book (Who will want to read your book. For example, girls under 12, fans of John Grisham, etc. (500 characters or less)).”
- “Similar books (List some books that are similar to yours (500 characters or less)).”
- You may already have book comps in your query letter, but agents who ask this are looking for more than the two to three you’ve already used.
- “Please provide any content warnings, especially related to sexual assault or OCD behaviors.”
- Content/trigger warnings have gained traction in the book industry recently and some agents are starting to ask for them up front with the query letter — so it’s definitely a good idea to have them ready. For a helpful list of content warnings you might want to use, you can go to Book Trigger Warnings.
- “Pitch (a one sentence pitch for your book).”
- For those who participate in Twitter pitch events, those are generally only one sentence, so they work great for this.
- “Pitch (a one paragraph pitch for your book).”
- Scribbler has an excellent blog post, Mastering the Elevator Pitch, that can help you reduce your story down to its main points.
- “Why are you the person to tell this story?”
- “Who would you choose to play your main character in a film adaptation?”
- “Have you had your book edited by a professional editor?”
- Don’t feel like the answer to this has to be yes; just be prepared to defend your decision. Check out this blog article to help you decide what’s best for you: Should You Hire an Editor before Querying Agents?
- “What’s your ideal working relationship with an editor?”
- “Has this manuscript been work-shopped or peer-reviewed prior to submission?”
- “What inspired you to develop this work?”
I keep the answers to all these questions in a separate document so it’s easy to copy and paste my answer when I come across a question I’ve already answered for a previous agent. I add to that document whenever I encounter a new question so I’m ready to go if I ever get asked that one again.
Advice on the number of queries to send out at once varies depending on who you ask. I’ve seen people recommend sending out five and then waiting to hear back from all of them before sending out more, while others say go ahead and send out 30 in one go. How you want to handle that is entirely up to you, but regardless of what you decide, make sure you’re using a spreadsheet or Query Tracker to keep tabs on who you’ve queried, how long it’s been since you sent it (so you know if it’s time to send a follow up), and how the agent responded once they get back to you. Query Tracker doesn’t have every agent listed in their database, but they do have a lot, and for a reasonable annual fee you can also add private listings for agents that aren’t listed, so it’s well worth it to save yourself the headache of juggling it all yourself.
I’m still fairly new to this intense and complex business of querying, but I learn each time I send out a new query — and I’m growing more comfortable with the process every day. I haven’t gotten any manuscript requests yet, but I also know from listening to those who’ve been at this far longer than me that this is a game of persistence. It can sometimes take months or even years to find the right agent for your book, and the field is particularly flooded right now with authors hoping to get their manuscripts written during the pandemic published.
Don’t let the inevitable rejections dash your hopes. Your dream agent is out there, you just need to have faith in your writing and never give up on yourself.
For other helpful tips about querying, check out these other Scribbler blog posts:
Jessica DeLand is a YA contemporary fantasy writer from McKinney, TX. She graduated from Brigham Young University–Idaho with a B.A. in English and is a full-time mother of three young children. Her hobbies include art, car karaoke, watching movies, sewing, crocheting, and co-op gaming of all kinds with her husband. Follow her writing journey on Twitter or Instagram @delandjessica or learn more about her at jessicadeland.net.
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