I've been asked many times over the years for various bits of writing advice, much of which I have covered in my video series, Olivie Blake is Not Writing, and on Tumblr under the tag writing advisements. This series of posts is specific to the process of publishing.
Whether you've previously used my craft posts for help with writing or not, you may have some questions about the process of getting your manuscript published. Today we're going to talk about querying, which is the process of finding a literary agent to represent your manuscript. This is commonly regarded as the most difficult step in the process, because literary agents are the gatekeepers in the publishing industry. Unless you choose to self-publish or stick to small independent presses, you will need an agent to reach any of the major publishing houses.
For the record, if you write, say, erotica, romance, or SFF (science fiction/fantasy), self-publishing or indie publishing is a very feasible way to have a career in writing. Traditional publishing does not have to be the path for everyone; indie publishing is faster, allows for a larger volume of output, and requires you to jump through fewer hoops. However, it also requires a lot of business savvy, because as an indie author, you are your own sales department. If you want to run your writing like a business, this is a very conceivable way to make money. If you lack the skill to reach and grow an audience (or simply don't like the effort it demands), then carry on with the rest of this post.
So, having decided you want to traditionally publish, there's no real way around it: you need a literary agent. You have got some steep competition, my friend! As far as I can tell, most literary agents get thousands of queries a week. Bear in mind that the process is long and arduous; it will probably drain you and/or infuriate you, and you will probably question yourself and your talent every step of the way.
Okay fun, let's get started!
What is a query letter?
A query letter is essentially a cover letter that teases the plot, setting, and themes of your manuscript. You will have to check the agency's website to find out if the specific agent prefers you to send an email or submit via form, but either way, you will probably need to start with a standard letter that you can adjust as you submit them. (Many templates and samples are available to browse online.)
Essentially, a query letter is 3-4 paragraphs made up of some sort of hook, a description of the novel akin to a book-jacket summary, and a biography about you, including any previous publications or MFA credentials, etc. If you don't have any of that, you're still encouraged to give a little background on yourself. You'll want to make it clear if the project is #OwnVoices, meaning "an author from a marginalized or under-represented group writing about their own experiences/from their own perspective, rather than someone from an outside perspective writing as a character from an underrepresented group." On a similar note, if you're a former coal miner writing a thriller about coal mines, that's the sort of thing you want to include here. Basically, the biography should explain: why are you the right author to write and sell this book?
You will also need to include "comps," or comparable novel(s) that have sold within the last 5 years. You can use films or television or older books/series as comps as well—this is commonly done in Twitter pitches, where the purpose is to give the overarching idea of the plot in the most economical way possible (280 characters or less). However, remember that your literary agent's job is to sell your book, which means they need to understand other books like it that have sold recently. They need to know what table Barnes and Noble would put it on or what kind of post Buzzfeed might use to feature it, that sort of thing. It also proves your understanding of how your book fits into the industry.
Relatedly, if you're a writer but not a big reader, change that now. From what I've observed, it is very difficult to succeed in traditional publishing without a solid grasp on the major trends of not only the industry as a whole, but specifically the genre and age group you want to write. Publishing has rules, and while you ultimately may want to break them, you have to know what they are first.
You'll hear this a lot, but do not use Harry Potter or Hunger Games as a comp, even if they are similar to your book. Are you sure, Olivie? Yes, I'm sure. These are old books belonging to foregone trends. Also, they are anomalies, massive franchises. Everyone wants to write the next Harry Potter. Your debut novel likely will not be it. (Don't take that personally. It's just best for your sanity to consider that your debut is just one book, not your entire career.)
In addition to your query letter, most agents will ask for your first 3 chapters or your first ten pages. This varies from agent to agent, so read their preferences carefully before you send! Typically you will paste it into the body of the email; very few agents ask for attachments because it's a logistical thing. Emails from strangers that come with attachments tend to find their way to spam because, duh. Viruses.
Bear in mind that your query will probably have to be tailored slightly to each agent you submit to. Remember, they receive hundreds of queries a day, and acquiring new clients is not the only aspect of their jobs. I've heard many agents say they read their queries late at night or on the weekends because they can't get to them during the regular workweek. Suffice it to say: no matter how fascinating you think your book is, thousands of other people feel the exact same way about their books, and no matter who's right, you're all submitting to the same tired, busy, overworked agent who maybe forgot their umbrella or missed the bus. There's no telling whether it arrives in their inbox on a bad day, or whether they skipped lunch. You get the idea. The point is, the more personalized you can make your query to the agent you're querying, the better your chances you'll get their attention.
The highest sell is not that your book will be the greatest thing this agent has ever read; it's that your book is exactly what this specific agent is looking for or interested in.
What is a synopsis?
Many agents will also ask for a synopsis. This is a one page (STRICTLY ONE PAGE) summation of your plot. You must be able to condense your entire book into a single page. Yes, I know!! But you must. Cut the themes or teases and any stylistic language: this is literally the major characters and major events, and it spoils the book. Yes! It spoils the book! It's very distressing, I know. You'll be fine. This should not read like a book jacket or back cover—it isn't "will two desperate star-crossed lovers fall in love?" but rather, "Juliet uses the knife and Romeo takes the poison."
(Again, you can find ample examples of successful synopses online.)
How do I find agents to submit to?
There are a lot of ways to go about this. You could attend writing conferences if you're able, you could join querytracker.net, you could submit to contests like Author Mentor Match or Pitch Wars, you could follow literary agents on Twitter... etc. A great way is also to check the acknowledgements of books like yours, because that's how you can find out who the agent was who sold it. At very least, that might give you an idea of where to start.
Because finding success through querying is so much about a mysterious aligning of the stars rather than some innate quality of your work, there's no wrong way to find one. My personal method of choice was to go to manuscriptwishlist.com and select "find agents & editors" > "genre/name search," where I would then select agents by the genre I was querying. From there, I would browse the available agents and choose the ones who specifically mentioned in their profiles that they enjoyed books like mine, or who were requesting things I typically write. I would then gently stalk them on the internet: I'd browse their Twitter, look on mswishlist.com (this is a site that populates with Tweets from agents or editors tagged #MSWL, and you can search there by genre as well), and also check any relevant other things, like interviews they've done or blog posts. This is the best way to make sure your manuscript matches up with their specialties and interests, and if you can tailor your query letter to feature their specific taste, that's your best shot at getting their attention. Also, some agents close for the holidays or for the summer or for personal reasons. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if you submit to an agent whose MSWL is perfect but their pinned Tweet says they're closed to queries, you just wasted both your time and theirs. You don't get a do-over.
The one-two punch of MSWL search + internet stalking ultimately worked for me. I attended one conference (San Francisco Writer's Conference) where I did a round of "speed dating" with agents, and I also submitted twice to Pitch Wars (I did not get in). Neither of these things worked for me.
Oddly enough, though, I did technically meet my agent at the SFWC conference, although through some odd fluke related to her plane ticket, she left before I could pitch to her. She likely wouldn't have liked my manuscript at the time regardless, but because I already knew what she was interested in, she was at the top of my query list for my YA manuscript. So... while my gut instinct is to say writer's conferences by and large cost more money than they're worth, I also may not have been so motivated to submit to her if not for attending that one. So you be the judge.
Can I query multiple manuscripts?
No. Although your agent is signing for what is hopefully your whole career, they're only technically choosing you based on your book, not your body of work. Even if you're very prolific, like me, you can only query one manuscript at a time.
Can I query an unfinished manuscript?
For fiction, no. It must be complete, and your completed word count should fit within the parameters of the genre/age group standard. (If you wrote a YA manuscript that's 200k, for example, most agents will dismiss it out of hand).
How do I know my manuscript is ready to be queried?
You'll probably need to work with critique partners and give the manuscript time to breathe, so to speak, before it is ready to query. While the MS will go through several rounds of revision before publication—possibly a few with your agent, then 3+ with your editor before copy edits—it doesn't have to be perfect, but you only get one shot. Why risk sending anything less than your best work?
Should I discuss any fan fiction I've written in my query letter?
I had a lot of concerns about whether this would matter, and ultimately I think it probably depends. I don't think it's as frowned upon by the industry as it used to be, but because there's some stigma about the quality of work, it's worth looking into how specific agents feel about it. If the agent discusses fandom on their social media, that might be a fun fact to include! But since the fanfic audience doesn't translate to the book-buying audience, it might not mean very much either way.
Because I had already independently published 9 novels, it didn't seem important for me to mention that I had also written 15 full length fanfics. That being said, a handy google search (and my Twitter) would probably give it away, so it was never a secret.
How many agents can I query at once?
There's no hard answer to this. On the one hand, agents may take weeks or even months to reply, so it follows that the more you query at once, the less time the process takes overall. However, I strongly advise you not to be in a rush. Frustrating as it is, every level of publishing moves slowly.
Industry etiquette suggests you shouldn't send your query to agents en masse. It's also a bad idea for your purposes, because you may discover as the query process goes on that some pitches work and others don't. I would typically have multiple versions of query letters depending on aspects of my MS I wanted to highlight. For my SFF manuscript, for example, I had a romantic arc and a feminist/self-autonomy arc. If I were submitting to an agent who loved romance, I sent the query featuring the character with that arc. If I were submitting to an agent who said they wanted female revenge stories, the opposite. If I noticed that one query got quicker results or more requests, I would note that for future queries. That adjustment can't be made if you submit to a mass volume of agents at once.
I personally chose to query 5 agents per week. I kept track of them in a spreadsheet broken down into agent's name, date submitted, agency name (important, because most agencies don't allow you to submit to multiple agents within an agency at a time), additional comments (such as which query I chose to use), and how many pages I sent. I would then go back in and update with rejections and MS requests, and trends were easy to follow from there.
From this list, I would select my top 10-15, a mix of the agents who specifically wanted manuscripts like mine and the agents I most wanted to work with. From there, I went in alphabetical order for the agents that met the basic criteria of my MSWL genre search (i.e., they said they wanted the genre I was querying, but nothing specific to mine).
Arranging the top 10-15 was strategic; the first 5 were agents that I felt should have every reason to request my MS, usually because they specifically said so in #MSWL form. My logic was that if they did not immediately request the thing they had specifically asked for, then it meant something was wrong with my query, my synopsis, or my first ten pages, and I would have to adjust.
As I mentioned, after the first 10-15, I would typically just go down the list in alphabetical order, though I did not have to do this for my most recent MS. We'll talk about that later, but bear in mind you should submit to agents you want early on, because if more than one agent makes an offer, you may need to make a decision based on only the agents you've queried thus far.
Last thing: the publishing world is small, and agents talk. Something I learned while I was an investment sales broker was that people who are annoying, i.e. by sending property info en masse or being rude or irritatingly persistent, are usually notorious among brokers. Same for agents.
What happens after I send/submit a query?
The first and most obvious: a rejection letter. Very few agents, if any, will give a reason outside of "it's not for me." Initially I found this very annoying, because how can you learn from that sort of response? But having worked with an agent, I get why it's so intangible. Your agent has to love your concept enough to be willing to read the book not just once, but multiple times. They also have to believe they can sell it, which is based on a lot more than whether or not it's a good book.
For the record, writers of color or marginalized writers will probably face a lot more rejection, either because there are very few (if any) comps, or because the agents "can't relate" to the characters, or because they already have another [insert your ethnicity/sexuality/mental illness/disability here] book, even if it's nothing like yours. As much as there's a demand for #OwnVoices in publishing, that voice still has to resonate with the predominantly white agent pool. Easier said than done.
Most agents will say that if they don't respond by 8 weeks, that's a tacit rejection. In my personal experience, if you don't hear back within 1-2 weeks, it's probably not going to be good news. A tacit rejection is a rejection; you can nudge after whatever the agent's allotted time period is, but I never found that worth it to do. I've never heard of anyone getting an agent after nudging them.
Onto the good news! You might be asked for a partial manuscript, which is the first 50 pages or so, or a full manuscript. At this point, this is great! An agent is interested in you.
Would an agent give me an offer of representation based on a partial MS?
If they do, you should probably be wary. Only an agent who has read and loved your full MS would then make an offer. I'm not sure how common it is for agents to do sketchy things, but the industry as a whole seems to think this is Bad News, so go with that instinct.
What happens after an agent requests my full manuscript?
This can be a long process, because as I mentioned earlier, agents are busy serving their existing clients in addition to spending the time it takes to acquire new ones. Industry standard suggests they can have your manuscript for up to four months, though they will likely give you some idea of how quickly they plan to read it when they request.
After the agent gets your full, there are three possible options:
They reject it. Typically they'll give you some feedback as to why they're passing, unlike with query rejections. It generally boils down to: after having spent meaningful time with your manuscript, they don't think they can sell it.
They ask for an "R&R," or a "revise and resubmit." Here they'll tell you the manuscript isn't ready for them to make an offer, but they think it could be better with some changes. Your first instinct might be to rush into an R&R, but most agents are looking for substantial changes, not just surface improvements. Better to take your time and implement their revision requests if this is the agent you really want. (In my opinion, an R&R is not always worth it. If this MS is the love of your life and you're ready to commit to anything from reconstructive surgery to a full strenuous overhaul, go for it. But if you're like me and received an R&R when you knew you had written a better manuscript that was a more economical use of your time, then maybe don't.)
They'll ask if you can schedule a phone call.
What does a phone call mean??
Don't jump to conclusions. They might want to discuss your MS in order to offer you a chance to revise and resubmit. Or—and try to stay calm—they might make an offer of representation.
(FYI, I scream-sobbed in my car when I got this email. I was Not Calm.)
What typically happens during a phone call with a prospective agent?
If the agent wants to make an offer, they'll probably tell you they loved the book, ask a few questions about your personal background and what you're thinking of writing next (remember, they're with you for your whole career), and then ask if you have any questions.
Since I've only had an agent for a couple of months, I don't think I have a good answer for you if you're wondering what to ask! I asked some questions specific to me, i.e. would they be willing to represent any future projects if I wanted to write for a different age group or genre, how would they be able to help me transition from indie publishing to traditional publishing, and what thoughts did they have about improving the manuscript. I also asked about the communication style—if you're a person with anxiety, you might want to see if your agent checks in a lot or just lets you do your thing. My agent also suggested I talk to one of her current clients, which was great. It was important for me to choose someone young, scrappy, and hungry (just like me/my country) and I was pleased to have that confirmed by another client.
One thing I didn't realize at the time was how important my agent would be to the revision process. While not every agent will want to work with you on perfecting your manuscript before submitting to publishers, many probably will. (This is something you might want to ask, assuming they don't ask you first.) I hadn't considered this, so it was great to hear what kind of editorial style I should expect.
Once they make an offer, the industry standard is two weeks to inform every other agent with your manuscript that an offer has been extended. DON'T FORGET TO DO THIS. When I got my first offer of representation, I had to inform the two other agents with my manuscript that I had received it. One said "okay well I'm not sure so let me know if that offer doesn't work out," and the other scheduled a phone call. Within days, I had a competing offer.
What happens when I have to choose between multiple agents?
This happens on a two week or less time frame, so it's an unexpectedly tough position. 1) This is why you submit to the agents you want first, because unless you plan to reject your first offer of representation, you're done querying. 2) Five minutes ago you didn't even have a shot at publishing, so how are you supposed to now decide your representation based on one (1) phone call who will be able to sell your precious bb book?
You can decide this based on whatever's most important to you. I asked my former boss what he thought—brokers are very similar to agents in terms of being gatekeepers in their respective industries—and he said, "Pick the one who will go hard for YOU." Aka, the person who will do whatever it takes for me to succeed, rather than choosing by agency name or reputation.
This was really, really hard for me. I loved my conversations with both agents. I felt they were both hungry and passionate, they both belonged to great agencies, and they both really loved the manuscript. (Both responded to my query letter within 48 hours and read the full manuscript within days of me sending it to them.) In terms of my priorities, the only difference between them was that they gave me starkly contrasting ideas about what should be done with my book. I ended up requesting another phone call with the first agent to get a clearer view of her revision thoughts. She was more than happy to do it, so don't be afraid to ask for another conversation if you have doubts.
Again, this is very personal, but ultimately I chose the agent whose revision notes indicated to me that she saw the world differently than I did, in a good way. I didn't want an echo chamber of having an agent who loved everything I loved and had all the same interests I did; I wanted someone who would provide a new perspective, so I chose the agent who pointed things out to me that I might not have considered otherwise. I felt that would help me get the most out of my work.
What happens after you sign?
The standard agency agreement is one year of exclusivity and then it opens again. I'm in my first year and I'm very happy with my agent, so I can't speak to any contract-related matters.
Typically after signing you'll get an editorial letter from your agent with comments about your work. At this point, you'll go through some revision on your manuscript (this may take weeks or months), and then your agent will take your manuscript out on submission, which means sending it to editors at various publishing houses. That will have to be the subject of another post.
Any final querying advice?
Because the first thing most agents see is the email title, it's probably a good idea to have a good one. Mine was this: Query: TITLE, Name, STEM-based YA Rom-Com.
Informative! And not to judge a book by it's title, but... better to have a zingy one if you can.
Agents often close to queries during summer and holidays, so keep this in mind when you're preparing to start the process.
I've said this already, but it can't be said enough: TAILOR YOUR QUERY TO THE AGENT YOU'RE SUBMITTING TO. Make sure they know why you chose them for your book, and definitely don't waste their time by submitting something they don't represent.
Getting rejection emails is hard. It hurts no matter what. Just remember that it's not about whether you're a good writer or not. You have to be good, yeah, but you also have to get lucky, because you have to have written the right book at the right time, and you have to have sent it to the right agent. A lot of have-to-be-rights mean a lot of ways to go wrong.
Don't be discouraged if a manuscript you love doesn't get you representation; put it aside. Maybe something will come of it later. Again, this is my experience, but your best bet might be to pivot to something else. It took me three manuscripts and two years to find the sweet spot where the industry would be most welcoming to my voice, and other people will tell you it may take much longer.
Get ready for a long road, but don't stake your entire self-worth on getting an agent. Sad as it is, I can promise you that however sweet it feels to be signing that offer of representation, and however long your publishing journey happens to be, it won't make you believe something new about yourself and your talent if you didn't believe it before. You don't become worthier overnight. It's an incredible amount of vindication to be told by a member of the industry that you have value, yes, but if it can't make you, then don't let a rejection break you.
The ones who succeed in this industry aren't necessarily the best writers, but they are, without exception, the writers with stamina; the ones who refused to give up. So be resilient and adaptable, be open to new ideas and be capable of change, and try to have faith that somewhere, somehow, you have a story the world needs to hear. That faith will serve you well in the long run.