Tips and Tricks for Querying Your Manuscript

Writing in Cafe 2018

It's a strange time to be a writer. At a quick glance, it seems like we should all be getting so much done because we're home all the time. But in reality, there are approximately one hundred thousand other things to do at home, and if you have kids/jobs/pets, those may all come first. This is to say: if you have been managing to put the finishing touches on your manuscript, bravo. You've done so much, you really don't need to exert any more effort figuring out the steps to finding someone to represent your work. So I've done it all here for you.

You may be asking yourself: why should I listen to this stranger on the internet? I applaud that question (and think we should all ask it of ourselves more often, tbh). My credentials are pretty simple: I am an agent. And I'm an agent who believes publishing is an opaque industry and that, as the creative geniuses, writers should have a more open understanding of the process (without having to pay for it). I'm also a writer myself—I earned my MFA here in the Twin Cities at Hamline University. This handy dandy checklist is my attempt to offer insight from both viewpoints.

1) Are you ready to start submitting your work?

This isn't a question any one person can answer for you, but here are some indications that you just may be ready:

  • Your critique partners or reading group have signed off on it. I cannot overstate the importance of having beta readers. Writing a full length book is hard work, and it's so easy to get lost in the trees and lose sight of the forest. Meaning: it can be impossible to recognize the issues of your own manuscript. If you need help finding beta readers, check online (more internet strangers!): do a quick Google search of writing groups within your genre, look on social media, and reach out to literary organizations (hint: the Loft has two resources for writing groups, their open groups and their community postings). 
  • Check to make sure your word count is within range. Printing a book is really, really expensive. So if your word count is too high, that's going to be a red flag on the possibility of getting it published. If it's too low, that's going to raise questions of whether or not your craft elements are fleshed out. For loose guidelines, check out this resource.
  • Are you down to shuffling commas around? Chances are, you're just procrastinating at this point. Here's an insider tip: agents don't expect you to be fluent in the Chicago Manual of Style. It's extremely helpful if your grammar and punctuation are correct (if they're so off they detract from the story, that is an issue), but no agent is going to pass on a manuscript just because of an errant semicolon. It's not your job to be an editorial expert—that's why there are editors! So quit procrastinating and start sending your work out there.
  • You have your materials pulled together. If you're submitting a work of fiction, you need to have a finalized manuscript, a query, a synopsis, an author bio, and a certain amount of pages that you'll submit with your query (this will be subjective to each individual agent). You'll only submit the entire manuscript if an agent requests it (except for you, picture book writers—you submit the entire thing). There are two ways to submit a work of nonfiction. If it's finished, you can do so with a query (see above) or you can submit on proposal. A proposal needs a certain amount of finalized chapters (again, this is subjective), a very detailed outline, a synopsis, and an author bio that includes an explanation of an author's platform and expertise to write about the subject. 

2) Now that you're ready, it's time to start pulling together a list of agents.

Here's my general advice for querying:

  • Do your research. Querying every agent who exists is a waste of time. At the very least, the agent should represent your genre. I can't tell you how many people query me with a memoir, when it clearly states on my agency page, "I am not looking for memoir." This is an automatic pass. But why? you ask. The answer is twofold: 1) I don't read enough memoir to have any sort of expertise in editing it, and 2) I don't have any of the connections to editors who publish memoir. A big part of my job is connecting with editors, and even just within the kid lit world, there are a ton of editors to keep up with. Asking an agent to accept a submission outside of the genres they represent is asking them to network with a whole different sector of the publishing industry. And that's a lot of extra work for one potential sale. Your best bet on making a connection is to query an agent who has expressed interest in what your book is actually about. The best resources to find this information:
    • Manuscript Wish List
    • Subsequently, Twitter, using the #MSWL hashtag in the search function
    • Query Tracker
    • The acknowledgments of books similar to yours
    • Agency websites: this should always be your final check for any agent you're interested in querying. It's going to have the most up to date information and the agent's submission guidelines.
  • Personalize your query. The most common refrain I hear against this is that this takes too much time, but it really shouldn't. You should already know why you're querying that agent, and you don't have to say anything fancy. "Dear Ms. Brooks, I'm querying you because of your interest in middle grade action-adventure books that focus on friendship" is good enough for me. I just want to know you've put some thought into it. Saying "Dear agent, please consider my book" won't be an automatic pass, but it won't particularly endear me to the writer, either. And you want all the points you can get.
  • Query to a group of ten or so agents at a time. This will make the process feel like it's taking forever, I know, but it's the best game plan in the long run. Let's say you query to ten agents, and they all pass, but you get three really good notes on why the agent passed it up. If they resonate, you can implement them before you send out to your next round. If you'd sent your work out to fifty agents, you won't have the opportunity to improve it throughout the process.
  • Do not query multiple agents at the same agency at the same time. This is a big no for every agency, and depending on the platform an agent uses (QueryManager, for me), they can see when you've done it. For the most part, you can consecutively query agents at an agency. Some places have "no from one means no from all" rule, but it's not that common.

3) You've sent out your work! Very exciting. Now take a good hard look at your expectations:

     3a) on timing:

This is where I get real about the agent side of things. Acquiring new authors is not the priority of an agent, unless they're brand-spanking-new. My first priority is always my current clients: their new drafts/projects, any questions they have, and connecting on their career. I'm constantly networking with and researching editors and imprints, building submission lists for my clients. And that's on top of doing the small stuff: keeping an active social media and online presence so people have visibility to who I am as an agent. The kicker: I do this without getting paid a cent. Most agents work on 100 percent commission, so we also go to conferences, lead webinars, and teach to supplement any part- or full-time job that pays the bills. It's a lot of work.

This is my process for queries: I read the query itself first, then if I'm interested in that, I read the synopsis, and if I'm still interested, I read the sample pages. If I want to keep reading after those pages, I flag the query so I know that I want to request the full—but only after I've gotten through the fulls I already have on my plate. It's all a matter of timing. Personally, I would rather have someone's query go unanswered for two months than have their full manuscript sitting for five months. It takes significantly less time to get through queries than it does to read an entire manuscript and weigh all the pros and cons to bringing on another author, knowing it slices off the time you're able to commit to your current line up of talented folks. This isn't my "woe is me" monologue—I love this job—but it is meant to shed light on what the day to day of an agent looks like (and that's before you get into any of the dicey stuff like contract negotiations). 

All of this is to say that querying a project takes a lot of time. If you're a year into it, don't fret—you're far from alone. All that patience is good practice, because once you do get picked up by an agent and your project goes out on submission to editors, you could easily be sitting there for a year, too. And that project may never sell, so your agent may suggest you shelve it to put the next project out there because it has more commercial appeal, and that could be on sub for a year. Even after it does sell, prepare to be in contract negotiations for weeks. And not be able to announce the project for even longer. Then it'll be in edits and production for a year. None of it happens quickly. 

     3b) on feedback:

As I mentioned earlier, you may get some quality feedback from sending out your query, but more often than not, this won't happen unless an agent requests your full manuscript. The reason for this, at least on my end, is because 95 percent of the time I pass on a project, it's been completely subjective. Case in point, reasons I have passed projects up:

  • I'm really not interested in representing Western mythology
  • I don't work on projects that center around sexual violence and trauma
  • The narrator wasn't as snarky as I wanted them to be
  • Baseball is cool, but I wish they did Muay Thai instead
  • I wish this boy gamer was a girl gamer
  • I'm not a fan of animal narrators
  • I really only want picture books that center around food or STEM
  • Why does everyone have to live in New York??

None of this is helpful when it comes to an author actually implementing feedback. There is no reason to change the location, voice, or subject matter of a book just to suit one agent's fancy—it's about finding an agent who's stoked to represent it for the work that it is. Having a form rejection that sums this up as neatly as possible for as many people—"this isn't a fit for my list"—is what makes it so I'm able to stay on top of queries relatively easily. If I had to personally respond to each one with feedback that isn't going to change the project anyway, I would fall way behind. If there are things I can point out—that the word count is way off, for example—then I will, because that's constructive. 

What I so ardently wish I could make all writers believe is that a rejection is not an indictment of their work. A lot of things have to fit in place for an agent to bring on a new client, and most of it is wildly subjective. An agent will spend days working on a project, going through multiple rounds of edits, and then spend even more days convincing an entire editorial board to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy it. So they really have to love it. And falling in love doesn't happen every day, week, or month. 

But it does happen. And if you do the research and have the patience, it can happen to you. So take all this newfound knowledge, spruce up your manuscript, and start sending it out. Then leave your email inbox be and get to work on your next project.