How to Query a Literary Agent. OK, One Way to Query a Literary Agent. OK, OK, This May Work For You.
Through an area writers network called MEWSIE I’ve met a writer who’s inspired a small group of us to start meeting, critique each other’s work, discuss the writing life. I haven’t done this in a while, and even though while on sub I don’t have anything to be critiqued, maybe I’ll start a short story or something. At the least being with other writers is inspiring (and soothing) and I can offer feedback to those at a different part of the process.
Anyway, this woman has written a memoir and she asked if I thought mass querying was the way to go. She’s already queried two agents and received rejections. What to do now?
So I thought I’d write up my own, idiosyncratic, warts and all, approach to getting an agent. It worked three times, and I had multiple offers each of those times, so hey, you probably could do worse than trying it this way. There are also numerous great books on how to get an agent, THE SELL YOUR NOVEL TOOLKIT by Elizabeth Lyons, Noah Lukeman’s work (he is an agent himself), and many agent blogs like Kristen Nelson’s, Jenny Bent’s, and others, so you might want to read those, too.
But here’s what I did. As opposed to Mass Querying, I call it Targeted Querying.
First, each offer I received was from an agent I’d queried cold. From time to time I wrote to an author who agreed to let me use his or her name when contacting his or her agent–Chris Bohjalian’s, Jodi Picoult’s–and although this usually resulted in a read, it never garnered an offer of rep. So it is possible to cold query and meet with success.
Another excellent way to target agents is to read the acknowledgments sections of books you like. Go to a bookstore–buy something–or a library–check something out–and spend all day browsing. Or look through your very own bookshelves. Any agent you find this way should know it. “I’m contacting you because I am a big admirer of Writer X’s work….”
My letter morphed over the years. As you know from this blog, it began as a big, boastful, bloated document that I’m still shocked got any offers. But I grew more realistic and humble as time passed–as author James LePore says, this process will bring a man to his knees, and that goes for women, too–and my query reflected this.
It always contained these four things: an intro line specifying why I was contacting this agent. It didn’t matter if I found the agent in a guide or online or screaming on a street corner that she was desperate for clients (OK, that never happens)–I came up with a specific reason why I thought Agent X and I would be a good match. They were always truthful. I worked backwards sometimes, finding an agent who seemed approachable, then looking up her client list or facts about her agency. But I always made it clear that I was sending a query to someone I particularly wanted to work with.
Mass mailings tend to get ignored in all walks of life. How closely do you look at the Dear Resident mail you get?
Then I would include a pitch paragraph in the body of my letter. This read like flap copy, describing my book. I set it apart in space on the page, bolded it–anything to make it jump out. In November I will be presenting a unit at a conference solely devoted to crafting this sort of pitch, then presenting it to editors from the majors.
Next, a brief bio. Of course, this should contain writing credits if you have them. But if you don’t, don’t worry. I didn’t have a single one for any of my querying efforts. I still would debate including what creds I have, since at this point they are for online pubs that haven’t had a chance to build up a reputation yet, and those are of debatable value to an agent.
(Note to self: future blog topic…)
But there are other things to say. Have you attended any writers conferences or workshops? Those show you’re serious about learning your craft. Do you have a second (first) career that is connected in some way to the topic of your novel? For instance, are you a cop or a PI and you’ve written a mystery? A doctor and you’ve written a medical thriller? A boarding school teacher and your book takes place in a prep school? Mention it.
Then a simple close about how your ms is complete, you’d be very pleased to send on either a partial or a full (depending on what the agent is requiring), and a thank you to Agent X for his time and consideration.
Click send, or drop in the mail (if so, include an SASE; debate aside, this will save you not hearing from those agents you’ve just made life harder for, and if it ranks you as an amateur…hey, you’re looking for an agent, you are an amateur whatever that means), then sit back and…wait.
At some point, I’ll write more on the waiting game. As much as writing, it’s the business of writers.
Hope this adds a bit to the terrific stuff out there on this subject! Please leave comments and questions…I’ll do my best to answer them all (or ask someone who can). And best of luck with querying!