Journey to a Bestseller: Land Your Agent with the Most Effective Query (Series #37)

Hello everyone! I apologize for being a day late, but I hope you won’t mind. I am going to break down how to query agents and get the best results. There is a lot of information you need to know before you actually get to sending out your query letters.

Let’s just pretend that you’ve never read any of my posts before and you are an author with a finished manuscript. The first thing you must do is have it read by others (called Beta Readers), if not an editor. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn how to self-edit. If you don’t know how, check out this post about how to edit like a pro, correct word counts, make great chapter hooks, words to cut, trusting your audience, and more: click here for Series #26. (Links will open in a new window.)

When you are sure your manuscript is ready and you’ve edited it the best you can, had extra readers (not just your mom), and possibly hired an editor, it’s time to know your goals. Every book needs to go all the way through editing before publishing, so don’t skip out on any of this because you are self-publishing. And if your goal is a Big House contract, you MUST have an edited manuscript before querying.

At this point, you have three choices: (1) Self-publish which is free and easy, (2) traditionally publish with a small house whom you can query for yourself, or (3) traditionally publish with a Top 5 house or imprint.

(1) Self publishing is as easy as going to KDP.amazon.com and following the directions. (If you already have an Amazon account, just use your regular Amazon password. ) It costs nothing, and is pretty straightforward, but you will want to do some research on the categories and keywords that you will use, because these decide where Amazon places your book for readers to see. Check out this post on Categories and Keywords (Series #21).

(2) If you would like to be traditionally published, but don’t want a Top 5 contract for whatever reason, you do NOT need an agent to query small publishing houses. Let me explain why: Agents are needed to be a bridge between author and publisher, but their main job is to negotiate the terms of your contract with the publisher to get you the best deal. BUT small publishers generally use a standard, non-negotiable contract. Did you catch that? Non-negotiable means there is no negotiating taking place. If you hire an agent who gets you a small publisher, they simply find the publisher, sign the contract with you, and happily accept 15% of your earnings–for the life of the book. And if your small publisher uses KDP to publish you, which is becoming more and more common, then the publisher may only receive 35% of your earnings after Amazon’s cut, so your contract with the publisher for 40% isn’t really 40% of your earnings, it’s 40% of 35% of your sales, then your agent gets their 15% from your cut. So, if you are shooting for a small publisher, keep reading to see how to query agents, but substitute agents for small publishers.

(3) If your goal is a Top 5 house or imprint, you will need an agent. It is a requirement. So you will need to send out queries. DO NOT spam every agent/editor you can find on social media, offering your book. You will NOT get a publishing contract that way, and if you do, it won’t be one you want. Stick to the rules. It’s a lot less time-consuming. Also, do not self-publish, then look for an agent. That will only work if you are selling 5,000 copies a month. If you have a book out that’s not getting any traction on its own, publishers won’t want it, and agents only take what they know they can sell to publishers.

Your query letter is very important and is often a test by agents to see who is serious, who puts in the work, who is ready, and who can follow directions. If an agent gives submission guidelines, and they all do, pay attention. Don’t send them what they don’t want. It shows that either you aren’t taking the process seriously, you didn’t pay attention, you don’t know how, or you don’t care what they’re asking for, which means you may be a difficult person to work with, and that’s not a good place to be. There’s an easy format to making a query letter, so follow it and start out by impressing the agent with your professionality, it gives you a leg up. More on this later, keep reading…

Next, you need to research your agents or small publishers. In this post (Series #27), I go into detail about all the things you need to know about an agent and how to make the spreadsheet you will need to keep track of all the information. It also details some of the responses you may receive from agents and what they mean.

Once you’ve got a spreadsheet made with all the right categories, we need to start researching agents/small publishers and filling in that sheet. This post (Series #28) goes into minute detail on how to find the information you seek and what to do with it. It talks about where to find agents and what to look for, finding their wishlists and who is looking for what, and also has a list of sites for author marketing and getting reviews.

Stay calm and follow the process.

I want to add something I’ve learned from trial and error and even though I know what I do, I still messed this one up. Don’t get over-excited about querying right after you’ve finished writing “The End” and work to fill in your query spreadsheet with agents right away. The reason is because you don’t know the future. You don’t know how long it’s going to take you to edit, or find readers, or if summer is about to come (agents often take the summer months off and do not accept queries then or at Christmas), or if there’s about to be a pandemic, and agents often move companies, positions, or quit altogether.

I made my spreadsheet to show you back at the beginning of January, but when I got it out to query yesterday (yes, I did it!), my list was a mess. Out of a list of 20 agents, at least 5 of them were no longer working for that agency, not taking submissions, or quit entirely, and about 10 of them didn’t apply to my book anymore. So I had to start over, pretty much. My advice is not to make your list of agents until you are ready to query. That way you know who is really available and that their wishlist is as current as possible.

Not all agents have the connections it takes to get a Top 5 house contract. This is news to some of you, I know, but there are tiers of agents and agencies. The New York-based agencies generally have the contacts, but you need to check. Suzi Q-Agent might have been working for the past ten years and have lots of clients, but if she’s never made a big house deal, and doesn’t have the connections to do so, you can sign a good book with her, but she won’t be able to get you a big house contract, and as we’ve discussed, you don’t need her to get you a small house contract.

So how do you know? What I do is go to Publishersmarketplace.com. You must have a subscription to see the information you want, but you can buy one month at a time, for $25 a month. I suggest if you are about to query, you buy a month. The sidebar on the left will then have a button appear that says, “deal makers.” You can search agencies, agents, and publishers. You can see every deal an agent has reported, the editor and company they contracted with, and a little description of the work. If you find an agent who has sold to top houses before and in your genre as well, that is a person to consider.

Not everyone will report their deals to Publisher’s Marketplace, but the top agencies do, and that’s what you’re looking for anyway. New agents are easier to get in with as they are building their client base, but make sure they belong to an agency with contacts at the houses you are interested in. And realize, you can’t send any old non-edited book to agents and expect a contract. They are looking for a book that is (at most) one revision away from being ready to publish. You’ve got to have a great book. If you know your book could use another revision, has issues, or isn’t the best work you’ve ever written, go back and finish that book before wasting your time querying. Some 87% of authors query before they are ready and then can’t understand why they aren’t getting accepted.

Now it’s time to write your query letter, if you haven’t begun it already. In this post (Agent Questions #9) I talk about the general sections of a query letter with my formula on how to write a query letter, but in this post (Series #29) I go into detail on what exactly I plug into that formula and why. It also talks about hooking the agent with your query, finding your comp titles, and tidbits of advice I’ve learned from being a literary agent, a traditionally and self-published author, as well as a publishing house editor.

Along with your query letter, most agents want some combination of synopsis and sample pages. Their websites will tell you exactly what they want, and as I mentioned earlier, they pay attention to whether you followed directions or not. Now, not everyone has a good query letter, etc., but when YOU do, it makes you stand out. I always had more respect for the authors who sent me a submission package that showed they took care and effort with their submission materials. Impressing the agent is a good step, so I recommend putting your best foot forward.

Still a little confused about the difference between a summary and a synopsis? In this post (Twitter Questions #4), I explain what a summary is and the difference between it and your synopsis, as well as how to write them. If the agent gives you a specific number of pages for your synopsis, stick to that, but if they simply say “a short synopsis,” try for about two pages. This process usually stumps authors. I have heard that it is 1,000 times easier to write the synopsis first and then the story. Make your hook and then write a story to deliver that. When you have to try to quantify and make something you’ve already written sound exciting, it’s a ton harder.

I tried this with my last book, and it worked well. I actually deviated from it a lot in the end, adding details and making the plot even better than I had planned from the beginning. That meant that before sending out my queries, I had to go back and correct my synopsis, but it wasn’t that big of a deal.

The agent will often ask for a sample of your writing. Always give them the beginning of your book. Do not take the best excerpt out of the middle. It’s often a number of pages (5, 10, 25, 50) or a number of chapters (first chapter, or first three). Double check this sample. Your entire book will be judged on this sample. I made a post recently about how an agent can read one chapter and know if your book is any good, and you can read that here (Series #35). Make sure you touch on all these points and send your best work. Additionally, whatever you edit in your first pages must be continued throughout the book. Do NOT edit and polish your first three chapters into something awesome and then leave the rest of the book alone.

I got many really intriguing submissions that looked promising, but when I asked for the full manuscript, I found that from chapter four and on, it was a disaster. I know it hurt the authors when I rejected the manuscript and they’d been so excited about getting the request for a full, but didn’t understand why they got a pass. Agents are diving into their query boxes, trying to get through hundreds of queries, and authors waiting for a response, so they don’t have the time to say, well, your book went downhill. Plus, when authors hear advice like that, they want to write back and ask what’s wrong and what they should change, and can you help them?, and agents don’t have time to do that with everyone. So your book may have a problem, or it could be almost there, not quite ready yet, but the agent isn’t going to explain all that, they will simply pass.

One of the posts above does give agent responses and what they might mean for you. Check it out.

You are almost done and ready to query. If your book is the first in a series, and you let the agent know in your query letter, they may ask you for an outline of the other planned books in the series. Have this ready. Don’t make an interested agent wait for days, until you can plan and put together an outline. Anticipate this before you start querying. If you are having trouble with it, I suggest looking at the post I mentioned earlier about summaries and synopses, where I talk about planning out scenes for your book and how to turn that into a summary or outline.

You’ve got your query record spreadsheet, a query letter, a synopsis, sample pages, and a series outline ready to go, so go send those letters out one at a time, personalizing each letter to each agent. Send the queries in rounds of 10-20 agents at a time. You do not want to send queries to more than one agent per agency, and your spreadsheet will help you keep these straight. If one agent asks for your full manuscript, and/or offers you representation, you will need to contact every other agent who has your query to let them know. It helps if you only need to contact a few people. Most of the time, once you get a pass from one agent, you are free to query another agent at that agency, but pay attention because many agencies also have policies that say a “no” from one is a “no” from all.

When you’ve sent out your first round of queries, go take your mind off the whole thing. Check your email once, to see the “received” messages, and then only check once a day. Don’t obsessively stalk your inbox waiting for responses. You’ll drive yourself crazy. Use this time to take that series outline and start the next book if you haven’t already, or set up your social media profiles and start telling people you’ve written a book. Join other communities of writers and network with them. The entire literary world is on Twitter, so if you haven’t tried that yet, go learn about it. It’s not hard to get started. Just “retweet” anything you see that you like until you have something to say yourself. You can always “friend” me–I will return the favor. (@haskinauthor)

Twitter has something called “Pitch events” where authors can pitch their book with a little hook and agents do look at these. If they “heart” your book’s hook, they are interested, and you are invited to send them a query telling them you were chosen from a pitch event, then you will get extra consideration. Most agents give priority to manuscripts that they have “liked,” either on Twitter or at a writer’s conference. So this is a good deal, but it ONLY happens on Twitter. Don’t message agents on their social media, it is a huge waste of your time. Agents aren’t out looking for manuscripts, they already have inboxes to go through, full of writers who’ve gone to the trouble to submit the “right” way. So do yourself a favor and do it right.

That’s it for today. I realize it isn’t as long as I thought, but that’s because it’s chock full of links to posts I’ve already written detailing the process. If you are done with your book and ready to start this process, take some time and follow the links to get all my tips and tricks. I plan to go through a few and update some things. But I wish you all good luck, and if you have questions, feel free to comment or use the contact form. I am happy to help, or point you in the right direction.

I will let you know how my querying goes and what happens with the book. If I don’t get representation, I plan to self-publish. But I’d really like to know that I landed a big contract, at least once. We’ll see.

Until next weekend, keep writing!

~jenn

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