While, in some ways, querying has never been more transparent than it is now, with all the blogs and #askagent, it’s still a process that provokes uncertainty, even insecurity. And it can be difficult to sort through the internet noise to find trustworthy information.
So, as a former agent, I wanted to answer five of the query questions I’ve been asked most frequently over the past several years:
1. How many agents should I query at a time?
Around 5. This is a bit of a judgment call: On one hand, you don’t want to query all of your favorite agents at once because if you get feedback that prompts a revision, either of your manuscript or your query letter, you want to have more agents you’re interested in approaching. On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to get an offer of representation on your first round, you want to have the agents you’re most excited about in play; you can’t query a new agent at that point, but you can follow up with agents who currently have your query or manuscript to let them know you’ve received an offer.
This answer implies two other pieces of advice: First, make sure your query and manuscript are 100% ready to go before you send them out. You don’t want to use actual agents as trial runs. Second, you have to have patience. One round of querying could take a few months. But if you want the benefit of potential feedback, you can’t rush it.
2. When should I follow up if I haven’t heard back from an agent?
Possibly never. If all you’ve sent is an initial query, be sure to check their submission policies on their website; many agencies state that no response is a no. If they respond to every query, check Twitter; sometimes agents will tweet updates about where they are in their inbox and invite people to re-query if they emailed before a certain date and haven’t gotten a response. If there’s no information but their policies state they respond, you could potentially follow up after a few months, just to make sure your email didn’t get lost or wind up in spam.
If you’ve sent additional materials requested by the agent and they responded to confirm receipt, there’s no need to follow up unless you have an offer of representation. Agenting involves constant triage, and if they confirmed they received your materials, you’re on their to-do list, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can—though this may be much later than you would like. If they didn’t confirm receipt, you might follow up to make sure your materials arrived, but I’d probably still wait a few months.
Unfortunately, following up may produce the opposite result from the one you want. I know a few agents who have a strict oldest-to-newest response policy, and in some email programs, sending a reply will move everything to the top of the inbox—the bottom of these agents’ piles. Occasionally writers will set an artificial deadline; they don’t have an offer of rep, but they put a deadline on responses. This is a better way to generate a lot of quick passes than to get genuine replies. Once again, patience is key.
3. How many agents should I query before shelving my book?
There’s no exact answer to this question; the general answer is however many you reasonably believe may be interested in your book and you would want to represent you. This number depends both on the type of book you’ve written and your list of agent requirements. There’s no sense in querying someone who doesn’t represent your genre/age category or someone whom you know from the outset you wouldn’t want as your representative.
I also strongly recommend that you don’t re-query agents with the same work. If an agent says they’d be interested in seeing a revised version of your work, you should of course send that, but if they reject an initial query, their opinion won’t change after a few months have passed.
So when you’ve reached the end of your agent list, it’s time to move on. You should already be working on the next book while waiting to get responses about the one you’re querying, so it’s just a matter of focusing on the new project.
4. Should I query agents and small presses at the same time?
I’d advise against it unless you truly don’t care about the size of your publisher. Small presses tend to respond more quickly than agents. If you query both simultaneously, you may get an offer from a small press, prompting an agent to pass for lack of time to review your work, when they may have said yes if they’d been able to read at leisure. If your ultimate goal is to get a book deal with a big five, or similar, publisher, focus on querying agents first, and move on to small presses later if you decide you’re interested in that route.
If you do query them at the same time and receive an offer from a small press, be honest when you email agents to let them know. As an agent, it’s frustrating when an author says they have an “offer of representation” that turns out to be from a small press, rather than another agent as the phrase implies. You absolutely should notify the agents who are still considering your materials; it’s just important to be forthright.
5. Can I query agents if I’ve self-published?
Yes, but not that work and not a work in the same series. It’s a common misconception that you can self-publish a book and then seek representation for that book later. Unless you’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies (and honestly, if you’ve sold enough, publishers and agents will probably be contacting you, instead of the other way around), publishers want the first crack at your book. But if you’ve written something entirely new, you can query that. Agents may have different opinions about your self-publishing history, but their primary focus will be whether they love and think they can sell the book at hand.
This month’s newsletter will answer a question that precedes all of these: How do I know when I’m ready to query? If you have any other query questions, leave them in the comments! I’ll either answer there or in a future blog post. Good luck to all of you who are in the query trenches.