5 Frequently Asked Query Questions

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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.

How to Decipher Agent Responses

I often have clients trying to figure out the meaning behind agent responses. The obvious meaning is clear: a request for more pages, an offer, a rejection. But writers sometimes want more—to understand why an agent passed on their work, to assign significance to the timing of a request.

As an agent-turned-editor, when I generate editorial letters for clients who have already queried their work, I have them send the responses they’ve received thus far, and I incorporate them in the letter, explaining the feedback when I can. Frequently, though, these passes don’t say much.

But since it’s obviously a topic of great concern for writers seeking traditional publication, I wanted to offer a few general thoughts on understanding the responses you get from agents.

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A Word of Caution

To start, my biggest piece of advice is to try not to read too much into the responses. I often see writers thinking, “This agent got back to me so quickly! They must really love my work; I must have a great shot at representation!” Or a writer might try to discern meaning from a generic sentiment like, “I’m sure other agents will feel differently.”

I would never put stock into timing, whether it’s fast or slow. Sometimes a quick response means an agent is enthusiastic, but often it’s a matter of chance. Your query arrived just as they finished catching up, or you sent your partial right before they boarded a cross-country flight. Agents respond to queries and requested materials whenever they can; usually this means they reply slowly, but occasionally it means they respond more quickly than you might expect. A slow response doesn’t necessarily mean they hate it; a quick one doesn’t necessarily mean they love it. 

Similarly, I’d take the wording of their response at face value. If they offer specific feedback, that can be useful. But often it will just be generic politeness, and you should take that for the neutral, professional response that it is. But there are a few nuances to the wording, so let’s dive into that.

Query Rejections vs. Partials and Fulls

In general, the more material an agent evaluated, the more consideration you should give their response. My agency didn’t ask for any materials to start, just the query letter. As such, my responses to queries were form responses that I wouldn’t recommend reading a single thing into beyond the obvious (I’m not interested in seeing more of this project). I did have a different response for Manuscript Wish List queries (some agents have many different form responses to fit various situations from referrals to conferences), but it was more of an acknowledgement than a useful response—indicating that I saw the writer was responding to a specific request I’d made, yet I still didn’t think the manuscript was right for me. 

Some agents use form responses for partial and full manuscripts as well, and this is sometimes done as a matter of agency policy. Agents are far more likely to provide personalized feedback for a requested manuscript, though, so this is where you might obtain some useful information.

When I responded to requested partial and full manuscripts, I did my best to name a positive aspect of the work and something I thought could be improved. This would often still be fairly vague, though, along the lines of, “I really liked the protagonist but didn’t find the plot propulsive enough.” That’s not really enough to justify a full revision of your manuscript. However, if a few agents mention something about the plot, that should prompt you to send your work to a set of fresh eyes, asking them to focus on that element.

More Thoughts on Vagueness

A comment about plot at least gives you something specific to focus on. But I’m sure if you’ve been querying for a bit, you’ve received a pass along the lines of, “I didn’t connect with the voice.” Voice is probably the most nebulous story element and deserves a blog post of its very own. But when it comes to passes, unless you get more specific feedback, e.g. the voice feels too immature for the age category, I’d translate a voice comment as meaning, “Something about your work just didn’t grab me in the way I wanted it to.” It’s only slightly more helpful than the perennial pass: “I just didn’t fall in love.”

Obnoxious as that response is to receive as a writer, the simplest explanation is often the truest. Agents can only represent a small amount of what they read, and they really do have to love it. So while it doesn’t present a path for you to improve (more on that below), it’s the foundation of every rejection.

Offers to Read Again

One thing to pay particular attention to is whether an agent indicates they’d like to hear from you again—either with this work or a future one. Such invitations often come at the end of a rejection, so it’s important to read them even when it’s difficult! I’m sure there are some agents who mention they’d be happy to hear from you again as a standard part of their response, but I always used it rarely and specifically, indicating that I’d like to see this again if substantial revisions were made or that this work wasn’t for me but I’d like to see future works. Make sure to keep track of these opportunities to try again; it means you’ve already nudged the door open a crack.

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I know many of you just want to know why. Why don’t agents provide more helpful feedback? Why do they seem so enthusiastic when requesting only to turn around and tell you they didn’t fall in love? The second question is easy enough to answer: a request is made largely on the basis of a concept and perhaps a brief writing sample. There’s a lot for an agent to love or not in the execution of that concept over several hundred pages. The first question is more complicated; I can think of at least three significant reasons why agents don’t provide more feedback.

The biggest issue is time. Agents are obligated to prioritize their clients; they’ve already made a commitment to them and their work. Handling their needs usually takes up more than a 40-hour work week. So reading queries and manuscripts is almost always done at night and over the weekend, and there just isn’t time to respond meaningfully to everyone—not if agents are going to sleep and occasionally have lives beyond publishing.

A second reason is that providing feedback on queries and manuscripts simply isn’t their job. I mean that in two ways.

First, as discussed above, an agent’s responsibility is to their clients. Selling their clients’ books and doing the necessary editorial and advisory work to make that happen is their primary job. Most agents work solely on commission, so it’s also the only way they make money—agents typically don’t make salaries to pay for their time regardless of what they’re working on. Obviously, reading queries and manuscripts is how agents get these clients and eventually get paid…but giving detailed feedback to work they’re not interested in is free labor.

Second, it isn’t their job in the sense that they aren’t reading your work as editors. Now that I’m a freelance editor, when someone hires me to read their manuscript, I’m looking for ways to improve it. I’m scrutinizing every element, every chapter, thinking about how to make it better. As an agent, my initial read was at a higher level and only sought to answer two questions: Do I love this? Do I think I can sell this? I would often have some general editorial ideas when I finished reading, but if I wound up signing the writer as a client, I would typically read their book again before sending an editorial letter for revision. Often as an agent, I would pass on a book because I really didn’t have any ideas for what could be done editorially; all I knew was I didn’t think it was there yet.

Finally, agents may avoid giving specific feedback because it potentially opens a dialogue or even encourages harassment. The nastiest response I ever received was when I (in an attempt to be constructive) told an author, with examples, that I didn’t think his concept was in line with what middle grade editors are looking for right now. It’s a lot easier to argue with something concrete than “I didn’t fall in love, but I’m sure another agent will!” And while I know YOU would never send an agent a nasty email or write terrible things about them online, it happens far more often than you’d think.


I’m sure a few of you read this blog post hoping for a magic response: This is what agents mean! This is the key to understanding it all! Unfortunately, the truth is that agents often don’t mean much beyond a polite “no, thank you.” What I hope this post does, though, is slightly alleviate your anxiety. You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re not missing out. You don’t need to be doing more. Your struggle is one shared by many. And when an agent does take the time to give a detailed pass, pay attention—the very fact that they’re doing so is significant.

Is there any other agent behavior you find mystifying? Let us know in the comments! And subscribe to the monthly newsletter for suggestions on how to respond to agents.