6 Lessons I Learned in the Query Trenches
(Note: I am assuming you researched your butt off before you start querying. You have a polished book. You read the Query Shark archives. You have a list of agents you’ve researched. Right?)
Take advantage of opportunities for agent or other professional feedback before you hit send
Oft repeated query advice is that you send out your first batch of about five queries, and if they come back as form rejections, you know your query needs some work. There is a lot of wisdom behind that strategy, but there is risk, too. If you pick agents with slower response times, you might be waiting a month or two for replies.
Consider some of the other ways to test your query before you send:
Watch for feedback offers, where the agent will tell you why they passed. Multiple agents offer this kind of thing periodically. You might also see an agent who will give away a certain number of critiques once they reach a certain follow count on Twitter (fun fact – the journey that landed me my agent started with me winning a critique!). You probably need to be on Twitter to catch announcements, though. Also be aware that some of these count as your “one shot” at querying the agent, and some do not (and we all know you don’t want to throw away your shot).
Consider a critique for modest fee. There are legit services from industry professionals that offer freelance critiques of queries and manuscripts. When researching you want to pick someone with credentials and who ideally has client recommendations. It’s been awhile since I’ve checked prices, but a few years back you could get a great query critique for $15 – $25.
Submit your query to a blog like Query Shark or Mindy McGinnis’s Saturday Slash. There are multiple blogs where you can submit your query and have it chomped to pieces (in the case of Query Shark) in a public post. Caveat – these are popular blogs. I am fairly sure Janet Reid has said it’s harder to get your query selected for Query Shark than it is to get a full request.
Take away: take advantage of the multitude of ways to shop your query before you start querying.
You see this advice everywhere, and for good reason. The process takes a long time, and if you query one by one you will be querying until you’re 127 years old.
When I received my offer, I had sent 37 queries. The offer closed my pool. It gave me my list of everyone I could notify (it is bad form to send fresh queries after an offer – don’t do it). What if I had queried more slowly? I might have severely limited my options.
Be smart, but don’t wait too long to query your favorites
See number 2.
I signed with the very first agent I queried (for this book – there were many queries sent before. You can read the saga here).
Keep impeccable records
When you get that offer, things move blindingly fast despite the week following also feeling like the longest week of your life.
Once you get an offer it’s standard for an agent to give you a week to let other agents know and make your decision. In my case, I was fresh off travel and Caitie was gearing up for travel, so she gave me ten days.
When you notify other agents what you are essentially saying is “drop everything and read my book.”
Several high profile, established agents had my full at the time of my offer. I notified them all within 24 hours of receiving my offer, and the way the ten days fell, agents who saw my notice quickly would have two weekends and one full work week to try to squeeze in my book. This is probably about as good as it gets when it comes to giving other agents the maximum time possible. One of these agents wrote me back a kind, simple email that said, sorry, no way I can get to it this quickly.
And that’s a risk. It’s a little counter intuitive but an offer on the table doesn’t always work in your favor.
This is where the impeccable records come in. At the time of my offer I had materials out with six agents and queries open with fifteen (open meaning I hadn’t received a rejection, or the “no reply means no” window hadn’t yet closed). I was able to fire off that many emails in a very short time, therefore maximizing the potential time the agents had to read my book. I think it worked decently – only one agent who already had materials had to step away due to time constraints, and of the 15 with open queries, five requested the full to read that week. I received another offer. I can’t say I would have had the same results if I’d been slowed down by mining my inbox and figuring out who had what and who I needed to notify.
Don’t have a dream agent, but know dream agent qualities
Lots of people have written about why you shouldn’t have a dream agent. I agree that it’s a bad idea to identify an individual as your dream agent.
But knowing core qualities you want in a dream working relationship with an agent? Absolutely.
When my agent put me in touch with one of her clients after The Call, I reached out. I didn’t exactly know what to say. All of my social awkwardness and introversion came bubbling to the surface (which had nothing to do with the client, who was kind and approachable and awesome).
Since I didn’t know an exact question to ask, I decided to describe my dream working relationship with an agent. This is what I said:
The thing I want most in an agent is a partner who will help me develop my career. I have four kids and work two jobs so I have to be really focused on my writing goals, and I want someone who knows the pub side so I don’t have to think about it as much, someone who will help me decide what project to start on next, and someone who is really editorial. It’s also really important to me to have an agent who gets (using shorthand here) WNDB/ownvoices and is cool with me being pretty political. Do you think Caitie would be a good fit?
Luckily for me, she was.
Do you know how you would describe your dream working relationship with an agent?
Trust your gut.
Learning to trust and listen to your gut feeling is an invaluable skill for a writer (I mean, it’s really an invaluable life skill in general).
There are lots of great agents out there. There are scammers (schmagents) out there, too. Perhaps most dangerous to you are the enthusiastic and well-meaning agents who don’t have the experience or support and might hurt your career more than they help it.
But remember, you did your research before you started, right? And you know how to describe your dream working relationship?
If you’re querying and expanding your query list, and you see an agent who seems great but you get that off feeling in your belly when you notice the agency website features no clients and you can’t find sales info anywhere? Listen to that gut feeling and strike that agent from your list.
Hone that skill now, because when you find yourself courting multiple offers or representation (which I know you, YES YOU, will eventually get), you’ll need it more than ever.