The Long And Winding Road: A Guide to Querying
This process involved reading a lot of submission packages, and after I had read around forty, I noticed that several of them seemed query-ready to me, but the authors weren't sure. I also noticed that, often, writers knew their queries weren't quite 'there' yet, but they didn't know why.
So, how do you know when your work is ready to query?
That's why I've written this blog. My aim is to give you a comprehensive guide so you can query with confidence. But, I'll say right away, it's complicated. There are lots of things to consider, and some of them can be confusing. The following advice and graphics are my attempt to explain each step on the long and winding road to querying in a clear, concise way. I have also asked my agent, Jared Johnson, to contribute his perspective on what makes a successful query.
There are a lot of points, and I break down each one, so please feel free to skip ahead to the parts most relevant to you.
Querying too soon
By querying too soon, I mean querying before your manuscript and query package are in the best possible shape. Many of us have been there; we've got a little bit too excited and sent a query (or queries) before we should and then regretted it. Or perhaps we thought we were ready and learned later we weren't quite there yet, which was my experience.
If you've done this, you're certainly not alone! But... avoid doing it from now on. My reasons are as follows:
It makes it much more likely you'll get a form rejection or no response.
Agents read a lot of queries, and they are experts at spotting work that isn't 'there' yet.
Querying takes time that could be spent improving your writing and query package.
There are only so many good agents out there who will handle your type of work. It's best to make the most of the limited number of realistic chances you have.
So, how do I know when I'm ready?
If you want to know that you're really ready, then there are some things we'll need to check. To do this, allow me to present my handy flow chart designed to give you a good idea of when you're ready to query. Ta-da!
Inspired by agent Ed Wilson's fabulous flow chart in the Writer's & Artist's Guide to Getting Published. As you can see, there's rather a lot to do to get 'query-ready'.
OK, so you might be wondering about some of the steps I've included here. I'll do my best to break them down for you. Take everything with a pinch of salt. As captain Barbossa once said:
Have you finished the book?
This one may seem obvious, but the desire to query can be so strong that I have heard of people sending first drafts or even unfinished manuscripts out to agents.
Please, don't do this.
I know there are stories out there of writers who have successfully done it and managed to write the rest of the book in a hurry, and everything's been fine. But, I am willing to bet the odds of that happening are about the same as the odds of winning the lottery without buying a ticket. For most people, sending unfinished work will not result in a positive experience.
Is it within the recommended word count?
What's the recommended word count? There is some wiggle room here, but generally speaking (as in 93.642 % of the time), you should try to make sure your book fits inside or is close to, the following guidelines:
I checked several credible websites to find these numbers, and my favourite was the Bookends Literary website.
Why do I have to confine my genius to these arbitrary numbers? you ask.
Well, while I'll freely admit that there will always be outliers, and my set of numbers might not be perfect, the majority of new books being published conform to these guidelines or are very close to them. And, for some agents, a book outside of word count can be an instant dealbreaker, especially for a debut author.
Using myself as an example, when I started querying my adult contemporary fantasy it was 77,000 words. It didn't get picked up until I'd revised it to 97,000.
Has it been proofread or edited?
Some writers will send their book to a high-end professional editor before querying. This is expensive, but if you have the cash, it might be worth the investment. I used Cara, an editor I found on Fiverr and this was a happy medium: Cara did a fantastic job, but she didn't charge nearly as much as some editors you might see.
For a cheaper option, you could sign up to Grammarly pro for short while and go through your manuscript with just the red problems turned on. I would also recommend using the read-aloud function on Word or a free online programme, like Natural Readers to proofread your work. One or two mistakes won't be deal-breakers, but too many will make an agent think twice.
Have you received feedback from impartial beta readers?
Was it positive? Were any of them writers?
You should absolutely send your book off to beta readers before you start querying. Try to use a mix of average readers and one or two writers you trust. I say this because writers will look at your work differently from an average reader and may spot something they don't. You can find beta readers in the #writingcommunity and #bookcommunity on Twitter, on Fiverr and in Facebook writing groups. Good critique partners are worth their weight in gold, but you may have to work with a few people to find partners you gel with.
Carefully consider any feedback you receive and make a real effort to fix plot holes or any other issues. This is especially important if an issue is mentioned by several people. Positive feedback from your friends and family is lovely, but it's not enough to go on.
Is your manuscript correctly formatted?
I've seen some differing advice out there but, generally speaking, if you use a 12-point, sensible font (like Times New Roman, Courier or Arial), double-spaced lines, one-inch margins, and paragraphs set to indent automatically you will conform to most guidelines. See this video if you're not sure how to set up paragraph indentation.
Your pages should be numbered with your name and the manuscript name (or a shortened version of it) in the header, except for your first page, which should show your name and contact info, the manuscript name and word count.
Pro Tip: If you're having trouble with the page numbers, try setting the first page to 0.
Have you researched and built a list of agents?
Query in batches of between six and twelve agents to start with. Querying is a numbers game in many cases (more on that later), but you'll want to give yourself a chance to act on feedback between each batch (if you're lucky enough to get some).
You can research agents on MSWL or you can check out Publisher's Marketplace (or ask a friend with an account) to see which agents are selling your kind of book. There are also writing groups on Twitter that have large lists of agents. Make sure each agent is a good fit for your book by looking at their wishlist or searching for them on Goodreads. Prepare a spreadsheet or invest in membership to Query Tracker so you can keep track of your submissions.
Have you researched comp titles?
Do you know the target age range for your book?
Ah, comp titles (comparison titles). For so long they were my nemesis. Now, while you don't have to use comps, I would 100% recommend them because they give agents a good idea of what the book is, why they might like it, where it would sit in a bookstore and who the target market is.
It's best to choose two recent books (within the last 5 years) that were successful but not ridiculously successful. You can always comp to aspects of the book, for example:
The melancholy heroine of _______ meets the exuberant space pirates of ________.
Using aspects of my comps worked really well for me once I figured it out. This is also a good way to show you have read the agent's wishlist as you can tailor the aspects you choose to each agent. Jared has mentioned to me that some editors and agents advise having one comp for plot and another for tone.
In most cases, I'd advise that you choose comps in the same age bracket as your book. Choosing the correct age range can be surprisingly tricky (or, at least, it was for me!). Watch out for that YA, NA, Adult divide. Here's a quick explainer to help:
Have you written the synopsis and query letter?
Now, each of these documents could easily have a blog's-worth of information written about them (and there are plenty out there), but I'll try and quickly tell you what you need to be query-ready.
Should be around 250-500 words (no more than a side of A4)
Spell the agent's name correctly
Give your comp titles, a brief outline/blurb, the age range and word count
Say whether your book is standalone or has series potential
Mention the books it would sit next to in a book store
Personalisation is a slightly divided topic, but if you have a good reason for querying an agent, I'd advise that you mention it
Sign off politely and professionally with your name and website
Sure it's a hell-document created to torment writers, but it's a necessary evil. Not all agents ask for them, but most do.
Have a one-page version and a two/three-page version ready as different agents will ask for different lengths.
A synopsis should tell the agent what will happen in the story with spoilers so they can see if they like the direction it takes. I only realised how useful this is when I had a big stack of submissions to read.
It doesn't have to be sparkling writing full of description, just clear and to the point.
It should be obvious from reading it what the main character's arc is.
Only the most important characters and plot points need to be mentioned
Are you OK with waiting?
There's no getting around it; unless you're a superstar who has written something hugely marketable, you're probably going to have to wait. A lot. Like, way too much. Not even pleasant waiting. It'll be like you're trapped in an elevator with Bill Murray on Groundhog Day with no wi-fi and no phone signal, you need to pee, and Bill's not in a chatty mood—that kind of waiting.
I wish I could tell you there's a way to deal with it, but I am terrible at waiting. The only solace I can offer is that I had to wait eleven months for my 'yes' and I survived, so you can too. You can read more about my querying experiences here.
So... that's it? I'm ready?
I want to say yes, I really do, but I feel like I should throw in a bit of warning before I send you marching off to the query trenches. I'll hand this blog over to Jared for now and give you my warning at the end.
An Agent's Perspective
Hi, all! I’m Jared, a literary associate with Olswanger Literary. At the best of times, the publishing world has all the transparency of the Eleusinian Mysteries (if you don’t know, look it up; it will blow your mind). When Simeon mentioned he intended to write a blog on the ins and outs of the querying process and asked me to contribute, I was eager to help.
Anyone who knows me will say that I tend toward being loquacious when I write, so I will try to keep this to a reasonable length. Hopefully, this will be an easier task for me since Simeon has already covered much of the ground I tend to tell writers.
Instead, I’ll try to focus on what agents like to see on our end, as well as a few general tips that might help you calibrate your perspective to transition from “writer” to “author”. Though, I put all this out into the world with a grain of salt; any agent and editor will tell you that the publishing world is just a mishmash of serendipity, that glorious moment when, Oliver Twist-style, we put forward a project we really love AND a publisher decides it can make them money.
The Query Itself
First of all, the mechanics of your writing are important. Your pitch letter isn’t just a way to introduce the agent to your world and your narrative; it’s a way to introduce “you”, your style, your enthusiasm, your ability to take something remarkably complex (an entire manuscript) and condense it into a digestible elevator pitch. If this pitch is executed poorly (for instance, if it is unnecessarily wordy, incredibly sparse, or filled with typos), agents tend to use that as an indicator of the writer’s ability to tell a long-form story. If you can’t grip us with few words, we have a hard time believing you can grip us with many.
The “3-3-3” Method
There is not a hard and fast rule regarding how this should look on the page, but there are trends, types of pitches, that prove more successful in their ability to distil a story to its most essential parts. Personally, I, and many other agents, prefer the “3-3-3” method: 3 paragraphs; 3 names; 3(00) words.
Because there is such limited space, you want your query to have clear structure and flow. Limiting yourself to three paragraphs lets you set up: 1) an introduction to your character, 2) your world and your hook, and 3) the stakes of your story for your character. Depending on whether you envision your narrative to be character-driven or plot-driven, you might play around with paragraphs 1 and 2. Again, this isn’t a fixed rule; it’s a trend.
Similarly, because agents read so many queries and can only retain so much information, you generally only want to include three names in your pitch: that of your main character, and those of two supporting characters. Pro tip: if your story heavily involves a physical location (a city, country, fantastical world), that will count as one of your names. Remember, the goal is not to give us a working knowledge of your entire narrative; it’s to pique our interest and keep us reading.
When I say “300 words”, this is a ballpark figure. Realistically, you get between 250-500, as Simeon mentioned above. I do find that most agents like to be on the lower side of this range.
It is worth saying that the 3-3-3 rule doesn’t account for your bio paragraph. Agents see the bio as essential. At the end of the day, agents don’t work with stories; we work with people. It’s the part of our job we enjoy the most, because in what other industry do you get to spend all day geeking out with other people over a shared love of books? We want to know you “the person”, not just you “the writer”.
From “Writer” to “Author”
Second, the mentality you have when querying is every bit as important as the manuscript itself. In deciding to pursue publication—whether traditionally or self—you are choosing to enter into the “business” of writing.
I think this is a concept that many writers don’t consider when they query. Somehow, we have invented a cultural assumption that, if you complete a manuscript, you ought to pursue publication. Period.
However, writing a story and publishing that story are two entirely different practices. Writing can be idyllic, but publishing is always practical. Writing is intrinsically valuable; publishing will always be about the bottom dollar.
While it is nearly impossible to determine actual sales a book will generate, sales data is showing that one of the key factors for a book’s success or failure is author involvement.
More and more, editors are looking for the writer to be (very) actively involved in the publicity for their book. This means doing talks and interviews, meeting with book clubs, and pushing your book on social media.
On the other side of the matter, the author also has to know how to care for themselves and their work.
Are you prepared to have an editor pull your work apart or ask you to remove (possibly) your favorite scenes?
Your manuscript took 10 years to write and revise; can you handle editorial revisions within six months?
Will you be able to handle the mental and emotional strain of your book making it into the hands of the public and *shudder* the internet, who will, invariably, say occasional bad things about your writing or even you?
These questions will certainly sound like an attempt to put you off pursuing publication. I assure you, they are not meant to be. But, at its best, publishing is opaque, and even less space is given to talking about what it looks like on the other side of getting a book deal.
Knowledge is power, and if your ultimate goal is to “Break on through to the other side”, go into it with your eyes open.
Still with me?
If I haven’t scared you off, and if you are still reading, know that a good agent and a good editor will always be in your corner. An agent’s ultimate job is to represent you and your interests, and while an editor’s ultimate job is to make your book as strong as possible, you are still an integral part of that process. We will remember that.
However, the ultimate advocate for you will always be… well… you. And making the choice to move from being a writer to being an author means trying to square the idyllic persona of the artist with that of the businessperson.
There are many ways to go about trying to gain knowledge about how the publishing industry operates. A recent book I have found helpful even for myself is Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum, which offers great insights and details into the pre-, mid-, and post-publishing process as an author.
However, it will always be more helpful to rely on the writing community itself. One piece of advice I give all early writers is to find a community and get plugged in. Not only will you start to develop a good network for writing and critique partners; you will also be able to learn about other authors’ experiences with agents and editors.
Knowledge is power. The less you have, the more it is consolidated at the top. But you all are good writers: you study and research, and you are methodical. By choosing to educate yourself, you democratize that knowledge and you put it to work for you and other writers around you.
Simeon's final thought: life in the query trenches
I said I would finish with a small warning, so here it is...
The Writing Community call it being in the 'querying trenches' for a reason. It can be brutal. It can also be exciting and joyous beyond all reason. I'll produce a separate blog in the future on how to deal with rejection, but for now, I feel I should warn anyone signing up for active querying duty that your emotions, your patience, your sanity, your self-belief and your confidence will all probably take a kicking.
It's not all bad, though. You'll meet lots of writer friends going through the same thing, and the highs can be pretty damn amazing.
I said before that querying is a numbers game, and it really is. I had to query fifty-six agents to get my 'yes'. Others have gone past one hundred to get there. My advice for surviving the trenches is to go in knowing when you'll get out. In other words:
What is the number of agents you will query before you shelve the manuscript, climb out of the trenches and write something else?
This might sound defeatist, but it kept me going through the hard times (I had one hundred as my number), and it doesn't have to be set in stone. If querying is affecting your mental health, take a break. If you're past your number but you want to keep going, do it.
Thank you for reading! We sincerely hope you find this guide helpful on your querying journey. Please do let us know in the comments or by liking this blog.
Good luck in the trenches,
Simeon & Jared