Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)

QUERY LETTER FAQS

Here are answers to 19 of the most tricky and confusing query questions around.

by Chuck Sambuchino

Readers and aspiring writers often find querying literary agents to be intimidating and terrifying. Here are some important questions and answers to consider as you craft your query letter.

When contacting agents, the query process isn’t as simple as, “Just keep e-mailing until something good happens.” There are ins, outs, strange situations, unclear scenarios, and plenty of what-have-you’s that block the road to signing with a rep. In short, there are plenty of murky waters out there in the realm of submissions. Luckily, writers have plenty of questions to ask. Here are some of the most interesting (and important) questions and answers regarding protocol during the query process.

When should you query? When is your project ready?

There is no definitive answer, but here’s what I suggest. Get other eyes on the material—“beta readers”—people who can give you feedback that is both honest and helpful. These beta readers (usually members of a critique group) will give you feedback. You do not want major concerns, such as, “It starts too slow” or “This character is not likeable.” Address these problems through revisions. After rewriting, give it to more beta readers. If they come back with no major concerns, the book is ready, or at least very close.

How should you start your query? Should you begin with a paragraph from the book?

I would not include a paragraph from the book nor would I write the letter in the “voice” of one your characters—those are gimmicks. If you choose, you can just jump right into the pitch—there’s nothing wrong with that. But what I recommend is laying out the details of your book in one easy sentence: “I have a completed 78,000-word thriller titled Dead Cat Bounce.” I suggest this because jumping into a pitch can be jarring and confusing. Think about it. If you started reading an e-mail and the first sentence was simply “Billy has a problem,” you don’t know if Billy is an adult or a child, or if he is being held captive by terrorists versus being nervous because his turtle is missing. In other words, the agent doesn’t know whether to laugh or be worried. He’s confused. And when an agent gets confused, he may just stop reading.

Can you query multiple agents at the same agency?

Generally, no. A rejection from one literary agent usually means a rejection from the entire agency. If you query one agent and she thinks the work isn’t right for her but still has promise, she will pass it on to fellow agents in the office who can review it themselves.

Should you mention that the query is a simultaneous submission?

You can, but you don’t have to. If you say it’s exclusive, they understand no other eyes are on the material. If you say nothing, they will assume multiple agents must be considering it. However, some agents will specifically request in their guidelines to be informed if it’s a simultaneous submission.

Even if an agent doesn’t request it, should you include a few sample pages with your query letter?

This is up to you. When including sample pages, though, remember to paste the pages below the query letter. Do not attach them in a document. Also, do not include much—perhaps 1–5 pages. Most people asking this question probably have more faith in their opening pages than in their query. That’s understandable, but keep in mind that while including sample pages may help with an occasional agent who checks out your writing, it doesn’t solve the major problem of your query being substandard. Keep working on the query until you have faith in it, regardless of whether you sneak in unsolicited pages or not.

Can your query be more than one page long?

The rise of e-queries removed the dreaded page break, so now it’s easy to have your query go over one page. This does not necessarily mean it’s a wise move. Going a few sentences over one page is likely harmless, but you don’t need a query that trends long. Lengthy letters are a sign of a rambling pitch, which will probably get you rejected. Edit and trim your pitch down as need be. Find beta readers or a freelance query editor to give you ideas and notes. Remember that a succinct letter is preferred, and oftentimes more effective. An exception to this, however, is querying for nonfiction books. Nonfiction queries have to be heavy on author platform, and those notes (with proper names of publications and organizations and websites, etc.) can get long. Feel free to go several sentences over one page if you have to list out platform and marketing notes, as long as the pitch itself is not the item making your letter too long.

How do you follow up with an agent who hasn’t responded to your submission?

This is a complicated question, and I’ll try to address its many parts.

First, check the agency website for updates and their latest formal guidelines. They might have gone on leave, or they might have switched agencies. They may also have submission guidelines that state how they only respond to submissions if interested. So keep in mind there might be a very good reason as to why you shouldn’t follow up or rather why you shouldn’t follow up right now.

However, let’s say an agent responds to submissions “within three months” and it’s been three and a half months with no reply. A few weeks have passed since the “deadline,” so now it’s time to nicely follow up. All you do is paste your original query into a new e-mail and send it to the agent with a note above the query that says, “Dear [agent], I sent my query below to you [length of time] ago and haven’t heard anything. I’m afraid my original note got lost in a spam filter, so I am pasting it below in the hopes that you are still reviewing queries and open to new clients. Thank you for considering my submission. Sincerely, [name].” That’s it. Be polite and simply resubmit. If an agent makes it sound like he does indeed respond to submissions but doesn’t have a time frame for his reply, I say follow up after three months.

But before you send that follow up, make sure you are not to blame for getting no reply. Perhaps your previous e-mail had an attachment when the agent warned, “No attachments.” Perhaps your previous e-mail did not put “Query” in the subject line even though the agent requested just that. Or perhaps your previous e-mail misspelled the agent’s e-mail address and the query truly got lost in cyberspace. In other words, double-check everything. If you send that follow up and the agent still doesn’t reply, it’s probably time to move on.

Can you re-query an agent after she rejects you?

You can, though I’d say you have about a 50/50 shot of getting your work read. Some agents seem to be more than open to reviewing a query letter if it’s undergone serious editing. Other agents, meanwhile, believe that a no is a no—period. In other words, you really don’t know, so you might as well just query away and hope for the best.

How many query rejections would necessitate a major overhaul of the query?

Submit no more than 10 queries to start. If only 0–1 respond with requests for more, then you’ve got a problem. Go back to the drawing board and overhaul the query before the next wave of 6–10 submissions. Doing this ensures that you can try to identify where you’re going wrong in your submission.

Should you mention that you’ve self-published books in the past?

In my opinion, you don’t have to. If you self-published a few e-books that went nowhere, you don’t have to list every one and their disappointing sales numbers. The release of those books should not affect your new novel that you’re submitting to agents. However, if your self-published projects experienced healthy sales (3,000-plus print books, 10,000-plus e-books), mention it. Only talk about your self-published projects if they will help your case. Otherwise, just leave them out of the conversation and focus on the new project at hand.

Should you mention your age in a query? Do agents have a bias against older writers and teenagers?

I’m not sure any good can come from mentioning your age in a query. Usually the people who ask this question are either younger than 20 or older than 70. Some literary agents may be hesitant to sign older writers because reps are looking for career clients, not simply individuals with one memoir/book to sell. If you’re older, write multiple books to convince an agent that you have several projects in you, and do not mention your age in the query to be safe.

Should you mention in the query that your work is copyrighted and/or has had book editing?

No. All work is copyrighted the moment you write it down in any medium, so saying something that is obvious only comes off as amateurish. On the same note, all work should be edited, so saying that the work is edited (even by a professional editor) also comes off as amateurish.

Is it better to send a query over snail mail or e-mail?

If you have a choice, do not send a snail mail query. They’re more of a hassle to physically produce, and they cost money to send. Ninety percent (or more) of queries are sent over e-mail for two very good reasons. E-mail is quicker, in terms of sending submissions and agents’ response time, and it’s free. Keep in mind that almost all agents have personal, detailed submission guidelines in which they say exactly what they want to receive in a submission and how they want to receive it. So you will almost always not have a choice in how to send materials. Send the agent what they asked for, exactly how they asked for it.

What happens when you’re writing a book that doesn’t easily fall into one specific genre? How do you handle that problem in a query letter?

Know that you have to bite the bullet and call it something. Even if you end up calling it a “middle grade adventure with supernatural elements,” then you’re at least calling it something. Writers really get into a pickle when they start their pitches with an intro such as, “It’s a sci-fi western humorous fantastical suspense romance, set in steampunk Britain … with erotic werewolf transvestite protagonists.” Fundamentally, it must be something, so pick its core genre and just call it that—otherwise your query might not even get read. I’m not a huge fan of writers comparing their work to other projects (saying, “It’s X meets Z”—that type of thing), but said strategy—comparing your book to others in the marketplace—is most useful for those authors who have a hard time describing the plot and tone of their tale.

If you’re writing a memoir, do you pitch it like a fiction book (complete the whole manuscript) or like a nonfiction book (a complete book proposal with a few sample chapters)?

I’d say 80 percent of agents review memoir like they would a novel. If interested, they ask for the full book and consider it mostly by how well it’s written. I have met several agents, however, who want to see a nonfiction book proposal—either with some sample chapters, or sometimes in addition to the whole book. So to answer the question, you can choose to write only the manuscript, and go from there. Or you can choose to complete a proposal, as well, so you have as many weapons as possible as you move forward. (In my opinion, a writer who has both a complete memoir manuscript and nonfiction book proposal seems like a professional who is ahead of the curve and wise to platform matters—and, naturally, people in publishing are often attracted to writers who are ahead of the curve and/or can help sell more books.)

If you’re pitching a novel, should the topics of marketing and writer platform be addressed in the query?

Concerning query letters for novels, the pitch is what’s paramount, and any mention of marketing or platform is just gravy. If you have some promotional credentials, these skills will definitely be beneficial in selling more books when your title is released. But a decent platform will not get a mediocre novel published. Feel free to list worthwhile, impressive notes about your platform and marketing skills, but don’t let them cloud your writing. Remember, the three most crucial elements to a novel selling are the writing, the writing, the writing.

Do you need to query conservative agents for a conservative book? A liberal agent for a liberal book?

I asked a few agents this question and some said they were willing to take on any political slant if the book was well written and the author had a great writer platform. A few agents, on the other hand, said they needed to be on the same page politically with the author for a political/religious book, and would only take on books they agreed with. Bottom line: Some will be open-minded; some won’t. Look for reps who have taken on books similar to yours, and feel free to query other agents, too. The worst any agent can say is no.

If you’re writing a series, does an agent want you to say that in the query?

The old mentality for this was no, you should not discuss a series in the query, and instead just pitch one book and let any discussion naturally progress to the topic of more books, if the agent so inquires. However, I’ve overheard more and more literary agents say that they do want to know if your book is the potential start of the series. So, the correct answer, it appears, depends on who you ask. In circumstances like these, I recommend crafting an answer to cover all bases: “This book could either be a standalone project or the start of a series.” When worded like this, you disclose the series potential, but don’t make it sound like you’re saying, “I want a 5-book deal or NOTHING.” You’ll sound like an easy-to-work-with writing professional and leave all options open.

Can you query an agent for a short story collection?

I’d say 95 percent of agents do not accept short story collection queries. The reason? Collections just don’t sell well. If you have a collection of short stories, you can do one of three things:

1) Repurpose some or all of the stories into a novel, which is much easier to sell.

2) Write a new book—a novel—and sell that first to establish a reader base. That way, you can have a base that will purchase your next project—the collection—ensuring the publisher makes money on your short stories.

3) Query the few agents who do take collections and hope for the best. If you choose this third route, I suggest you get some of the stories published to help the project gain some momentum. A platform and/or media contacts would help your case, as well.

CHUCK SAMBUCHINO (chucksambuchino.com, @chucksambuchino) edits the Guide to Literary Agents (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) as well as the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. His pop humor books include How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack (film rights optioned by Sony) and Red Dog / Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political (reddog-bluedog.com). Chuck’s other writing books include Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed., and Create Your Writer Platform (fall 2012). Besides that, he is a husband, guitarist, sleep-deprived new father, dog owner, and cookie addict.