Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Publishing: How to Query a Literary Agent

For most authors, traditional publishing begins with a query, a brief letter in which you pitch yourself and your project, usually to a literary agent, though in some cases (small presses; some specialty houses), the query may go directly to an editor at a publishing house. The query represents a turning point in the way you think about your project. It’s where your work of art becomes a commodity and where your passion morphs back toward business. Query-writing is such a valuable process that even if you self-publish, it’s worth the time to develop a query to yourself as the first step in the promotional process.

When I first began writing queries, I followed the usual formula—why I’m writing, what my project is, who I am—and I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into my approach. But as the market tightened, I began to spend more time crafting my queries, treating them like mini-manuscripts, prewriting and drafting and letting them sit and doing multiple revisions. When I query, I now pay careful attention to my audience and to figuring out what my project is really about, and I make sure my unique voice—the voice reflected in my manuscript—shines in the query letter.

These days, emerging writers seem to focus most of their attention on the one or two sentence “elevator pitch” and then build their query around it. I find this backwards. Any project, even a marginal one, can be reduced to a sentence or two that’s rattled off on the fly. If you take the time to produce a finely-crafted query letter, you’ll have all the content and confidence you need to pitch your project to any agent you happen to meet in an elevator.

Though it may sound odd, I often draft part of my query in the early stages of my projects, as soon as I feel the book beginning to take shape. Even though it will most certainly change, I find it helpful to consider how a project will appear to potential publishers and readers, in the form of back cover copy, which is how I think of the pitch line or lines of the query.

Despite the grumbling you hear (possibly even from me), placing your manuscript is not merely a crap shoot or a numbers game. It’s about knowing your book through and through and understanding enough about the market to know where it fits, and it’s about the project earning your conviction that it absolutely must reach its readers.

There’s all sorts of query advice floating around, but the best I’ve found is in a slim little volume called The Last Query by Cindy Dyson, a guide-book that also happens to be a fine example of the type of project that lends itself to self-publishing even though the writer has already published traditionally (a fine novel, And She Was): a viable topic, a knowledgeable author, and a niche market.

Dyson approaches queries from an agent’s perspective. What will make your query stand out among hundreds and thousands that all follow the same formula? We all like to think our projects are entirely unique, when in truth they’re not nearly as special as we imagine. That’s not to say they’re not worthy of publication, only that we must work hard to figure out how to help our target audience—first the agent, then the publisher and then readers—understand that they MUST have this book. Consider the fears and desires of agents, Dyson suggests. Ask yourself significant questions about your project, things you might not have considered before, like the metaphorical highlights and the soul of the story. Examine yourself as a writer, including what Dyson calls the “sexy hooks” of your life.

I’ve distilled Dyson’s query writing questions into a worksheet that I use for nearly every book I write. The worksheet pulls together my thinking about the book; in completing it, I inevitably discover new angles that have been lurking around beneath the surface of my project.

Once you’ve done the deep thinking about your project, you’re ready to draft a query letter. Ideally, a query letter should be personalized; you should research specific agents and let each know why you’ve chosen him or her—either because another author or agent referred you (that’s best), or because you admire another author represented by that agent, or because your research has shown you that this agent is especially interested in books like yours. 

Begin with a comprehensive search using an annual guide such as The Writer’s Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents and/or online databases such as Agent Query or Query Tracker. Professional organizations (Poets & Writers, Society of Children’s BookWriters and Illustrators) also maintain databases of agents and editors that can be accessed by their members. Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog is a great way to keep up on new agents who are acquiring clients.

Besides your explanation of why you chose to query a particular agent, your letter should also include your pitch, or hook—a captivating sentence or two that would also work as back cover copy, something so riveting that a potential reader feels she simply HAS to read more. The query should also show that you understand how your book fits in the marketplace, and it should include something about you as an author—your experience, why you’re the person to write this particular book, your ways of connecting with readers—and it should end with an extension of thanks to the agent or editor for considering your project. As much as possible, your query should also convey the voice of your book. 

As you query each agent, be sure to check online for the agent’s policies and guidelines. At any given time, a particular agent may post a notice saying she’s not accepting unsolicited submissions. If that’s the case, don’t query that agent—your letter will go directly to the trash unless the agent has specifically requested your manuscript, which generally happens after meeting you at a conference or other event. However, if the agent’s website says she’s not accepting unsolicited manuscripts but gives instructions for sending queries, go ahead and contact her. If your query piques her interest, she’ll solicit your manuscript.

Also pay attention to whether the agent accepts queries by email or by regular mail. Most have gone digital, though there are a few holdouts for the slow and cumbersome system of querying by snail mail with an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) for reply. Many agents ask for the first page to ten pages to be copy/pasted into the email that contains your query. (Because of the threat posed by computer viruses, few will open attachments unless it’s a manuscript they’ve specifically requested.)

Some agents will also ask for a synopsis, a one or two page summary of your book that, like the query, shows your voice and piques interest. No cliffhangers, though—a synopsis should include the book’s ending. Few authors enjoy writing the synopsis, but like the query, it needs to shine if you want your submission to stand out from the rest. For a sample synopsis, see the appendix.
With digital queries, most agents are now also amenable to multiple submissions, though upon requesting a manuscript, some still ask for an exclusive reading period (usually a few weeks). 

My advice: once you’ve cultivated a list of agents specific to your project, query eight to ten at a time. If you’re still getting form rejections after sending out two or three of these batches, take another look at both your query and your manuscript; revisions may be in order. In some ways, submissions are a numbers game—it may take forty or fifty queries before one lands in the inbox of someone who’s intrigued by your book premise and impressed by your chops as an author.
Once you send out the first batch of queries, the waiting begins. Next week, I’ll talk about what sorts of responses you can expect, how to keep track of them, and more query etiquette.