Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Query a Literary Agent: What to Expect

You've done the hard work of writing and sending out queries in hopes of attracting the interest of a literary agent. Now what?

If an agent is interested in a novel or memoir, she’ll request a partial or full manuscript. If you’ve queried a nonfiction project, an interested agent will request a book proposal. (There are many great resources on writing book proposals, including Write the Perfect Book Proposal by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman, and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, by Elizabeth Lyon.) In either case - fiction or non - you should be ready with the full manuscript or proposal when it’s requested. Unless you have a solid (read “bestselling”) track record or a close working relationship with a particular agent or editor, you shouldn’t expect to sell a book on spec (speculation) unless you’ve got a killer proposal.

As you commit to the submissions process, brace yourself for rejections at both the query and manuscript/proposal levels (more on how to handle rejections in “Live the Life”). Query rejections are generally form letters, expressing in some sort of generic language the sentiment captured in Jessica Page Morrell’s book title Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us. In many cases, these will be sent on behalf of an agent by an assistant or intern who’s charged with weeding through the slush pile (which is where queries land). Of the queries that make it to the agent herself,  most will meet the same fate—a form rejection—though if the query mentions a personal connection with the agent (met at a conference, referred by one of the agent’s clients) or if the project shows exceptional promise, the rejection may be personalized.

You may still get form rejections after sending partial or complete manuscripts (or book proposals) at the request of an agent, but at this point, more of the rejections will be personalized, including valuable information about what the manuscript’s lacking and/or how it might be improved. Sometimes these personalized rejections will include an offer to resubmit the manuscript after revision, or to submit another project in the future. If no such offer is extended, that doesn’t mean you should cross the agent off your list. Anyone who took the time to read and respond to your work would likely be open to hearing from you again, provided you’ve addressed the areas of concern.

Every personal response from an agent merits a brief note of thanks from you, along with a statement about your future intent (“I hope to have a revision finished within the year”; “Perhaps we’ll connect on another project”).

More etiquette involving submissions:

·        It’s great to be confident, but don’t grandstand. I once edited a query for a client who had included a statement to the effect that he was the next Hemingway. Not smart. Neither should you rely on gimmicks, gifts, or cutsy/clever approaches. Your query will stand out, all right, but not in a good way.
·        As a general rule, don’t query multiple agents within the same agency at the same time.
·        To meet agents in person, attend writers’ conferences that include pitch or critique sessions with agents. Sometimes agents will even extend offers to all conference participants to send queries. When interacting with agents in person, don’t over-schmooze and don’t over-sell yourself and your project. No one likes a hard sell, and when you’re trying too hard, you’re bound to miss valuable feedback from agents.
·        It’s fine to follow up on a query, but first check the agent’s website, where under their submissions (or “contact) information, you’ll often find the policy regarding responses. Usually, there’s a statement about no news being bad news: if you don’t hear back from the agent within a certain time frame, that means there’s no interest. In other cases, an agent will suggest following up on a query after a certain amount of time. If there’s no guidance at all on the website, it’s fine to follow up once, after three to four months. If there’s no response to your follow-up, consider your query rejected. Don’t nag.
·        Don’t fume about agents on social media; your venting does no good and will harm your chances of getting picked up by any agent. If you have a legitimate, documented concern about an agent’s credibility, make it known through a respected clearinghouse such as Predators and Editors.
·        Most literary agents are hard-working and above-board, but keep in mind that in theory, anyone can call herself a literary agent. The industry is self-regulated by the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), so look for agents who are members or have a proven track record representing successful authors. Be suspicious of agents who charge reading fees or who suggest in their form rejections that you hire their friends or associates to edit your manuscript.
·        Don’t give up after only a few queries. Statistically, the odds are against any book getting representation. But a great book will find readers, no matter how it’s published, as long as the author is committed to making that happen. If you’re going the traditional route, that often means committing to a long and extended search for the right representation—an agent who’s as passionate about your project as you are, and who’ll not only help you place your book but will also advance your career.
·         An offer for representation may or may not take the form of a contract between you and the agent; at the very least, though, it should include a discussion of what each of you can expect from the other in terms of duties and compensation. There should be no surprises. A good agent will keep you informed about where your work is being submitted and how it’s being received, including copies of any rejection letters the agent receives on your work. 

In the best of all worlds, your book will get snatched up by one of the first agents you query. But usually it’s a longer process, one that involves lots of queries and therefore lots of recordkeeping. To keep track of your queries, you can use a service like QueryTracker, but I prefer my own Excel spreadsheet, set up in a way that makes sense to me. I include columns for status (active, revise, rejected, no response), date, project, submitted to, email address, response (date and language copy/pasted from email), and notes (why I’m submitting to this agent; agent policies and guidelines for submission).