What I learned from the query process

June 15, 2010 · 11 comments

It’s kind of a shame each of us only has to land a literary agent once. Okay, not that much of a shame. Who wants to go through that again? But now that I’m done querying, I feel far more prepared to do it again. And since hopefully there will be no next time, I’ll share what I learned with you instead!

(Quick background for blog newbies: Rather than submitting a manuscript directly to publishers, most writers work with a literary agent, who guides the writer through publishing and negotiates the best possible contract. More details here.)

What to expect when you start querying:

It takes a while. Sure, some agents respond quickly, and maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones who gets an offer right off the bat. But lots of agents take a week or more to get back to potential clients. And that’s just for the initial query. Once you hand over your sample chapters, you’ll got more waiting ahead. So don’t do what I did and press “send” on your first query and then feel anxious for the next week. Bad strategy on my part. Instead, you should…

Have something else to focus on. Maybe it’s your next writing project. Maybe it’s a vacation! Maybe it’s getting done all the things you put off while you were finishing your manuscript. But whatever you do, have something else planned. Because otherwise, that waiting period will be brutal. I’m a pretty laid back person, but I had some serious anxiety during the first week after I sent out my query. Part of the problem was that I’d worked on the manuscript and proposal and query letter for so long, that when I sent it out… I felt empty. Like my life had no purpose without a manuscript to finish. (Of course, I had and still have more revisions ahead of me.)

Things got better — and by things, I mean my blood pressure — when I went to Houston for a few days to visit friends, and then started looking for a job. Writing cover letters made me feel productive. Waiting around for agents to let me know whether they liked what I’d spent a year of my life writing… not so much.

Querying in batches is a good strategy. Querying every agent in the book (I’m using that term figuratively; I didn’t actually use a book) is not. I’ll let literary agent Nathan Bransford explain why. I followed his advice, and I’d do it the same way if I had to query again.

Don’t expect much feedback. Agents are busy. Even those who take the time to read your entire manuscript might not take the time to write a two-sentence note telling you what needs work. Of course, some agents will take the time to do that, and I found that some of that feedback to be super helpful.

Pay attention to the feedback you do get — and use it. While it was few and far between, several of the comments I got from agents were really helpful, maybe because they hit on something important, maybe because of the way they phrased it, maybe because they just knew what they were talking about. I’ve got a post planned about something specific an agent told me that’s helping me with my latest revision. If you do get feedback, consider yourself one of the lucky ones, because most of us fall into the next category.

Don’t expect many responses at all. I’m a published journalist. With a complete manuscript. I put together what I hope was a decent query letter (you can read it here) for a decent idea. I addressed my letters to specific agents who I’d researched, agents who had represented or sold books like the one I’m writing. In other words, I’m not some crazy wannabe writer who queried a zillion agents with a typo-ridden letter that started with “Dear Agent.” I took this seriously. But even with a well-written letter targeted at agents who seemed interested in my genre, I got what I consider a lot of silence. I also got a lot of bites, agents who wanted to read pieces or all of my manuscript. But I was surprised at how many agents didn’t bother to respond at all. Not even a standard rejection letter. Nada. I’m not going to complain about this (though I always prefer a rejection letter to silence), because I know agents are inundated with query letters. I’m just saying that if you’re about to query, expect some silence. It’s not only the writers who query hundreds of agents at once who get straight-up deleted. It’s all of us.

Think outside the box. I started out this process planning to query (at least at first) only agents who had experience selling travel memoir. But then — through luck and (admittedly inadvertent) networking — I got in touch with Rachelle Gardner. Her background is in a different area: Christian publishing. But she’s looking to expand to mainstream, and I liked her take on my book, as well as her willingness to help me improve it before we submit to publishers. Have a querying plan, but be willing to deviate if the right opportunity comes along.

Things can turn in a moment. Yes, this process can be excruciating (I used to think that was an exaggeration, but now I agree), but it can also turn in your favor within the blink of an eye. It only takes one agent to say yes. And that often will encourage other agents to say yes, too. One day you’ll be in that horrid waiting period… and the next you’ll be jumping in the air over an offer.

Patience — and persistence — pays off. Keep your head high. Keep trying. A lot of stars have to align here. You’ve not just looking for an agent who meets your checklist of requirements, you’re looking for the right agent. (I’m telling myself the same thing as I look for a job.)

What questions do you have about the query process? For those of you who have already gone through it, got anything to add?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica June 15, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Great advice!

Honestly, it sounds a lot like the job hunt, as well! Do your research, don’t apply to EVERYWHERE, have a well-written cover letter, have an idea of what area you want to work in, but don’t be afraid to deviate to something completely different if the opportunity comes along.

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alisha June 16, 2010 at 1:00 am

Alexis, I’m loving this series. Honestly, it’s so helpful and encouraging to hear how hard the process was, but that you got there eventually. It’s like light at the end of the tunnel. :) In terms of other things I’m interested to hear, have you found any common strands of feedback to your query that could be helpful to other first timers

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Alexis Grant June 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

Hey — Glad it’s helpful! I didn’t get much feedback in response to my query, just basically silence, reject or I’d love to read this. What I did get bits and pieces of response to was my manuscript. I’m going to post more details on that either this week or next week.

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krpooler June 16, 2010 at 1:24 am

Great,practical advice, Alexis. I appreciate learning from your experiences. It reminds me of the saying”Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”..patience and preparation seem to be the key. Thanks for sharing

Kathy Pooler
http://krpooler.wordpress.com

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Chuck Sambuchino June 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Simple tips, but very, very good ones, Alexis. Your blog is always cool.

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Jen Chandler June 17, 2010 at 10:02 am

Hi Alexis!

I haven’t stopped by in a while and I apologize. There is always so much great information to be found here.

I love all this advice on querys. They can be a bit daunting. Thanks for sharing!

I hope all is well,
Jen

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NateIsAGirl'sName June 17, 2010 at 7:07 pm

It’s refreshing to read about the process from someone who doesn’t have our hopes and dreams in their hands :-) I’m about to start my query trek soon. I look forward to reading more!

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Heather June 18, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Solid advice Alexis. Hope the job search goes as well as the agent search. : )

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Geoff Micks June 21, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Hello Alexis,

Great article! Someone linked your post through to reddit, so that’s how I came across this post. I’ll be sure to work my way through your blog archives now. Here’s hoping your agent finds you a publisher soon.

I’m actually in the interesting position of having to start querying again: My former agent has decided he’s not making any headway expanding his practice into fiction, so we’ve parted ways. I blogged about it last week, as well as a how to go about writing a fiction query letter, in a long and rambling post you can find here:

http://faceintheblue.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/queryletter/

I definitely am not looking forward to going through the querying process all over again, but your advice is sound, and I’ll be sure to keep it in mind. Thanks, and good luck again, eh?

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