When to query?

May 15, 2009

Maybe I’m going about this all backwards.

During an Editor Unleashed live chat on Wednesday, literary agent Jessica Faust not only critiqued my query, she also made me reconsider my writing and publishing plan.

I was under the impression that an agent and publisher would consider my book based on a quality proposal and sample chapters, before I write the entire manuscript. That’s how many nonfiction books are sold.

Fiction works differently; writers are usually required to finish the manuscript before they have a chance at getting an advance.

Narrative nonfiction, the genre of my book, fits somewhere in between. It is nonfiction, but it actually has more in common with fiction. It has to read like a novel. Unlike nonfiction “how to” books, readers will buy my travel memoir for the same reason they might buy fiction, because it’s a good story.

That’s why Faust says I need to write the entire book before sending out queries. I’ve got to treat this travel memoir like fiction.

I have to admit this news got me a little down. It doesn’t seriously derail my timeline; I have to write the whole book anyhow! But I was hoping to start querying agents next month to offer my proposal and sample chapters. I’d feel better about putting my entire self into this project if I knew it was going to sell (although I’ll write it regardless). And my plan to query early on was the reason why I wrote my proposal before my chapters.

That proposal won’t go to waste. I’m using it now as an outline for my book, and I’ll probably need it later when it’s finally time to query.

When I mentioned this advice to an author friend who used to work in publishing, she said there’s not really a right answer about when to query. To prove her point, she reminded me that she has sold fiction based on proposal alone.

So I ask: What do you think? Is Faust on target or should I still try to land an agent before finishing the manuscript?

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    0 Replies to “When to query?”

    • I think, regardless of the “rules” for either genre, it’s probably axiomatic, and just common sense that, given 100 queries on my agenting desk, I’m gonna look first at the ones that are finished.

      I mean, I don’t know any of the people behind the queries. So, how do I know which ones will have the heart, guts, drive, determination, and will to finish their project?

      We hear all the time about how swamped and busy agents/publisher are. Assume that’s true. Place yourself in their shoes. How would you attack and prioritize your workload?

      Best Regards, Galen

    • Karen Walker says:

      I came to the same conclusion with my memoir and sent the queries out after the manuscript was completed.


    • Ami says:

      I think her feedback was really good, but I also think it depends on the agent whether or not they’ll consider a memoir or narrative non-fiction based on a proposal or if they require the completed work. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to complete and edit the manuscript before querying and sending out proposals, but I’m not convinced you HAVE to in order to find representation. Thanks for sharing this info, though. Since I’m also working on narrative non-fiction, I’m going to do a bit more research before I spend time on a query and proposal. It sounds like I might be better off using my limited free time to work on the book first.

    • K. A. Laity says:

      By all means, get cracking on the book, but keep the query on your desk, so to speak, too. That way when you find yourself in a situation where you do have a chance to pitch the project (and you should be putting yourself in those situations) you’ll have a practised pitch ready. You can be refining it as you go along, too.

    • Helen Ginger says:

      That was great advice – and I appreciate you sharing it.

      How are you doing on the manuscript? Getting close? Or had you only written what you needed to query? I would keep that query on the bulletin board to see if when you do finish, it still adheres to where you thought it was going when you started. Sometimes even memoir can veer.

      Straight From Hel

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Thanks, Helen. You’re right — It’s changing as I write it.

        I’ve got the entire book outlined, and many pieces of chapters drafted, but only about three chapters fully drafted. I’ve got a lot more work to do on the manuscript!

    • Alexis, I could NOT find an agent for the life of me. In fact, I submitted my manuscript myself, then was accepted by the publisher. They sent me a contract and I STILL couldn’t get an agent to represent me! So I negotiated the contract myself. Then, finally, weeks later, I got an agent. Whew! So…you can do it all by yourself. Although I’m much happier now that I’ve got someone who knows what she’s doing on my side for my next project.

    • Julie Lomoe says:

      Hi Alexis,
      I believe Jessica Faust was right – agents will want to see the whole book. Common wisdom was, and maybe still is, that a presentation packet with outline and sample chapters is the way to go for nonfiction, whereas when it comes to novels, agents want to see the entire manuscript. But with the market so fiercely competitive these days, why would any agent take a chance on a partial unless you’re extremely well known already?

      One rationale for requesting complete novel manuscripts has been that agents and editors want to see if you can maintain momentum and sustain interest through a complete story arc, something that’s not guaranteed by a couple of chapters. The way you describe your book, you face those challenges too.
      Is this some kind of bildungsroman in which the travel changes you in some way? Sounds like it could be.

      You were really fortunate to get such a detailed critique from Jessica Faust – those are extremely hard to come by! I say that even though she was one of the agents who rejected me a couple of years ago.

    • Karen Brees says:

      Finish the book first. You can always revise and edit afterwards, but it’s tough to sell an incomplete idea.

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