It’s a battle to win. The odds are ridiculously low. Your friends/people who like you send you little packets of food and healing to help you survive. And, of course, you’re starving. IT’S THE HUNGER GAMES.
No, no, just kidding, it’s not really. Querying is a bit different — you won’t die. (That was also a joke.) But yes, it’s a game, and you definitely need to learn to play it to achieve the best results.
Going into it, I didn’t think of it as a “game.” That word often has negative connotations — like you’re “playing” people, or something — but I thought of it as a strategy. To win any battle, to guarantee success in anything in life, really, you need a solid strategy. And here’s mine.
First off, you need some basic tools/weapons.
- Have an irresistible manuscript. Yes, your manuscript absolutely needs to be polished down to the last dotted i and crossed t. I’ll be putting up some more posts about how I wrote my book so that I was confident the agents (and editors) would love it. It’s not that I knew, going into the games, that I would be picked — every affirmation along the journey has been an incredible, heartfelt surprise so far — but it’s not surprising in the sense that I’m thinking, Wow! I can’t believe they picked me! How did I end up here? I must be so lucky — I didn’t even think my book was good! No, I made sure my book was as bombastic as I could make it and that it would get me the best chances to be picked.
- Have an irresistible query. You can read my post on How To Write A Query Letter – à la Wonder Woman. My query had a 100% request rate (and a high offer rate that I won’t disclose for now).
Now, onto the Plan of Attack.
STAGE 1: RESEARCH
The first step to querying is creating a list of agents you want to work with. Note that I said work with. You should not just query any agent for the purpose of getting an agent. No agent is better than a schmagent, is what I’ve heard over and over again.
Luckily, you can start researching agents while you’re still revising your manuscript (or even while you’re drafting … or as early as you want). It’s fun, and it kept me motivated. If I felt like procrastinating on my writing for one night, I’d do agent research, just so I am at least working towards my goal in some aspect each night.
I started off by creating an Excel chart. I’m a finance professional, and we live and die by our spreadsheets. So, naturally, the best way for me to get organized was to organize all of my information into a single chart. Below is a sample of mine — and let me go through why I chose each of those columns.
- Rank: I chose to divide my agents into “categories” based on how much I wanted to work with them. This seems a little mean, but it’s practical — it’s just like applying to college: you had your dream schools, then good schools, and then your safety schools. And everyone will have different agents they wish to work with. My dream agent can be your safety agent, and so on. Obviously as long as this is kept super confidential and you swear to take this to your grave, it’s fine. It isn’t meant to offend anyone; it’s not a judgment on any agent’s skills — it’s just a list of your preferences. My query strategy does hinge on the designated Ranks, so I suggest reading ahead to see if this is how you want to approach it.
- Date Queried: This was so I could keep tabs on who responded quickly, and whether I needed to CNR (Closed – No Response) a query.
- Agent Name: Self-explanatory.
- Company: Self-explanatory.
- Query Requirements: I included this so I could have this at my fingertips for every single agent. To backtrack, each agent has his/her own preferences in terms of your querying style and format (i.e. email query only, number of sample pages, paste sample pages in email or attach, include mini-autobiography, put personalization first, etc.). It is so important that you get the query requirements right for every single agent — and with the number of queries you’ll be sending, it’s easy to get your wires crossed. I copied and pasted the query requirements of every single agent into my Excel. This way, I could avoid the confusion of opening a million tabs and falling into the potential trap of looking at Agent X’s requirements for when you write the query for Agent Y.
- Comments/Personal Notes: Again, this was just so I could have everything at my fingertips. I copied and pasted everything I could find about the agent (from his/her interviews, blog posts, websites, Twitter, MSWL, etc. [list of Research Resources below]) into my spreadsheet, so that I could make sure to include them in my query, and to frame my query in a tone that seemed to click with the agent’s personality.
- Authors Rep’d: I wanted to see if there were any authors I loved/admired/recognized that were represented by each agent, because that’s a great sign as well as an immediate connection between the two of you! However, even if I didn’t find an author I knew right away, I evaluated other factors (you can see my blog post about this: How I Chose My McAgent (and What Happens After the Happily Ever After!)) that held much more sway. And in some cases, even if an agent represented an author I loved, I decided not to query them because some factors I thought were important seemed lacking in that agent.
A helpful tip on Excel: You can easily sort all this data by different attributes. For example, if I wanted to see my chart sorted by “Top > Medium > Average,” I would highlight the top row, click “Sort,” and choose “Sort by: ‘Rank’.” Or sometimes, I needed to see whether I had doubled up on agents from one particular agency, so I sorted by the agency name (some agencies only allow you to query one agent; some allow multiple).
- QueryTracker: This is a resource I think I could have leveraged more than I did, but I didn’t, and it worked out fine for me. QueryTracker is the best way to research all the agents out there and tool to organize your querying process. It gives you the agent’s contact information, their requirements, their clients, and best of all, there’s a “Comments” section by people who are also querying each agent to tell you when they queried, what date they heard back, and what the response was, and other general comments about the agent’s style. I know there are a lot of bonus features on this in a premium version, but I’m not familiar with those as I didn’t pay to be a premium member. I also know a lot of people who organized their entire querying process around this, so highly recommend exploring!
- QueryTracker is where I started my search. I filtered down the agents for “Young Adult” and “Fantasy,” and started there. I researched a large number of the agents on that list using the below resources, and if I liked what I was seeing, then I added them to my list. I ended up querying only a handful (around 30 total) thanks to #DVpit.
- Manuscript WishList: Agents also have “wishlists” for what kinds of books or manuscripts they wish to receive, and this is the best source to see what they’re looking for. Usually, I would find an agent name, and come here to see what was on their wishlist. Then, in the personalization section of my query, I could say: “I am querying you because I saw on your Manuscript WishList that you were looking for a fast-paced adventure book with unique voices and a strong female heroine!” or something of the sort.
- Publisher’s Marketplace: Amazing resource giving you a brief introduction of the agent and his/her agency, his/her leading clients, and the most recent deals. There is specific lingo for the way they classify their deals (in terms of $$ amount) that you can read to avoid confusion and to give you an idea of how much of a rockstar your agent is!
- Literary Rambles: Features a series of interviews named “Agent Spotlight” with the agents, including brief introductions, web presence, agent’s MSWL, query methods, and some more indicative factors of their styles.
- Writer’s Digest – Guide to Literary Agents: Writer’s Digest interviews a lot of agents, and through their interviews, you can find personal connections or connections to your book that will make your query meaningful.
- Twitter: You can get an idea of an agent’s style, the things he/she cares about, and a lot of other meaningful information by checking out his/her Twitter feed.
- Google: You can literally just Google “Agent’s Name” + “Agent” and you’ll get a bunch of great hits (mostly the above resources, plus a selection of the interviews they’ve done).
- Famous Authors I Respect: I started putting together my list this way as well; I figured that if there were famous authors in my genre that I really respected, wouldn’t that mean I would want to work with their agents, too? So, quite a few agents went on my list that way — and as I delved deeper into my research with the above resources, it became clear to me whether they were dream agents or not, and whether I wanted to query them or not.
STAGE 2: STRATEGIC QUERYING
Now that you have all your research, here’s how I recommend querying.
Query in batches. This allows you to obtain feedback on what’s working and what’s not, and tweak your query (and perhaps even your manuscript) based on that without having sent it to everyone on your list.
- Divide your agents into batches of 5-10, with the following proportions in each batch (depending on how many you have for each ranking):
- 2 Dream-ranked
- 4 Top-ranked
- 4 Good-ranked
- The purpose of this is so that you don’t send it to all of your dream agents at once and receive rejections (knock on wood that you don’t anyway!) with the same feedback on what didn’t work. You could even start with “Tier 2” dream agents first, just so your absolute, deepest heart’s-desire dream agent is not “sacrificed” in your “trial” run. I know, this seems mean/snobby of me, a then-unagented writer, to be “ranking” all my agents — but all’s fair in love and war, and this is a war that will lead to a long, loving (professionally/career-wise) relationship should you fight it the right way. Plus, this is so personal — just because I ranked Agent X as “average” doesn’t mean I don’t respect him/her — I just think that, personally, I’d work better with Agent Y.
Take feedback from each batch and tweak your query/manuscript. Send queries one batch at a time. Start with a “trial” batch, and as responses start to come in, tweak or send more based on the feedback you’re getting. If you’re getting a lot of good bites, go ahead and be more generous with your next batches (i.e. send more). If you’re getting a lot of rejections and feedback, step back and reconsider their comments so that you improve on what’s not working and hopefully it works for your next batch.
Once you begin receiving full (or partial) manuscript requests, you can begin to update the agents.
- For agents you have queried already, write a note along the lines of: “Hi Agent, I’m not sure if this is the type of update you’d like, but I have received 5 full requests thus far on my manuscript. Do let me know should you need anything else in the process. Thank you!” I didn’t do this, but I’ve heard of writers who did, and it worked well in speeding up the process. If there’s other competition, agents are quicker to respond — and wouldn’t you want to see what the fuss is all about?
- It might be better to do this once you’ve garnered a good number of requests (i.e. perhaps, say, 3-5 and above?). If you just have one, that is still an amazing feat, but I’m not sure it would hold much sway with the agents. That said, I didn’t do this, so I’m not the expert — I’m just going off of common sense. It’s like if you’re buying a house, and the real estate agent tells you: “We have one interested buyer!” versus “We have five interested buyers!” wouldn’t the second sound more convincing?
- For agents who request your materials, tell them of the interest in your query. This is just so that they get to your manuscript faster. A lot of agents can still take weeks or even months to read your manuscript after they request it. If they know you have a lot of interest, they’ll get to it a lot faster.
- I did this for my absolute dream agent (whom I also queried in the middle of my process so I wouldn’t “waste” my chance with him should my query suck before I tested the waters [and happy ending: I signed with him and am currently over the moon]). By then, I had garnered about 10 full requests within two weeks, so it sounds even more powerful when you say that. (Caveat: My process was significantly thrown off-track/sped up in the best way possible due to #DVpit, during which over a hundred agents requested my pitch! And this, in turn, led them to read my query and manuscript faster.) Within twelve hours, Mr. Dream Agent had responded that he was loving my book and would be in touch by end of week. So … it worked!
- For any new materials requests, I sent it along to them along with a note phrased like: “Dear Mr. Agenty Agent, I am so glad to hear from you! Kindly see attached [insert materials]. I’m not sure if this is an update you need, but I currently have 10 full requests and 2 partials outstanding. Do let me know if there is any other information you need in this process!” They get it, they get the game you’re playing, but that doesn’t stop you from phrasing it in a genuinely nice and humble way.
And the rest is just a waiting game. A lot of agents take weeks, or months, to reply, so buckle down, and start drafting your next manuscript to keep you distracted while you’re at it!
STAGE 3: THE OFFER GAME
YOU’VE MADE IT! You open up your email one morning/noon/evening, and … there it is. The proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow. The light at the end of the tunnel. The Cornucopia with all the food and safety (but more importantly, food). Your … first … OFFER!
Not only is this amazing news — it means an agent loved your query, moved on to your manuscript, loved it, and WANTS TO WORK WITH YOU! You should be over the MOON! Chances of receiving an offer from each query, I read, were <1%!
Now, you’re going to take your offer in your hand, lift it before you, and give it a simple little flick. BOOM! You will get all. The. Responses.
Email your dream/top/any agents who have not yet responded to your query. You can choose to phrase it something like this:
- Subject Line: “OFFER OF REPRESENTATION — [Original Subject Line, which should include BOOK TITLE and possibly genre]”
- Content: “Dear Agenty Agent, I hope this finds you well! You may not have had a chance to look at my query yet, but I have received an offer of representation and would like to reach out to you. If the below seems like something you would be interested in, I would be happy to share the full with you until [choose a deadline two weeks from now]. Thank you for your time and consideration!”
Email the agents who have requested materials from you. You can choose to phrase it something like this:
- Subject Line: “OFFER OF REPRESENTATION — [Original Subject Line, which should include BOOK TITLE and possibly genre]”
- Content: “Dear Agenty Agent, I hope this finds you well! Thank you so much for your interest in [BOOK TITLE]. I am reaching out to let you know that I have received an offer of representation. If you find the manuscript to your liking and are interested, would you please let me know by [insert the same deadline as above]. Thank you for your time and consideration!”
- It is important to tell all the agents the same deadline.
For agents who have not responded that you might not wish to query anymore, you could choose to withdraw your query. This is up to the preference of every individual, but for me, my first offer was from a dream agent, so I didn’t feel like wasting others’ time if I was already so inclined to go with him. Many of my friends advised me to nudge all the agents I queried, just to cast a wider net and “see what else is out there.” I could have done that, but I just chose not to. It’s entirely up to you.
And, after that, sit back and be prepared to watch the inflow of love from all the agents. The odds have changed; it’s now a race for them to see who can snap you up! If played right, querying is a game for both sides — and May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor.