Now what? Query strategies, etiquette and next steps

When I queried a novel for the first time, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Yes, there is ample information out there, but it’s so overwhelming that instead of approaching it strategically with a strong plan, most authors query from a very emotional place. Full of panic, apprehension and vulnerability.

But let me ask you this. Would you aimlessly send out job applications to anything that opened up, regardless of practicality, qualifications or desire? I would hope not.

So you shouldn’t query blindly either. And that’s why it’s so important to have a plan. Trust me, you will sleep much better and your request rates will skyrocket.

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To dig in, I am going to share a few things that worked really well, mistakes I made and some tricks and tips I learned throughout my querying journey.

Strategy

Like I said above, strategy is key. You need to know your novel inside and out, where it fits into the market, and why you are querying each and every agent on your list.

Classifying your novel

Is your genre women’s fiction or romance? Sci fi or urban fantasy? To know this, I would recommend reading extensively. You’ll start to pick up on trends that may or may not fit within your novel. But by determining your proper genre, the rest of your query strategy will fall into place. It will also help you figure out if your novel is the proper word count.

Picking your comps

Some agents – and most publishers – will ask for other books or authors that are similar to yours in one way or the other. For instance, I pitched 700 Main as “Where the Heart Is meets Sarah Addison Allen.” Again, you can discover these books and authors by reading, reading and more reading within your genre. And don’t be afraid to ask your beta readers or critique partners for ideas, too! Chances are they’ve read books you haven’t.

Developing and honing your to-be-queried agent list

Remember when I said that once you picked your genre, everything else would fall into place? There are literally hundreds of agents out there, but they are all pretty specific on what they are looking for. So take your genre & your comps and hit the bricks to develop an agent list that’s unique to your book:

  • Go to the bookstore and track down a handful of books that seem similar in genre to yours. Check the acknowledgments for their agent’s name. Yes, I did this. Yes, I felt like a stalker.

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  • In an effort to help, several agents got together and developed Manuscript Wish List. It lists every agent by the genres they represent and what they wish would show up in their slush pile. There are also Twitter events every few months using the hashtag #MSWL where agents update their wishlist in real time.

Once you have a general idea, research is your best friend. Sites like Publisher’s Marketplace, AgentQuery and the specific agency’s page will give you a better idea about the agent’s personality, wishlist, publishing record and existing clients. They can also tell you whether or not the agent is open to submissions or not.

Creating your submission materials

Luckily, we’ve already talked in detail about this stage, but if you need a refresher, check these out:

Sending in batches

I didn’t do this with State of Grace, and I regret it. I queried over 30 agents in my first round, and while I got a decent response rate, I quickly learned that my novel needed a big revision. It would have been better to know that sooner, without wasting my time or the agent’s.

So instead, test the waters with reasonable sample size. By no means am I recommending that you submit to one agent at a time. In fact, I am recommending the opposite!

Everyone has a magic number, but I’d say anywhere from 6-10 is a good start. If you’re getting bites, great! Send out some more if you want. If not, a query overhaul is needed. And when you are ready, QueryTracker is a great way to keep track of your queries, plans and responses.

Create a competitive environment

Instead of trying to put this into my own words, check out this video from The Book Doctors:

 

Etiquette

Querying agents has about as many rules as an 18th century courtship. The problem: there are lots of different opinions out there. I did my best to track down the most common responses and compile for when certain situations prevent themselves.

The situation: An agent requests a partial/full manuscript on an exclusive basis

First things first, celebrate! But I would always be wary of an exclusive request. This means you are tied to this agent until they decide whether or not they want to sign you as a client. No sending to other agents. But here’s what I gathered… I have never seen an example online where an author says no to an exclusive, and the agent storms off in a huff. Typically, the agent still wants to read the pages.

A good way to respond would be to say: “I apologize, but I have already sent queries and/or materials out to other agents, so I am unable to grant an exclusive at this time.”

But what if it’s your dream agent asking? Then go for it if you feel right about it! But be sure to establish a time limit. Indefinite exclusives are a big no-no.

The situation: A second agent requests a partial/full manuscript

Again, celebrate! And in the vein of creating a competitive environment, I would let them know that another agent is also reviewing. Because what does it hurt? Nothing.

Now it is definitely not necessary to go back to the first agent and let her know you received a second request. But if requests are flying into your inbox like fire, then I would let them know. Because again… Why not?

The situation: You get an offer!

Now it time for the ultimate celebration! But if you have more other agents still reading your manuscript, the right thing to do is to give them a chance to finish reading and reply. Ask the offering agent if you can get back to them in 7-10 days (trust me, all agents are expecting this) and let the other agents know that you need an answer from them by X date. Some will step aside, some will finish reading and then reject, and some will make a competing offer. And isn’t that the dream?

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The situation: You get a rejection…

Rejections suck. And they never get easier. But please don’t go off on an agent, telling them how wrong they are, how they’re making a mistake, how they’re a terrible person. It’s not nice, and agents talk. You don’t want that reputation right off the bat.

If the rejection is a form letter, I’d say a reply isn’t necessary at all. But if the response is personalized – or if it’s a rejection from a partial/full manuscript – all it takes is a simple thank you.

The moral of the story for each situation is to go with your gut. Unless your gut is rude, then go with the above recommendations.

Next Steps

If you are getting partial or full requests after querying, that means your query and writing sample are working! No need to fix something that isn’t broken. Just keep plugging away.

But what if you’re not? What if all you’re getting is rejections? Or even worse, crickets?

Step 1: Don’t give up!

Step 2: Overhaul your query letter. Seek help, amplify the tension, do your research.

Step 3: Send out another batch of queries.

Hopefully, this time you will get a few requests! If not, it may be time to take another look at your sample pages or the story itself.

The ultimate message is if things are not moving forward as you’d like them to, search for areas of improvement and fix as needed.

No query is perfect. But by identifying strengths and weaknesses, they can be addressed, revised and you’ll be giving yourself the best chance of success!

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