The past few weeks have been incredibly exciting as one of my clients received and accepted an offer of representation from a literary agent. Congrats to Molly Rookwood, author of The Marriage Plotz, a queer, Jewish, fake-dating romance novel. I absolutely loved working with Molly as she crafted her query package and went on her querying journey, and I am stoked to one day see her book on the shelf at my local bookstore.
Unless you’re already a part the publishing industry (or a really keen researcher), you might not know much about what querying is, why it’s important, or what it actually involves.
What is querying?
Querying is the process of searching for a literary agent to represent you and your manuscript to publishers.
You’ve probably heard the term “agent” in reference to celebrities like actors or athletes. These folks represent their clients during things like contract negotiations and sponsorship deals. In the same way, a literary agent represents an author to publishing companies.
If you hope to publish your book in the traditional way with a big publisher like HarperCollins or Penguin Random House, you’ll need a literary agent. Traditional publishers rarely consider what are called “unsolicited manuscripts” meaning manuscripts that come straight from the author rather than through a reputable literary agency. Literary agents have connections with publishing houses and acquiring editors and have a solid understanding of the publishing landscape—what’s selling and for how much, what directions specific editors or publishers wanting to go, etc. Your literary agent will do the work to find the editors and publishers to pitch your novel to and then will help you negotiate your publishing contracts. Agents often work long-term with authors as a partner in their publishing career, helping guide them through it all so they can build a long-lasting author business.
When you’re looking for a literary agent, you are searching for someone who will be just as excited about your book as you are, someone who has a similar vision for your book and your writing career, and who has experience, knowledge, and contacts in your genre of the publishing industry. Querying agents lets them see some samples of your work so they can decide if they want to read more and potentially work with you.
What’s involved in querying literary agents?
Querying literary agents is a process that can take months or years. It’s not called “the query trenches” for no reason. You’ll need to gather your query materials, research which agents you want to pitch, and once you’ve queried them, you’ll need to wait for their response.
When you query a literary agent you will need to send them a combination of the following:
- A query letter
- A synopsis
- A logline
- The first pages of your manuscript
Some agents want all of these, some only want the first, some want a combination. Part of the query trenches is figuring out what elements each agent you plan to pitch wants. But before we get into that, let’s chat about each of these elements.
The query letter is a short (think 300 words) intro to your book’s meta data, plot, and author.
That sounds like a heck of a lot to include in a short letter, doesn’t it? That’s what makes writing query letters so tough. Query letters generally have a few paragraphs often organized like this:
- Your book’s title, genre, word count, and comparable titles.
- A paragraph or two of plot summary, focusing on the protagonist and the hook. Think character arc + plot arc + stakes, focusing on the first 25% of the book.
- An author bio including your writing credentials and any information that might be relevant to the book’s content.
A query letter is a sales letter. You’re trying to sell your book to the agent, to make them want to read it and fall in love with it. The plot paragraphs should read similar to back cover copy.
If an agent is intrigued by your letter and thinks maybe this might be a good fit for my list, they’ll read more of what you’ve sent. If they aren’t immediately intrigued, they’ll move on to the next query letter. Agents of received 10s or even 100s of queries a day, so you’ve got to grab their attention fast.
The synopsis is a two-page summary of the entire novel.
Yup, you read that right. When querying literary agents, you need to give them the story of your 300-page novel in only two pages. A synopsis lets them see the full story quickly so they can tell if it has narrative drive, meets genre expectations, what happens and how the story ends. Unlike in the query letter, this is where you do indeed have to give away the ending.
If an agent likes the synopsis, they will be more inclined to spend the time needed to read the entire book.
The logline is a one-to-two-sentence description of what happens in story.
That sounds even harder than the query and synopsis, doesn’t it? The logline is a sentence or two that gives the central conflict, the plot, and the hook of the story. Your logline should include things like what kicks off the story, who the story is about, what’s in the way of what they want, and what happens if they don’t get it.
Loglines are meant to be attention-grabbing and exciting. They are marketing tools, essentially.
Along with the query letter, most agents want to some pages from the manuscript.
If they are intrigued by your query letter, they’ll want to read the first pages of your manuscript. Afterall, they aren’t going to be trying to sell your letter, the book is the actual product. Some agents ask for the first ten pages or first fifty pages. Some ask for the first chapter or first three chapters. Each agent or agency has their preference.
Reading the pages of your manuscript gives an agent a clearer sense of what your writing skills are, what state the manuscript is in, and how much work will need to go into the manuscript to sell it to a publisher. And it gives them a chance to see if they actually enjoy your story and if it fulfills the expectations you set in your query.
Finding which literary agents to pitch and how to pitch them requires research.
Once you have all the materials ready, you need to figure out who to send them to. Not all literary agents work in all genres or with all types of authors. Each agent is building their own client list based on what types of books they enjoy working on, what books they think they can sell, what connections they have in the industry, and what authors or books they are already working with.
Many agents share what’s called their “manuscript wish list” on their agency websites, personal websites, social media accounts, or websites like ManuscriptWishlist.com. Those same places also list how to query them — whether to email them or submit using a form website called QueryManager.com. You can also see what they’ve sold and who they represent in places like PublishersMarketplace.com and QueryTracker.com.
And then, you wait. Many agents state a timeline for when you’re likely to hear back from them about a query—usually in the realm of four to eight weeks.
When an agent likes your query and pages, they’ll want to read the entire manuscript.
If an agent likes your query and your pages, they’ll ask for the entire manuscript. This is called a full request. Once an agent reads the whole manuscript, they’ll likely contact you to book a call and discuss your goals and vision, their vision for the book, and representation.
So there you have it, a snapshot of what a query package and querying journey looks like. Some authors love querying, most find it a bit of a slog. It can take time, both to prepare for and to actually send out queries and wait for responses.
If querying intimidates you, but you think you’re ready to start, I offer query pitch prep and pitch support packages to help guide you through the process. I also offer manuscript evaluations to make sure that your manuscript is ready for querying so that you don’t waste time querying a manuscript that isn’t ready.
(I have three slots left in my Summer Sale for 25% off manuscript evaluations. Book an intro call with me today to get started and nab one of those slots.)