Friday, February 16, 2018

To query or not to query...

At some point of an author's life, they might decide to query a literary agent. For those of you who're currently asking, "Pray tell, what is this literary agent thing, and why do I need it?" I'm going to go through the basics of the querying process that I've been following for the past ... well. A while. I had a literary agent once, but we weren't a right fit, and to be honest, a literary agent is only really going to be useful to you if you're writing fiction that has commercial value. To be honest, no agent is better than a bad agent, so here I am...

So, why am I still querying literary agents? Essentially, literary agents are your friends when it comes to getting your manuscript in front of the editors at the big publishing houses. Also, if you're currently an indie author who's been approached by one of the bigger publishing houses, it's a good idea to get yourself a literary agent. These rare beasts will be able to help you negotiate better terms on your contract. Also, they Know People. And hopefully the Right People.

If you're content to carve out a career as an indie author, chances are good you'll probably not need an agent, but for those of us who're aiming at a hybrid career,  having an agent when you eventually reach the stage of needing one, is a good thing.

So the next question: When do I know that I'm ready to query? Most importantly, you'll have a complete manuscript. Finish your novel. Aim for a sweet spot of around 75k to 100k for adult fiction. Please, for the love of dog, don't be the kind of author who dashes off a first draft and starts querying immediately. Especially if you're still new in this game. No novel is perfect. Take time to edit your manuscript. Get your betas to go through it. Revise it again. Revise, revise, revise, until you are so sick of the thing and want to burn it with fire. 

I've heard horror stories of authors who started querying their manuscript when it was not finished, only to have an agent request a full submission when only the first 10k words had been written. You really don't need to do that to yourself. Make sure that your novel is the best it can be before you start querying. And don't rush it.

What next? Write a query letter. It's as simple as that. To break a query letter down to its basics, you're going to say three things: what your project is, a (brief) summary (about 2 paragraphs) and then your writing credits. An agent (or their assistant) will scan through the queries. Remember they get hundreds of queries a day sometimes. You have, probably literally) about 15 to 30 seconds (if that) to tell them exactly who you are, what you want, and what you have to offer. You need to make that query letter count. My advice: keep it simple. Don't be cute. Don't try to make out that you're the next Stephen King or JK Rowling. Agents and their assistants have seen *everything*. Trust me on this. They're sick of authors who think they're trying to be witty or clever. They see it Every. Day.

I always send folks scurrying off to Query Shark. Hell, whenever I'm about to write a query letter, I still go get ideas there.

Now, what the hell do I send a literary agent? Once I'm done writing my query letter, I save it as a .txt file. This is so that when I copy/paste it into my email, it doesn't have any weird formatting. (Just something I find useful over the years.) I also prepare a longer synopsis of about 2 pages that I save as a .doc, and then the first three chapters and/or first 50 pages as a .doc. Most of the time agents won't ask that you send attachments, and that you paste your query letter, synopsis and sample text in the body of the email. Increasingly, of late, I've seen them use online forms (which is also super convenient, but then they do request that you attach the .doc files as required). Lastly, I also create a one-sentence description or, as they call it, an elevator pitch, for the novel.  I also try to keep in the back of my mind which existing novels are similar to mine and who the targeted readership is. Some agents request this sort of information.

I can sense the next question. Where the hell do I find a literary agent? My two go-to sites are Publisher's Marketplace and Query Tracker. Both sites are super easy to use, and convenient because you can tailor make your searches according to your chosen genre.

How do I choose an agent? This should be a no-brainer since it makes sense that you choose an agent who already sells in your chosen market. What I do is once I've narrowed down which agencies handle SFF, I take a gander at their recent sales and releases. If I see their tendency is more towards literary or children's fiction, then I think twice about submitting. If I see that they sell mostly to only one or two digital publishers that accept unsolicited queries, I smell a rat. And I most certainly don't submit. Mostly, I pick agents who have sales with the big publishers I usually can't query unless they have an open submissions period. If, by any chance, an agent gets back to me with an offer, I go do my homework, usually by searching the Absolute Write forums. Believe it or not, writers talk, and if they have shitty experiences with agents, they'll be quite vocal about it. So, do your homework. Take time to evaluate each agent. Read their profile info on their personal sites to make sure that you're as good a match as you can imagine.

Which brings me to the submission guidelines.  Each agent will have a preferred method for you to query. Some only want a query letter. Some want your first 5, 10 or even 50 pages of the manuscript. Some accept attachments. Others don't. Which means you DON'T send out an impersonal, blanket bcc email to a hundred agents simultaneously. Don't be that special douchenozzle.

It goes without saying too that you need to keep track of your queries. Some folks use Query Tracker. I just make a spreadsheet that I colour code as I go along. It's generally not a done thing to blanket query all the agents at one agency. So make sure that you pick the best fit and only the right fight for you, so that you don't accidentally query simultaneously. I do a query a day for the duration of my querying process. That's 5-10 minutes out of my day where I check out the agents' website, craft my individualised email and then send. And I fill out my spreadsheet as I go along (and that has helped me in the past when I nearly did send queries to two agents at the same agency). Most agents know that you're going to be querying more than one agency at a time, but the common courtesy is that as soon as you've had a request for a partial or full submission, to let anyone else know who may have a full or partial submission. 

Also, I tend to make about 50-100 queries per project. Yes. That many. About half of these will be polite form rejections. I might get three or four requests for partial submissions (agents wanting to see the first 50 pages). I may even have one or two requests for a full submission. Many agents simply don't respond.

Loads of agents say "if you haven't heard back from us in a month, then consider it a no". It's nothing personal. Move on. Ditto for those wonderful form rejections that go along the lines of "this project isn't right for me" or "this project isn't the right fit" or whatever. IT'S NOTHING PERSONAL. Move on. Grow rhino skin. Don't phone them. Don't pester them. 

Granted, if you have a request for a full, and the agent has been sitting for six months, and circumstances have changed (you may wish to self-publish or have had an offer from a publisher) then of course, do the agent the courtesy of following up. But if your manuscript vanishes into a long, sticky silence, don't let it get to you. This entire industry is all about hurry up and wait.

And lastly, keep writing, revising, querying, submitting. Realise that these stories about "JK Rowling got rejected seven times" are fairytales. Authors who make it big are the exception, not the rule. For most of us, it's a long, hard (and unglamorous) slog. You need to channel your inner rhino, and weather the sting of rejections with a super thick skin. I promise you, if you work hard, develop your talent, improve your writing, and persevere, you will see a steady growth. Don't measure yourself according to other writers. They're not you, and their career path is vastly different from yours. Concentrate on being the best you can be.

And good luck! 

Need someone to tell you whether your novel sucks donkey bollocks? I offer an assessment service that has helped many authors over the past few years. See my rates page.

No comments:

Post a Comment