Querying a Literary Agent

Last year Charlie Campbell gave us his top tips on how to get the attention of an agent. To get a perspective from a writer’s point of view, we asked debut novelist Tim Baker, whose highly anticipated thriller Fever City hit shelves this week, to share his querying experiences with us

In a challenging climate of mergers, redundancies and cutbacks, publishing houses have come to rely on agents to handle the vetting of submissions, particularly from debut authors, thereby freeing up their own resources and cutting costs. Not having an agent puts you outside this process and that’s a place you just can’t afford to be these days.

The good news is that it has never been easier to query an agent or to find up to date information about what particular agents are looking for.

The bad news is that the number of queries agents are receiving has never been higher. But with a mixture of common sense and care, you can at least make your query stand out from the rest.

In order to begin the process you need three things.

The first is a completed manuscript that you honestly feel is ready for submission.

The second is a killer query letter.

And the third is a solid notion of the kind of agent who might be receptive to your query and who would best represent your work.

26168.books.origjpgI personally began my search for a literary agent by visiting a website called querytracker.net. This site lists both agents and agencies. If you really don’t know where to start, the site also has a list of hundreds of authors and the agents who represent them. Just look up a couple of authors whose work is similar in tone or genre to yours and note down their agents.

A feature of the site that helped me a lot was the comments section about the agents. It gives you a good idea of the timeframes you’re looking at in getting a response, and the kind of books that agents are requesting at any given time. It will let you know the agents who never respond to a query, thus saving you the hassle of following up with them. On the comments pages, you can also sometimes find mention of the names of the PAs who vet the queries for the bigger agents, allowing you to query directly to them, which always makes a good impression and shows you’ve done your homework and are therefore professional.

But beware when going through the comments: some of them can read as cries of despair from writers who have been querying for ages and getting nowhere. It underlines two particular qualities you’re going to need on this voyage: tenacity and courage.

Although there are many UK agents listed, Query Tracker does have a bias towards North American agents. Don’t be fooled into thinking you must land a New York Agent. Yes, it is the world capital of the publishing industry, but thanks to annual events such as the Frankfurt and London book fairs, as well as the changing face of the industry, location is not nearly as important as it once was. As you’ll want to develop a good working relationship with your agent, it also makes sense to try to find an agent in the country you live in. However, if your book’s setting is particular to the United States, or you have an introduction to an agent there, do reach out.

Another tremendous resource for writers trying to identify the right agents to query is Twitter. Just start following a couple of agents, and Twitter will suggest dozens more. When I was querying, I discovered several agencies I had never heard of through Twitter. Even better, most agents’ Twitter accounts link to their agency’s website, where you can find additional information such as querying instructions and agent preferences.

Twitter also hosts helpful advice via #askanagent, as well as all types of pitching events. By all means enter them, but remember you should never pitch an agent on Twitter outside of these events. The same goes for Facebook.

Twitter can be useful in raising red flags for writers. As Chris Parris-Lamb, the agent who landed a $2 million advance for City on Fire pointed out, if an agent spends a massive amount of time on Twitter, the chances are they’re not doing their job. The one thing a good agent never has enough of is time. Equally, agents who go off on tirades about colleagues or clients may not be the best people to build a relationship with. I had a full with an agent who let loose with an astonishing, obscenity-filled rant directed at a woman. It felt misogynistic, and it was certainly juvenile and unprofessional. My guess is that the agent thought he was texting when he was Tweeting – which indicates a problem with technological fluency. How many ways can you say No? I scratched him from my list immediately.

And that’s an important thing to remember. Although you desperately want to hear yes from agents, you also always have the power to say no. A bad agent is much worse than no agent.

On writing forums you often see questions concerning agency guidelines for queries, wondering how strictly they should be followed. Rules are made to be broken, but not here. Be thankful for guidelines, which are acts of kindness that give writers a general idea about what will and won’t interest a given agent. By ignoring guidelines, you undermine the entire system and make it more likely that agencies will stop considering unsolicited queries all together. Are there exceptions? Always, but what makes you think it applies to you?

Once you start the process of querying, you’re also starting the process of rejection. Rejection is an integral part of the process simply because it’s always easier to say no than yes. The most important thing is never to take it personally. An agent may be more inclined to pass because she just got a parking ticket or has a cold. She may be more inclined to request a full because she’s been newly promoted or is just back from holiday.

I had several examples where I queried an agent who passed, and then re-queried (with a different title) and received a request for a full. The letters were basically the same. The one variable was the mood of the agent. It stands to reason. Every choice we make in life is subjective, so why should a query be any different?

If you continue to get a lot of passes though, it could be time to revisit your query letter and try a different approach. I trialed a query letter with five agents and received five passes. I reworked it completely and got five requests for fulls from seven queries.

Sometimes agents or whole agencies will state in their guidelines that they only accept hard copies. My advice is not to bother querying them. Either they only accept hard copies because they are trying to dissuade as many writers as possible from submitting to them, or else they are hopelessly out of date with the changing realities of the industry and probably think ebooks are a passing fad.

Either way, you’re better off focusing on the vast majority of agencies that accept electronic queries. In the larger agencies, it’s normally the Personal Assistants and Interns who vet the electronic submissions. They are vital people, taking on enormous workloads and building knowledge and relations with fellow workers and the publishing industry. Never look down on them. More often than not, they are the first ones who will offer to help you.

They can be great but they can also be bad. Great because they have a passion for reading and part of their job is to devour manuscripts. If they are ambitious, they can act as effective champions with an eye on developing their own list. They are bad simply because turnover is high. I had two instances where PAs for star agents championed my work only to move on and be replaced by new interns who, understandably, were not crazy about pursuing someone else’s pick, and wanted to make their own choices and find their own gems.

If you meet a PA or Intern at a literary event, by all means ask if you can query them. Many will move on to other jobs in the industry but a few of them will be offered jobs at the end of their internship. But in the end, you’re probably better off dealing directly with agents and that means associate agents and younger, rising stars, not established mega-agents, who don’t really have the time to take on new clients anyway.  It took me a while to figure that out, but when I finally did, I received a sudden rush of interest in my manuscript.

When I received an offer of representation, I let everyone who had requested my full know. All of the younger agents asked that I give them more time before making a decision. But all of the more established agents simply congratulated me and stepped aside. Truth be told, the more established agents already had enough clients. Younger agents are always hungry for new clients, and ready to take a risk for something they believe in. And you should be prepared to consider taking a risk with them.

Beyond the normal route of query letters, Pitch an Agent events have grown in popularity and importance over the last few years, and many writing festivals have incorporated them as festival events. Whether you wish to sign up for one probably depends on how confident you feel about pitching in person – something that’s an art in itself. If you do decide to go for it, don’t forget to rehearse the pitch to perfection in front of various people. If you’re nervous about the prospect of doing a spiel in public to an audience of one, it might be better to stick to the traditional query letter.

Whether pitching in person or by letter, if you start getting lots of requests for fulls, but no subsequent offers it could mean that your manuscript is still not ready or that your query was promising something that the manuscript isn’t delivering. Some agents will give you a generic pass, but others will offer comments. Are the comments valid? If there really are problems, can you fix them? The process of writing is about continually asking hard questions of yourself, but your resources as a writer are always tested not by your questions but by your answers. Moving on to another project is not an end, it’s a continuation of a process. If you’re a writer, you’ll instinctively know that.

Practical Matters

  • Luck plays a part. Talent and tenacity another. But politeness and common curtesy is always vitally important. It works both ways: no one wants to work with a jerk.
  • In the movie industry there is one rule: never be desperate. In querying there are two: never be aggressive after a pass and never feel personally aggrieved. If your work is good, someone will recognize it. If no one does, it means it’s time to move on to the next book.
  • Using a clear subject line will help the agent identify your email. Guidelines will often address this issue, but if not, when querying, always insert the word query followed by the title of your novel in the subject line.
  • If you receive a request for a full or a partial, always insert requested material at the beginning of the subject line to ensure your manuscript doesn’t get lost. And if you are lucky enough to receive an offer of representation, always include offer of representation followed by the name of your manuscript when notifying other agents of the offer.
  • Many agencies now request a one-page synopsis. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to write after just finishing a 100,000 word opus, but if never hurts to have one ready, even if it’s only for your own use, as an exercise in clearly identifying the major themes and characters of your work. Can you really condense your novel into one page? The answer’s always yes. And that’s what you want to hear from the agent you just queried…

FEVER CITY: A Thriller (Faber & Faber) by Tim Baker is out now. Follow Tim on Twitter here.

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