Who To Query?

By Louise Ure

This month I’m all about query letters here at Murderati. For the first installment, check out this post from two weeks ago about how to craft a query letter. The question for today is: Now what do I do with it?

First of all, take a deep breath. You’re about to embark on perhaps the most fraught-filled leg of the journey to publication. You’re opening yourself up to criticism far beyond any of the yammerings of your writer’s group and you need to steel yourself.

Start here: The simple answer to the question is, you send your query letter to agents who are most likely to be responsive to your work.

That means they’re agents who deal in your genre, who are looking for new clients to add to their roster, who are passionate about your work, and who you believe have the clout and the contacts to make you an advantageous sale.

But how do you find them?

If you’re like me, you had no education or grounding in the publishing business before you started to write. I’d never met a living author (was there even such a thing?) until I started writing my own books. I had certainly never met an agent.

The good news is that the information is out there and easily available – online, in libraries and bookstores, and in person.

– Try Agent Query  for the addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of reputable literary agents, plus additional information, including an agent’s previous publishing experience, education, former agency affiliations, former agency address, titles sold, past and present clients, genres and special interests.

– Or Query Tracker which includes a neat program to track all your queries then pool the results to provide aggregate information on an agent’s genre-specific acceptance/rejection history and response time.

– Try Preditors & Editors, Writer Beware and Absolute Write for the “Worst 20” lists and alerts to agent scams.

– Most literary agents have their own websites now, including information about recent sales, client lists and policies.

– You can also check them out with the national organization, The Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

– A couple of good print versions of the information are: Chuck Sambuchino’s, 2009 Guide to Literary Agents or Jeff Herman’s (brand new as of November 11, 2008) Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents 2009. I particularly love the Jeff Herman book.

– You could subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace, an industry newsletter which announces deals, sales, reviews, and which agents are selling work. Online subscription is $20.00 a month, but it’s a month-by-month contract so you shouldn’t have to fork out much to get enough information to get you started. And pay special attention to the page where they talk about which agent has moved to a new house or started their own agency. Those are the ones most interesting in building new client lists.

– Check out the acknowledgements page in published novels. Most authors include thanks to their agents and editors.

– Join Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, or International Thriller Writers. Even if you don’t live in a big city, you can participate in Internet Chapters of the organizations or build relationships with member-authors by email. Ask them who their agents are and how they like working with them.

– Go to conferences. Even the fan-based cons like Bouchercon have lots of agents in attendance and lots of authors you can talk to about their agents. And the smaller, writer-oriented conferences can be superb opportunities not just to hear about an agent but to spend time with one.

Some miscellaneous but equally important advice:

  • Start with a list of 50 potential agents and send out ten at a time, starting with your “All Star” favorites.
  • There’s no magic number of agents to query and no assumption of how long it should take. Plan on sending out 1-100 letters over the course of a month to a year.
  • If you haven’t heard from an agent you’ve queried in a month, go on to the next on your list.
  • Do include some agents on your list who say they are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Believe me, they’re still reading all query letters and yours might just meet something they’re looking for.
  • Don’t bother with Fedex or overnight delivery of your query or sample pages. It makes no impression on the agent, other than to think you waste money.
  • If an agent asks for exclusivity – personally, I’m against giving it, but it’s up to you – limit the time for the exclusive review. Four to six weeks at most.
  • Avoid literary agents who charge a reading fee. The professional ones would never ask you for it and the unprofessional are not the ones you want representing your book.
  • Don’t pay for a “customized list of agents” based on reading your work. I know there are lots of internet offers out there for services like this, but honest to God, aren’t you the best person to know what your work is like? It’s like asking someone with an online Baby Book to name your child.
  • Save all your rejection letters. First of all, they’re nice to look back on when you’re happily published. In the meantime, they might teach you something. Is there an overriding theme in the rejections? If their criticism rings true to your ears, you may want to take another look at your novel. Are they all form letters? Maybe your query letter needs a tune up to more clearly demonstrate your style or the uniqueness of your story.
  • Remind yourself that rejection is not personal; that if an agent didn’t love the sound of your book then she probably wouldn’t have been a passionate advocate for it.
  • Reward yourself at every step along the way. For having the guts to send out a query in the first place. For sending out ten more. For getting a request for a partial. For getting a request for the full manuscript. Hell, reward yourself for reaching the milestone of 21 rejections. Or 50. Or 100.
  • Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.

I know that several of our ‘Rati members got their agents through other, less traditional, means, so there are undoubtedly other sources, tricks and tips that I’m not thinking of here. What say you, ‘Rati? Any other good advice? Or do you want to share the worst rejection letter you ever got?


33 thoughts on “Who To Query?

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The one thing I tell people that I don’t already see here is – go to the bookstore or library with a notebook and go through the shelves looking at successful books in the genre you have written in, and check the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS page, where unless an author is a complete ungrateful moron, they will have thanked their agent pretty near the top of the list (you can also compile a great list of editors for future reference at the same time).

    This is a great way to build your target list and have real examples to use when you write your query letters.

    Great post again, Louise – I linked it on my own blog list of agent resources.

  2. Joyce Tremel

    Great advice!

    One thing I’d add is to start writing that next book. Finding an agent can take a long time, and when you get that call, the agent is going to want to know what else you’re working on.

  3. Kathryn Lilley

    Good topic! I just heard that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is no longer accepting unsolicited queries. They’ve posted it on their web site. I don’t know how that affects agent submissions, if at all. Kind of depressing, though!

  4. Louise Ure

    Good advice, Ms. X and J.D. Funny though, that I save my thanks to my agent and editor to the last thing on the acknowledgments page. Like a culmination, I suppose

  5. Louise Ure

    Joyce, your advice is probably the best of all. Start writing the next book.

    And Wilfred, I know. We glory in the stories about Stephen King spiking his rejection letters on a long nail on his desk. About the agents and editors that turned down Ernest Hemingway. It is a funny business.

  6. Louise Ure

    I’ll have to check that out Kathryn. I thought “unsolicited queries” came straight from writers and not through agents. And if I’m right, I wasn’t aware that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ever accepted those. But this may be a bigger sign of change than I’m aware.

  7. Dana King

    Thanks for these last couple of posts, Louise. I have an agent (which i found by reading the acknowledgements in another book, Alex), but my writers group always asks me about agents like there are some runes only special people can read. This will not only help to clear a path for them, but to show them there’s more to getting an agent than just wanting one.

    Joyce’s advice is also well taken: keep writing. Not only will it likely take a while to find an agent, but an interested agent is likely to ask if you have anything else like this. “Yes, I do” is a much better answer than, “Oh, shit.”

  8. pari

    Louise,This series is a pure gold. You’re doing an incredible service.

    Here’s a bit of advice:Before signing with an agent, be sure to talk with some of his or her clients. Also, conduct an interview — talk to the darn person — to see if you want to work together.

    I know many people who sign with the first agent who offers representation simply because they’re so thrilled to have succeeded in the querying process.

    But that’s only the beginning of the relationship . . .

    I know. I signed with the first agent and got someone who was quite unscrupulous. I’m on my third agent now and respect him tremendously.

  9. Louise Ure

    Thanks, Pari. I was about to do the same thing. Based on the Times article and a subsequent summary in Publishers Lunch, it looks like the news is even worse than I originally thought. A freeze on all acquisitions at at Houghton Mifflin? Yikes!

  10. Jake Nantz

    Great post Ms. Ure. With all of the information out there, I always figured you’ve got to be daft not to have any idea at all where to begin. Hell there are blogs all over the place linking sites (and each other), and it is all so helpful.

    At the same time, I still meet people (and I am unagented myself, at the moment) who think I’m some kind of guru because I can send them to the library, like Alex said. Or send them to blogs like this one, or Janet Reid, or Nathan Bransford, or Jennifer Jackson, or even defunct ones like Rachel Vater or Miss Snark. And the only things I can think of that I have above them are, apprently, the desire to find the information so I CAN be a published author, and…the ability to read, maybe?


    Wonderful advice. Another keeper, Louise. I got my agent through Publisher’s Marketplace, but I was also doing all the things you mentioned.

    I’ll second the adage don’t give up. I’ve seen too many good authors who receive one or two agent rejections and shut down. Keep your chin up, and keep submitting. This is a subjective business, and a rejection isn’t a reflection on YOU.

    Oh, and really, double emphasis on the exclusive. That can hold you up for six months. Keep submitting…

  12. Louise Ure

    Jake, you’re one of the smart ones, and that’s just one more reason that agents and publishers will want to work with you.

    Thanks for the Query Shark link, Ms. C. Don’t you love her matter of fact responses to the queries that have been submitted for review? And to see some of the Before and After versions is amazing.

    JT, you’re right about the need for perseverance. I met a woman at a writers conference recently who — after finally working up the guts to send out a query letter — stopped after receiving one rejection. So sad!

  13. toni mcgee causey

    Utterly excellent advice, Louise–one of the best how-to-query series I’ve seen. I’m passing this along.

    The only thing I can think of to add is that if a writer finds an agent name via a book’s acknowledgements or a print resource, like Writer’s Market, that they either google the agent to make sure they are still at the same agency (or call the receptionist to confirm–but don’t pitch!). Agents can move, change firms, go on maternity leave, etc.

  14. KC

    Lots of wonderful advice! I might have read this part wrong–“If you haven’t heard from an agent you’ve queried in a month, go on to the next on your list”–but it sounds like you’re suggesting that writers query agents one at a time(?) I think it’s a good idea to send out small batches of query letters (a half dozen to a dozen at a time). If you don’t get any requests for material, then the query might need tweaking.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Invaluable advice. My favourite tales of rejections are Frederick Forsyth, who famously sent his novel THE DAY OF THE JACKAL to every major publisher and received many declines. One even claimed it had, “No reader interest whatsoever.”

    James Lee Burke, of course, collected 118 rejections, I believe it was, before a small university press published his first novel. It was nominated for Pulitzer.

    JK Rowling’s advance for her first Harry Potter novel was supposed to be somewhere in the region of £500 (about $750 at current exchange rates).

    But my favourite cutting rejection is for a novelist whose name I regret I fail to recall. His efforts were sent back to him with the withering comment: “I am returning the ream of paper which you recently sent to us. Somebody appears to have written on it.”

    Yes, rejections are awful. They dent your confidence, make you second-guess every word you write. They may even make you put aside your work for days, even weeks.

    But if it’s truly in you to write a book, then sooner or later the urge to put words on a page will overcome that fear of rejection and you’ll be off again. For most of us, writing is a compulsion that can’t be entirely squashed.

  16. Louise Ure

    Great addition, Toni. I didn’t emphasize the importance of making sure your information is current and accurate. Thank you for bringing it up.

    Thanks, KC. I could have worded that better, no? What I meant to say is that you should start with small batches of letters — maybe six to ten at a time. Then wait to see what the response is. Most agents will reply within a month. Don’t bother waiting longer than that.

    Then send out another small batch of six to ten. (Or, as you suggest, take a look at fine tuning your query letter.)

  17. Louise Ure

    Zoe, I love the reminder of hugely successful authors who also faced rejections, either from agents or publishers.

    My favorite rejection comes from a Northern California friend of mine whose manuscript was returned by an agent with the handwritten note: “The willing suspension of disbelief does not mean that you have to grab it be the throat, suspend it in mid-air and then shake it until it is dead.”

  18. Dana King

    My personal favorite rejection was, alas, mine. The editor passed on the book, saying it was “not original enough for a hardcover series, but too good for paperback.”

    I think my ego could have withstood the insult of a paperback offer.

  19. Louise Ure

    Ouch, Dana. And I hate the implied classicism in that rejection, too. “Too good for paperback?” Some of our best writers today come out in paperback originals. And what better way to introduce a debut author to readers who might be unwilling to fork out $25 on an unknown?

  20. Fiona

    Louise, great information. Thanks for helping those of us who are in the query process. It is like driving cross country without a map (or GPS) sometimes.

    It’s so nice for experienced authors to give the rest of us the benefit of your experience.

    Thanks for taking the time.

    My first rejection was a photocopied, (off-center) standard letter and was painful to read. Now, I find it amusing to look at.

  21. Louise Ure

    Thanks R.J. and Fiona. I culled through an awful lot of really bad advice and websites to get to the gist of today’s blog. I hope it helps shorten your road to publication.

  22. Allison Brennan

    Great post, Louise, and everyone who is looking should be reading this series of articles!!!

    My worst rejection letter? On my first completed manuscript. Out of about 50+ queries, I had one request for a full. She sent me back my cover page with one word written and double-underlined. SUPERFICIAL. (Yes, she also wrote it in all caps.) Great. I can really work with THAT rejection!

    The book wasn’t publishable, but it was a huge learning experience for me. Considering after I’d started over 100 books, this was the first I ever FINISHED was a great accomplishment for me personally.

    I know people who won’t submit because they can’t stand the thought of being rejected. I know people who keep submitting their same rejected manuscript over and over after reworking it to death. Most people don’t sell their first completely manuscript. (Some do, many don’t.) I sold my fifth. I saw myself improving with each submission–first book I submitted 50+ queries and had 1 request for a full; third book I submitted 50+ queries and had 3 requests for a full (some were the same agents, some were different agents.) The fifth book I sent out to only 12 agents and had 5 requests for fulls and 2 more for partials (that may have parlayed into fulls, except that I had accepted representation.)

    Those 12 agents were culled from a list of about 60-65 agents and represented my top tier of dream agents. I’ve been with her ever since.

    BTW, I did have one agent who was bad for me on my second manuscript. The book wasn’t publishable and I thank God she couldn’t sell it because that book compared to the one I did sell is night and day.

  23. Kathleen

    This was such a great post. As someone about to start querying, it’s so good to read level headed advice (for one thing, it distracts me from hyperventilating into a paper bag).

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve added a link to the post on my Twitter stream (@devi42) as I know there are people who will enjoy and benefit from it.


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