How Many Literary Agents Should You Query to have the Best Chance of Success?

How many literary agents should you query?
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This column is excerpted from Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books.

One of the most common questions I get at writers’ conferences is this: Can I query multiple literary agents at once? My answer is that not only yes, but yes, you’re encouraged to.

After all, though an agent will usually reply quickly (bless you, email), they may take three whole months to get back to you, only to send you a form rejection. You can’t wait around for agents one by one like that.

So if you’re contacting various agents at the same time (simultaneous submissions), how many agents should you query? Would it be wise to just mail out your query to all 50 targeted agents who rep science fiction, trying to personalize your letter wherever possible?

I wouldn’t, if I were you. I would submit to six to eight at a time, including those you’ve met at a writers’ conference or retreat.

But why six to eight?

Isn’t that a strange, arbitrary number?

I say six to eight because I want you to protect yourself. My question to you is this: What if you submit your query to all 50 agents on your master list, but — heaven forbid — your query letter sucks? Every agent will turn you down and you’ll have hit a brick wall at the beginning of your journey.

Instead, submit to a limited number of agents and gauge a response. If you submit to seven agents and get seven rejections with no reps asking to see more work, then guess what? Your query sucks. Overhaul it.

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!

Taking this approach one step further, let’s say you send your polished query to seven new literary agents, and get four responses asking for more work. Congratulations — your query letter is doing its job.

But let’s say that none of those four agents who see a partial ask to read your full manuscript. Guess what that means? Your first few chapters aren’t up to snuff. Revise them. Overhaul them. Give the chapters to friends for a blunt critique.

The message is this: If you’re not progressing as you hope, try to identify where you’re going wrong so you can improve on it as quickly as possible.

This strategy will help you protect yourself. Give yourself the best chance of success in finding a literary agent!

Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino:

  1. The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

  2. Tips for Pitching a Literary Agent at a Writers’ Conference

  3. Querying Literary Agents: Your Top 9 Questions Answered

 

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Chuck Sambuchino is a staffer at Writer’s Digest Books, best-selling humor book author, and freelance query/synopsis editor. He is the editor of the Guide to Literary Agents and the au... .

Writer's Digest | @chucksambuchino

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Comments

  1. I began writing stories attending English Lit and Writing Classes in College. That was a long time ago. But four years ago I found some of those papers. I have now two complete novels and several other books in the works. I have become a member of the Southern Oregon Willamette Writers six months ago. I keep hoping for a lecturer to come in and talk about writing sysnopsis. I’m a story teller but I’ve yet to master this 60-75 word synopsis for an entire book. I’ve purchased several of Chuck Books but I have seen no real examples of how to write a good synopsis chapter yet. Please help out an old man with a little sample or two – Thanks

  2. I disagree. Seven rejections from seven agents might not mean that your query sucks. It might mean that your book sucks, your genre is overdone, or any number of things.

    • From what I’ve read other place, it seems to me that you might get seven rejections even if everything is done well. I’ve heard a number of agents describe finding the “right” projects like falling in love — it’s not enough to be a strong query, or a strong first few pages … for them to ask for more from a query letter, it’s got to have that special spark that gets them excited on a personal level, and that they only request for more from queries on a very small percent, less than 10% of everything they see.

      Which would mean for an author to get interest in even one out of every seven queries they put out would be exceptional … but maybe I’m taking solace where I shouldn’t?

  3. Many top agents do not like to reject too specifically because it is tough to explain to a writer just what isn’t working without being too harsh. Every literary agent has different taste and different pet peeves. Some also may not want to encourage an author to revise based on their feedback. However, I don’t know any agent who got into this business to make writers’ lives harder. I always try to give authors a little feedback about their query when I can. I also try to be clear exactly why something is not a fit for my list.

    Chuck’s advice to give chapters to friends should also apply to the query itself. Sometimes I see a sentence in a query and can tell that though an author has had critique partners or has been through workshops with their manuscript they likely have not shared their query with many for feedback.

    A few lines from authors’ queries are occasionally used to inspire part of their literary agents’ submissions to publishers. So, it is possible some of the essence of the pitch from the author’s original query will end up in official copy. Has your manuscript gone through more drafts than your pitch?

  4. Thomas Edison failed 10000 times when he was trying to make the electric bulb. When people asked him about his failure. He said, ”I never failed, I learned 10000 different ways to make the electric bulb.” After all his 10000 mistakes, he succeeded.

  5. How long should you wait to submit the next wave of queries (after that initial 6/8)? Most don’t reply anymore so do you wait the whole 6-8 weeks many websites say is their response time? And how long can you wait before you submit to another agent within the same agency. I understand not two at the same time but when does it stop being the same time?

    • Hi there, I think I can help.
      If you would like to submit to an agent in the SAME agency of one you have already submitted, you usually have to wait a year because agents do come together at meetings and look through the manuscripts. You’ll look quite silly if they review it one day, reject it, and then they suddenly get it back into their e-mails.
      However, you must read the ‘About Us’ section on most agency websites. It’s a good idea to dig into everything onto their site. Some agencies don’t mind if you submit to two agents in the same agency, while some do not.
      If this is the case, wait at least a year before submitting again to the same agency.

      • Hi Cait. I’m going to respectfully disagree with Emma. I wouldn’t recommend you wait a full year to submit to the next agent within the same agency. I would recommend you simply wait the time frame stipulated on their website or submission guidelines. If there’s no time frame stipulated, I’d recommend you wait a maximum of four months–publishing runs in seasons and an agent who hasn’t gotten back to you over summer has a completely different set of priorities in the Fall.

        For my part, I give myself three to four weeks to respond to queries initially because I don’t think it makes sense to leave people waiting. Partial requests and full requests are different story, of course.

        Best of luck!

        Steven

    • *while some do.

  6. Thank you for the wonderful tips!

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