This column is excerpted from Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books.
When contacting agents, the query process isn’t as simple as “Just keep emailing until something good happens.”
There are ins, outs, strange situations, unclear scenarios, and plenty of what-have-you that block the road to signing with a rep. It’s with that in mind that I have collected nine of the more interesting questions submitted to me by readers regarding protocol during the query process.
(By the way, there is a Part II to this post you can read here: “Secrets to Querying Literary Agents: 10 More Questions Answered.”)
1. Can you query multiple agents at the same agency?
Generally, no. A rejection from one literary agent usually means a rejection from the entire agency. If you query one agent and she thinks the work isn’t right for her but still has promise, she will pass it on to fellow agents in the office who can review it themselves. Agents work together like that.
2. Can you re-query an agent after she rejects you?
You can, though I’d say you have about a 50/50 shot of getting your work read. Some agents seem to be more than open to reviewing a query letter if it’s undergone serious editing. Other agents, meanwhile, believe that a no is a no — period. So, in other words, you really don’t know, so you might as well just query away and hope for the best.
3. Do you need to query a conservative agent for a conservative book? A liberal agent for a liberal book?
I asked a few agents this question and some said they were willing to take on any political slant if the book was well written and the author had a great writer platform. A few agents, on the other hand, said they needed to be on the same page politically with the author for a political/religious book, and would only take on books they agreed with.
Bottom line: Some will be open-minded; some won’t. Look for reps who have taken on books similar to yours, and feel free to query other agents, too. The worst any agent can say is no.
4. Should you mention your age in a query? Do agents have a bias against older writers and teenagers?
I’m not sure any good can come from mentioning your age in a query. Usually the people who ask this question are younger than 20 or older than 70. Concerning an age bias, I would say some literary agents may be hesitant to sign older writers because reps are looking for career clients, not simply individuals with one memoir/book to sell. If you’re older, write multiple books to convince an agent that you have several projects in you … and don’t mention your age in the query to be safe.
5. Can you query an agent for a short story collection?
I’d say 95 percent of agents do not accept short story collection queries. The reason? Collections just don’t sell well.
If you have a collection of short stories, you can do one of three things: 1) Repurpose some or all of the stories into a novel, which is much easier to sell. 2) Write a new book — a novel — and sell that first to establish a reader base. That way, you can have a base that will purchase your next project — the collection — ensuring the publisher makes money on your short stories. 3) Query the few agents who do take collections and hope for the best. If you choose this third route, I suggest you get some of the stories published to help the project gain some momentum. A platform and/or media contacts would help your case, as well.
6. When should you query? When is your project ready?
There is no definitive answer, but here’s what I suggest. You want to get other eyes on the material — what are called “beta readers” — people who can give you feedback that is both honest and helpful. These beta readers (usually critique group buddies) will give you feedback and you can take what you want, then ditch the rest. What you’re aiming for is no more major concerns. So let’s say you give the book to three friends and they come back with some major concerns, such as “It starts too slowly” or “This character is not likeable.” Through revisions, you can address these problems. After rewrites, give it to more beta readers. If they come back with no major concerns, the book is ready, or at least very close.
7. Should you mention in the query that your work is copyrighted and/or has had book editing?
No. All work is copyrighted the moment you write it down in any medium, so saying something that’s obvious only comes off as amateurish. On the same note, all work should be edited, so saying that the work is edited (even by a professional editor) also comes off as amateurish.
8. How should you start your query? Should you begin with a paragraph from the book?
I would not include a paragraph from the book nor would I write the letter in the “voice” of one your characters — those are gimmicks. If you choose, you can just jump right into the pitch — there’s nothing wrong with that. But what I recommend is laying out the details of your book in one easy sentence: “I have a completed 78,000-word thriller titled Dead Cat Bounce.”
I suggest this because jumping into a pitch can be jarring and confusing. Think about it. If you started reading an email and the first sentence was simply “Billy has a problem,” you don’t know if Billy is an adult or a child, or if he is being held captive by terrorists vs. being nervous because his turtle is missing. In other words, the agent doesn’t know whether to laugh or be worried. They’re confused. And when an agent gets confused, they may just stop reading.
9. Should you mention that the query is a simultaneous submission?
You can, but you don’t have to. If you say it’s exclusive, they understand no other eyes are on the material — but if you say nothing, they will assume multiple agents must be considering it. Keep in mind to always check each agent’s submission guidelines; a few rare agents will specifically request to be informed if it’s a simultaneous submission.
Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino: