Secrets to Querying Literary Agents: 10 More Questions Answered

by | Jul 30, 2013

This column is excerpted from Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books.

Writers always seem to come up with great questions on how to write a query letter.

In fact, this post on query letter advice is so big that it’s broken down into two parts. See Part I of the Roundup, and learn about tricky topics such as resubmitting to an agent, simultaneous submissions, and more.

Read on to see advice on 10 more complicated query questions. I hope one or several answers will help you on your journey. 

1. If you’re writing a series, does an agent want you to say that in the query?

The old mentality for this was no, you should not discuss a series in the query, and instead just pitch one book and let any discussion naturally progress to the topic of more books, if the agent so inquires. However, I’ve overheard more and more literary agents say that they did want to know if your book was the potential start of a series. So, the correct answer, it appears, depends on whom you ask.

In circumstances like these, I recommend crafting an answer to cover all bases: “This book could either be a standalone project or the start of a series.” When worded like this, you disclose the series potential, but don’t make it sound like you’re saying “I want a five-book deal or NOTHING.” You’ll sound like an easy-to-work-with writing professional, and leave all options open.

2. Should you mention that you’ve self-published books in the past?

In my opinion, you don’t have to. So if you indie-published a few ebooks that went nowhere, you don’t have to list every one and their disappointing sales numbers. The release of those books should not affect your new novel that you’re submitting to agents.

That said, if your self-published projects experienced healthy sales (5,000+ print books, 20,000+ ebooks), then sure, mention it. In other words, talk about your indie-pub projects if they will help your case. Otherwise, just leave them out of the conversation and focus on the new project at hand.

3. What happens when you’re writing a book that doesn’t easily fall into one specific genre? How do you handle that problem in a query letter?

Know that you have to bite the bullet and call it something. Even if you end up calling it a “middle grade adventure with supernatural elements,” then you’re at least calling it something. Writers really get into a pickle when they start their pitch with something like, “It’s a sci-fi western humorous fantastical suspense romance, set in steampunk Britain … with erotic werewolf transvestite protagonists.”

Fundamentally, it must be something, so pick its core genre and just call it that — otherwise your query might not even get read. I’m not a huge fan of writers comparing their work to other projects (saying “It’s X meets Z” — that type of thing), but said strategy — comparing your book to others in the marketplace — is most useful for those authors who have a hard time describing the plot and tone of their tale.

 4. How many query rejections would necessitate a major overhaul of the query?

Submit no more than 10 queries to start. If only one agent responds with a request for more, then you’ve got a problem. Go back to the drawing board and overhaul the query before the next wave of 6-10 submissions.

5. Can your query be more than one page long?

The rise of equeries removed the dreaded page break, so now it’s easy to have your query go over one page. But just because that’s so doesn’t mean it’s a wise move.

My answer to the question is that while going a few sentences over one page is likely harmless, you really don’t need a query that trends long. Lengthy letters are a sign of a poor, rambling pitch that will probably get you rejected. So edit and trim your pitch down as need be. Get some beta readers or a freelance query editor to give you ideas and notes. Remember that a succinct letter is preferred, and oftentimes more effective.

The exception to my answer is concerning queries for nonfiction books. Nonfiction queries have to be heavy on author platform, and those notes (with proper names of publications and organizations and websites, etc.) can get very long very fast. So if you have to list out lots of platform and marketing notes, feel free to go several sentences over one page — just as long as the pitch itself is not the item making your letter too long.

6. Even if an agent doesn’t request it, should you include a few sample pages with your query letter?

It’s probably harmless. But if you’re going to do this, first of all, remember to paste the pages below the query letter and not attach them in a document. Second of all, don’t include much — perhaps one to five pages. (My advised length refers to double-spaced pages, even if the pages do not paste into the email in perfect double-spaced formatting.)

Having made both those points, I’m guessing that many people ask this question because they have a lot more faith in their opening pages than in their query. I get it; they’re different beasts, and you’re trying to up your chances and protect yourself a bit. But keep in mind that while including sample pages may perhaps help here and there with an occasional agent who checks out your writing, it doesn’t solve the major problem of your query being substandard. My advice is to keep working on the query until you have faith in it, regardless of whether you sneak in unsolicited pages or not.

The Write Life has teamed up with Self-Publishing School to create this presentation, “How to Write & Publish Your Book in 90 Days.” In it, you’ll learn how to finish your book in just 30 minutes per day. To sign up for this free training, click here.

7. How do you follow up with an agent who hasn’t responded to your submission?

This is a complicated question, and I’ll try to address its many parts.

First of all, check the agency website for updates and their latest formal guidelines. They might have gone on leave. They might have switched agencies. And most likely, they may have submission guidelines that state how they only respond to submissions if interested. (You see this a lot with a line such as, “If you don’t hear from us in 8 weeks, it means we are regretfully not interested in your project.”) So keep in mind there might be a very good reason as to why you shouldn’t follow up or rather why you shouldn’t follow up right now.

That aside, let’s say an agent claims they respond to submissions “within three months” and it’s been three and a half months with no reply. A few weeks have passed since the “deadline,” so now it’s time to nicely follow up. All you do is paste your original query into a new email and send it to the agent with a note above the query that says “Dear [agent], I sent my query below to you [length of time] ago and haven’t heard anything. I’m afraid my original note got lost in a spam filter, so I am pasting it below in the hopes that you are still reviewing queries and open to new clients. Thank you for considering my submission! Sincerely, [name].” That’s it. Be polite and simply resubmit. By the way, if an agent makes it sound like they do indeed respond to submissions but they don’t have a time frame for their reply, I say follow up after three months.

But before you send that precious follow-up, make darn sure you are not to blame for getting no reply. Perhaps your previous email had an attachment when the agent warned “No attachments.” Perhaps your previous email did not put “Query” in the subject line even though the agent requested just that. Or perhaps your previous email misspelled the agent’s email address and the query truly got lost in cyberspace. In other words, double-check everything. And if you send that follow-up perfectly and the agent still doesn’t reply? Then forget ‘em! Move on.

8. If you’re pitching a novel, should the topics of marketing and writer platform be addressed in the query?

Concerning query letters for novels, the pitch is what’s paramount; any mention of marketing or platform is just gravy. If you have some promotional cred, such skills will definitely be beneficial in the long run as they will help you sell more books when your title is released. But on that note, a decent platform will not get a mediocre novel published. So feel free to list worthwhile, impressive notes about platform and marketing skills you possess, just don’t let your accomplishments in those areas cloud the fact that the 3 most crucial elements to a novel selling are the writing, the writing, the writing. (Click to tweet this idea.)

9. Is it better to send a query over snail mail or email?

If you have a choice, I don’t see any logic in sending a snail mail query. They’re more of a hassle to physically produce, and they cost money to send. 90 percent or more of queries are sent over email for two very good reasons: Email is 1) quicker, in terms of sending submissions and agents’ response time, and 2) it’s free.

Keep in mind that almost all agents have personal, detailed submission guidelines in which they say exactly what they want to receive in a submission and how they want to receive it. So almost always, you will not have a choice in how to send materials. Just send what they ask for, how they asked for it. 

10. If you’re writing a memoir, do you pitch it like a fiction book (complete the whole manuscript) or like a nonfiction book (a complete book proposal with a few sample chapters)?

I’d say 80 percent of agents review a memoir like they would a novel. If interested, they ask for the full book and consider it mostly on how well it’s written. I have met several agents, however, who want to see a nonfiction book proposal — either with some sample chapters, or sometimes in addition to the whole book.

So to answer the question, you can choose to write only the manuscript, and go from there. Or you can choose to complete a proposal, as well, so you have as many weapons as possible as you move forward. (In my opinion, a writer who has both a complete memoir manuscript and nonfiction book proposal seems like a professional who is ahead of the curve and wise to platform matters — and, naturally, people in publishing are often attracted to writers who are ahead of the curve and/or can help sell more books. Just something to keep in mind. By the way, look over my growing list of memoir literary agents.)

Want more Query FAQs answered? Check out Part I of this post.

Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino:

  1. What Does a Literary Agent Want to See When They Google You?

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

  3. Which Writers’ Conferences are the Best to Attend?