Secrets to Querying Literary Agents: 10 More Questions Answered

Secrets to Querying Literary Agents: 10 More Questions Answered

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.

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!

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?


  • Francis Moss says:

    I’ve written a middle grade historical novel, taking place in Southampton, UK, June 1944. I’ve some period photos (would need rights permissions). Should I put them in the sample pages, add them at the end, or just mention them in my pitch?

  • Jonathan Porter says:

    “If only one agent responds with a request for more, then you’ve got a problem. ” Really?

    I have only had two request more pages. The others either haven’t responded or sent a rejection. Although some of the rejections have been complimentary. By that I mean they liked my writing samples but did not feel they were the right agent for the project.

    I have had professors and other writing professionals give their stamp of approval for my letter. Also, while I was in graduate school my thesis/novel received a PD (pass with distinction). I am not saying that I am the best writer in the universe or anything, I’m just wondering–could the rejections simply mean I haven’t found the right agent?

  • Maria Mayer says:

    What’s your take on hybrid publishing companies? I’m beginning to think they are no different than those in the SP industry. Unless an author wants to pay to take their book/manuscript back to square one, have it edited for content, then re-release it with the recommended changes under new ISBN, it doesn’t seem like a viable route. Are we essentially paying publisher B to do what publisher A was supposed to?

  • Manuel Rodriguez says:

    Two queries: 1) I have yet to hear of a topic about a big mistake many I know of have made: I learned that they lost their books and/or music due to a lack of a copyright. Since I have a copyright for my book, does this simplify or vilify an author’s query in the eyes of either an agent or a publisher? Should this fact be included in the query letter? What issues must be overcome to complete the process before a copyrighted book can be published? If anyone has an old copyright, yet has changed their name(s) would all of their names need verification by the agent(s)/publisher(s)?
    2) regarding “snail” mail, as it is termed today: I agree that E-mails are indeed faster, yet with all the worries about I D theft and hackers, where do prudence and safety enter into the mix? USPS looses things sometimes, but at least with tracking now “where” can be verified. In cyberspace E-mails are fair game for anyone. Why do I see no “back-up” system?
    I agree with the previous comments that this has been an informative article and page, and that the advice herein has been taken to heart.

  • My query- Been writing a fantasy, adventure, urban fantasy story that has been a journey within itself.

    The project is called (The Penrose Prophecy- Into Darkness ) and is the first of what I plan on making a three part series.

    My story takes its start in Blackpool England, where the main character, a 28 year old Witch or what I call the Gibboth, (Afton Penrose) sets off an a journey to find the people responsible for the assassination of her older sister Allison. All Afton knows about her sister’s death, is what she had been told by her own family (The Penrose) or England’s most powerful line of Gibboth or Witch. But her quest soon reveals the hidden truths to her own dark past as she learns what really happened between her Mother, (Emily Penrose) Queen of the Gibboth, and the illigitement father she never knew, a Grimmorch or Werewolf named (Alistair Cheshire). Afton discovers that the family she had always had defended, are the very people Blackpool should fear the most. But will her sister’s death, start a war between the three factions…. The Witch, Werewolf and Vmpire (Gibboth, Grimmorch and Gimmaru). Or will the lies of her familie’s corrupt empire, drive Afton into a mind-blowing quest for answers.

    Here is a small taste of what I have.

    Chapter 1.

    How many more bodies must fall upon the dark path her family had created? She had found herself sinking deeper and deeper under the pressure of the question, for far too long. But never has it been as much as her own distant past. Too many people’s lives were tied to her family’s secrets, and the burden of knowing the truth was no longer hers alone. Soon all the lies of her family’s past would be exposed, and with another Grimmorch attack, it wouldn’t be long till everyone within the seaside town of Blackpool Lancashire England was awakened.

    She felt like her heart had been torn out. Even the strongest and bravest warriors were liable to have felt the loss of a loved one, but when it came to family, Afton was always unsure as to whether there was ever true love at all. All feelings were lost under years of lies and manipulation, and for the past few months, she had no sense that her family cared at all. Every fight was always the same as the one before, no matter what the circumstances were leading up to it.

    Afton never expressed the emotion of love. Her victories in training or on the actual field of war gave her no pleasure. She was feared by her own family for a reason that was to be their undoing. But if she was to ever feel even a glimpse of what love was, it would have been for her older sister. Even if the last thing she ever said to her was ‘I hate you.’

    The bathroom door rattled as the lights flickered to the force of her emotions, the very ones she never had been able to control. It was always easier to believe she had none. The young woman remained locked in her own mind, oblivious and lost in the reflection staring back at her. A cracked and broken glass mirror stood in front of her as she pulled her hand back.

    “Please Priscilla, tell me what you know.” She muttered softly, staring at the shattered reflection.

    It was the first time she had cried in years. Her black eye liner rolled down the sides of her porcelain white face. Long braided auburn red hair was tucked behind her ears. Afton stared into the broken jagged shapes of glass, wondering how her family had fallen this far. How can an empire, who’s corporate power reach beyond that of even what she was allowed to know, crumble into the night?

    Sixty years had passed since the signing of the treaty, and neither side had forgotten why it was written. There was no arguing that both sides still hated each other. It was 1953 when the treaty was made, yet the sixty years have done little to ease our old scores. Only the names of the factions have changed. To most mortals, all three have become that of late night stories.

    All magical blood lines including the Penrose family are known as Gibboth or the Italian Stergheria. For centuries her family stood on top of a criminal enterprise. The Penrose have remained the invisible puppet masters and corporate manipulators of England’s magical community. To say that her family’s empire was wealthy would be an understatement. Their lust over wealth and power had made them almost as notorious as the elusive Illuminati. However her family’s ambitions for power have made them a feared enemy of the other two factions. The Penrose ruled over England’s corporate world with a calculating precision that has made her family both respected and feared. The Gibboth have eyes and ears all over England’s coastal territories.

    For years she has worked behind the scenes, doing her family’s dirty work. When it came to carrying out her family’s goal, Afton often found herself acting out in ways that most of society would call barbaric or heartless. But when it came to the Gibboth, only the strong survived. It was a belief that made her family the ruthless cut-throat leaders that they had become. It was necessary if the Gibboth ever wanted to survive in a world with the Grimmorch or Gimmaru. What England’s mortal society had come to know as Werewolves or Vampires, her family’s empire knows by their original names.

    The original founders of her family’s empire had settled along the cold coast of the Irish Sea during the late 1700’s. But that was before the railway of 1840 was built, bringing with it tourists and monsters from all over the world. Afton’s family’s magical bloodline had remained a secret throughout the years. But her family’s enemies have distorted the truth of her family’s origins, and quite a number of various ideas of the Penrose’s heritage have been put into circulation. The only truth, is that her family has been the leaders of England’s magical community for as long as she could remember.

    The Grimmorch had long seen themselves as the first line of defense against the Gimmaru hordes, doing whatever it took to bring an end to their ancient enemies. For that reason, the Grimmorch have been the Gibboth’s most feared enemy. The Grimmorch pride themselves on their supernatural strength and vast skill at hunting. However, they are anything but the over grown Pound Puppies that television and adolescent books have turned them into. Most remain both suave and sophisticated members of England’s lords and ladies. The true wolves of the supernatural world. When a Grimmorch howls, everyone around him either bows or trembles in fear. Their culture is based upon that of a true pack, as the alphas lead with an iron grasp. You either follow a strict chain of command, or are discarded to become a rouge. A rogue Grimmorch never survives long, not in England anyway. Any who trespass into Gibboth territory, are taken out. And killing wolves had long been one of her guilty pleasures.

    Then there are the Gimmaru, a society with only one true goal. They hold an incomprehensible belief that the mortal world is nothing more than a blood supply. Boy, could they ever be more wrong. However, it’s not to say that the Gimmaru haven’t become Afton’s family’s most elusive ally. Even if the Gimmaru believe in mankind’s downfall. As the ancient leaders of Europe’s past, their power over the corporate world is as vast and as secretive as the Gibboth themselves. From a whisper within England’s shadows to a malicious act of pure evil, the Gimmaru have driven themselves into making sure that they are a constant thorn in the Grimmorch’s side. Once having been an ally of her mother’s, a Gimmaru scientist, Professor Hanzo Onmoraki, may now hold secrets about her family’s hidden past. But because of the treaty of 1953, the Gimmaru and Grimmorch have been forced to keep out of Gibboth territory. That means all of Blackpool. And for the past sixty years, the other factions have kept to their silent agreement. Only rogue betas and simpleton vampire, ever wonder beyond the boundaries… Till now, that is.

    “Afton… Afton what was that sound?” A voice hollered out from an android phone that laid upon the marble bathroom sink.

    “That was the sound of my fist hitting the bathroom mirror, Rachel.” She responded back out of the same lips that have lied so many times before. She had already burned so many bridges because of the life her family had lived. And now all she had was a broken reflection of herself.

    “Please Rachel, tell me how it happened.” Afton asked in a calm, cold and collected voice.

    “I know it’s not my place to speak, but as a friend of the family, why do you care? That’s the hardest part, no one knows how to make you out. For months you have pushed your family away. But when something happens to one of them, you’re always the first to have their back. So why do you constantly defend them?” A voice exclaimed from over the phone.

    Afton gave her reply some thought. “Because they are my family, no matter how many secrets the Penrose’s may have. They will always be my family. Now please Rachel, tell me how my sister Allison died.” She demanded.

    “Dakota, claims it was a Gimmaru and Grimmorch that ambushed her and Allison somewhere near Liverpool. But if that’s true, then it means that the treaty between the three factions has been broken. And Dakota wouldn’t lie to us. She loves you like a sister!” Rachel assured Afton, in a patient voice.

    “Know your place Rachel. You and Dakota are only to be my guardians and friends. If I allowed anything more, I would be putting you both in a world of lies. I promise you, if it was the Gimmaru or Grimmorch, they will soon feel the force of this family. No one kills a Penrose or a Vega, and lives to tell the tale. However, pushing all labels aside, I have always felt the same for Dakota. But Allison is still blood, so please tell me who else knows of the death?” Afton asked, having had long feared that the war between the Gibboth and the Grimmorch would one day take another life and flow out into the mortal seaside towns of north western England.

    Rachel Vega continued the conversation. Even she feared what could happen if the Gibboth and other two factions ever went to war.

    “Not many. For now it is just your mother Lady Emily, your grandmother Lady Millicent, Caleb and myself. That is other than a few select members of the royal guard. Your grandmother has already requested that Caleb finds any intel he can find about a possible betrayal from the Gimmaru and Grimmorch and for the next few months you are to be watched over. Your Grandmother wants to speak to you personally and has requested for myself to come pick you up. I’m already on my way and should be there soon. We are leaving tonight and headed towards Blackpool.”

    Afton ended the call, forgetting to say goodbye. She lost herself in memories of her older sister Allison as she fell to her knees upon the tile floor. She had never been the strong one. Allison was always stronger and more skilled. But most of the time, where Afton failed to master her own power Allison had full control over her own. And without control a Gibboth was useless. Power is what made her family the strongest line of witches the world has ever seen, but it has been ages since her kind had called themselves witches. They too have taken back their own ancient name. Anyone of a magical blood line was known as a Gibboth or Sterga.

    Afton raised up to her feet, picking herself up off the cold tiles. She began walking away from the bathroom, grabbing what few items she could from her family’s safe house. “I’m sorry that it ended this way. I didn’t mean what I had said” Afton told herself, walking out of the room clutching an old red book with the symbol of a phoenix on the front. There was a wand in her hand and a small bag tossed over the shoulder of her long black robe. She also grabbed her father’s katana before walking out to the parked car that had been waiting outside in the courtyard.

    Upon looking back for a last time, she watched the fiery red glow of the safe house as it burned off in the distance. Thoughts and memories of her youth were now all she had left, as the car drove away into the darkness of the night, while a thick blanket of smoke rose high into the sky. It too was now a symbol of what was to come unless her family could learn to once again stand together. But she feared that her family’s lies and secrets would become their undoing, ushering in a dark nightmare, from which there would be no waking up from.

  • My query is about a book that by mistake I had put into the hands of Memoirs Publishing that I found out subsequently did no more than print the book but had no promotional facilities. The book was in response to several gaps in current perceptions by the public. The most important was the impact of inherited genes with respect to mental ability , emotions and health. So the book was entitled “The Passion Gene”. In response to the abnormal approach of any “fifty shades” it is explicit about natural love making and what make us love. The action takes place in 1990 and covers political topics such as the fall of Margaret Thatcher after her divisive damage to the fabric of British society. It also raises events leading to the first Iraqi War . For professional reasons – as I had previous medical publications – the book was writing under the nom de plume of Louis de Savy.
    What I now want to know is whether you offer PROMOTIONAL facilities or can find a publishing house that would take over the book and therefore cover such facilities. If you wish to receive a copy of the book I can organise this.
    Would appreciate your comments.
    L R Celestin

  • Thank you for a very informative post. A lot of beginning writers have questions about querying, and it’s nice to see a bunch of them answered in one article. It significantly cuts down on procrastination time.

    One remark, though. You say that you’re “[…] not a huge fan of writers comparing their work to other projects (saying “It’s X meets Z” — that type of thing).”
    However, there are a lot of ‘successful query letter’ posts around, most of them stating that knowing the competition is a must, and showing this in your query is essential.

    Is it just the format which bothers you (X meets Y), or the general principle?

    All in all, a very helpful post. When querying time comes, I will be sure to check back here.

    The Noveling Novice

    • I think you’ve hit it on the head — knowing your competition is important, but saying your book is a combination of two existing works almost diminishes its value. Rather than describing what it’s like, why not describe what it is?

      Best of luck with your query!
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Patrick Chale says:

    Chuck you are great indeed. After presenting my Research Book on MBC TV, Malawi’s National Television, instead of promoting me to publish the book, every writter and publisher followed me with a poor negotiation ‘HOW MUCH SHOULD WE GIVE YOU FOR YOUR IDEAS? This was a poor approach. Me, I needed to have it published under my name, not somebody’s…. So Chuck you are doing a recommendable job by connecting us poor people to World Book Publishers

  • gary kent says:

    Both of my books are coming to there end of contracts. My 1ST “24 Year Colour Service” is my autobiography publisher Raider Publishing NY my 2ND “Challenger” is a moden war story with a twist at the end. I am writing my 3rd novel “Ice Block” witch is a story based in Lincoln before the start of the 1939 -45 war. My question would I be able to sell them again through you.
    Thanks for your understanding.

  • I want a paying job in freelance writing

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