| Don’t Write Alone
Toolkit How to Get a Literary Agent
Query smarter, not harder, to find the right agent for you.
I only queried for two weeks before I received multiple offers of representation and signed with my agent. But wait, before you hate me, you need to know that those whirlwind two weeks came after a full year of querying a previous version of The Book, which received a literal hundred rejections and one revise-and-resubmit request. Those revisions took me a year to complete and ultimately still resulted in a rejection and subsequent trunking of said Book for another year before I decided that I wasn’t done with it. I pulled it out, revised it with fresh eyes, queried again, and signed two weeks later.
I signed with my agent in November of 2019, and we took the holidays to do some more edits so we could get The Book out on submission in February 2020. As you might have guessed, this was not the most excellent timing.
The first round of submissions to editors garnered some interest. Then March came and the bottom fell out. Response times dragged on, and we got lost in that early shuffle.
We waited. We submitted a few more rounds. Everyone loved it and no one wanted it, so we paused submitting. This is the point at which some writers and agents cut their losses and try again with a new book, a new query, even a new agent. But the thought of leaving my agent was exhausting. Plus, I liked her and she liked me.
And this is where the biggest lesson I learned from my querying days kicked in—it ain’t over till it’s over.
Time passed. My agent and I took another look at The Book after a few years off and realized there was still some life left in the old girl. Now, I’m in the process of getting ready to shop her out again.
Conventional publishing wisdom states that you shouldn’t resubmit previously rejected projects. It also states that you’re not supposed to re-query a book you’ve already queried to death. But I did. I had re-queried this book to the same agencies that had rejected it previously, including to the agency that eventually offered me representation. Without breaking that rule, I wouldn’t be with the agent I have today.
It can feel like a never-ending battle. But persistence pays off—persistence, and the occasional breaking of rules.
Only time will tell if we’re making the right decision on The Book. But there’s no one I’d rather have guiding my career right now than the agent I broke rules to sign with.
The querying process is jokingly called “being in the trenches” for a reason. It can feel like a never-ending battle. But persistence pays off—persistence, and the occasional breaking of rules.
Here’s a guide on querying to find not just an agent, but the right agent for you.
1. Build your lists(s) before you submit.
The first thing you’re going to do is to gather up a list of every possible agent who reps what you’re selling. And I mean every possible agent . You’re not looking for fit at the moment; you’re looking for completeness. The goal is to get a comprehensive picture of the current landscape: established agents and agencies, storied stars of publishing, and the new upstarts looking to shake things up.
If you’re querying contemporary fiction, you should list every agent that represents contemporary fiction, regardless of your first impressions on their sales records, client list, web presence, etc. If they rep what you’re selling, they make the list. Your starting list may be over a hundred agents long. It doesn’t mean you’re going to query them all; it just means you know they’re out there.
To find them, you’ll need to pull out your library card (yes, you should absolutely have a library card) and check out the latest edition of Writer’s Market .
Your library should have the latest edition in stock (which at the time of this writing is their one hundredth edition) or will at least carry a reference copy. I checked mine out as an ebook so I could work off of it anywhere. I don’t recommend purchasing the book because it’s expensive and, like a fast car, loses its value as soon as it comes off the press. Things change and listings quickly go out of date.
Nearly every reputable agent and agency is listed in Writer’s Market . By starting there, you can rest assured you’re not going to miss anyone great.
Once you have your grand list of possibilities, you will get to googling. Look up each agent to confirm that they’re still in the business and open to queries. Do not, I repeat, do not query an agent who is closed to queries. I know I said to break rules, but this is a golden one that should never be broken. It doesn’t matter how good your work is. If they’re closed, they’re closed.
2. Separate your picks into tiers.
Time to hone the list. Rate your agent picks from one to five, with one being your dream picks and five being your “I’d be happy to work with them” list.
Go through each agent/agency on your list and look for the following:
who they represent;
their most recent deals; and
interviews, articles, podcasts where they have spoken about their working process.
Not all of this information is easily searchable online. To find an agent’s most recent deals, get yourself a Publisher’s Marketplace subscription. It’s twenty-five dollars a month, but you’ll only need it during this initial stage of information gathering. After that, you can cancel your subscription until you need it again (like when you have multiple agent offers because of your smart querying strategy).
Publisher’s Marketplace shows you the published authors the agent represents, which editors they’ve worked with, the kind of deals they’ve gotten in the past, and an idea of the money behind each deal. Words like pre-empt , auction , two-book deal , nice , and significant are very good words indeed. You don’t need to see a long list of fabulous deals for each agent to know they’re a good agent (though it is helpful), but you want to see a diversity of editors and houses and some kind of track record. In reviewing all their stats, keep in mind those who represent authors whose work is similar to yours in genre, tone, and voice. A really great agent that reps door-stopper opuses is probably not going to be the best agent for your lighthearted summer romp. (Pro tip: Make a list of your comp titles—recently published books that are similar to yours in tone and theme—and flip to the acknowledgements. Good authors thank their editor—and their agent.)
Knowing an agent’s sales numbers and repped author names is great. But to really know if they’re going to be a fit for you, you’ll want to get a sense of their working style: How hands-on they are editorially, their submission strategy, their history and philosophy behind growing writing careers.
When I was looking for my agent, I knew I wanted someone who would be there for the long haul, who would work with me to grow my career strategically; I wanted someone who wouldn’t just seek the biggest deal and throw me to the proverbial wolves if it didn’t materialize. (Or if a big deal did materialize but didn’t earn out.) I didn’t necessarily need a heavy editorial hand, but I did want a strategic mind.
To get a sense of each agent’s working style, look for interviews they’ve done or articles they’ve written or been quoted in. Poets and Writers and Writer’s Digest publish tons of agent interviews, as does Catapult and other online writing sites. You can also peruse podcasts, such as The Shit No One Tells You About Writing and Manuscript Wish List , to hear the agents talk about their clients and process. Manuscript Wish List is also a great site to learn more about each agent and what they want to see in their inboxes.
There are no hard-and-fast rules as to how many agents you should allocate to each tier. What’s more important is to know how you feel about each one. That’s because you get one (1) chance to query an agent with your current work. If your query is not up to par or your manuscript is not quite ready yet, you run the risk of wasting your shot with your dream team (barring any years-later massive overhauls to the work, like I did; remember, we’re supposed to be working smarter, not harder).
Here’s my spiciest rule-breaking tip: Skip tier one and query tier two first. See what kind of bites you get. Are you getting requests for full manuscripts? That’s a sign the query and opening pages are working. Consider them strong enough to send to the top dogs.
Is it fair to use tier two as guinea pigs? Yes. You’re not waiting for a tier-two agent to offer representation before submitting to tier one. You’re just waiting to see if there is interest . If there’s interest in tier two, there will probably be interest in tier one. It behooves everyone to move quickly on work they want to acquire, and agents know that.
3. Keep good records.
You need to keep good track of your data: who you’re querying, when you queried them (most agents say that no response after three months means no, so it’s important to know when those three months are up), if their agency considers a rejection from one agent to be a rejection from the entire company (or if you can try another agent there), and, most importantly, their responses to your work.
There’s beauty in creating a sense of urgency in publishing.
Agent responses run the gamut from radio silence to personal rejections to revise-and-resubmit requests (R & Rs) and others in between. Each response gives you more information on whether your work just needs to find the right reader or whether it needs more time in the revision oven. (More on how to decode your agent responses here .)
Keeping good records is how I ultimately found my current agent and worked my way into a very nice multiple-offer situation. Because I kept track of who I’d queried before and what their responses were, I was able to reach back out to those agents who had previously considered the full manuscript and asked if they would consider a significantly revised version. All of them said yes. Because I knew who had requested my work and didn’t have to go digging for that information, I could email each of the agents who were considering my full manuscript as soon as my offer came in. There’s beauty in creating a sense of urgency in publishing; it’s amazing how quickly your inbox will fill up with offers when agents realize someone else sensed something good.
Here’s a basic example of the spreadsheet I used while querying. Use wisely.
The secret to writing success has less to do with talent and much more to do with resilience. The writers who land agents and book deals aren’t necessarily the most talented artists to ever set pen to paper—they’re just the ones who didn’t give up. They’re the people who are reading this article and doing some real research about how this whole publishing shindig works. They’re you—if you decide to keep going.
What’s that saying? Ever queried. Ever rejected. No matter. Query again. Query better. Something like that.