Sunday, August 25, 2013

Adventures in Query Writing

Throughout August, I've been hunting down literary agents on the web, identifying agents who seem to be interested in conventional fantasy fiction, and sending them query letters in the hopes of finding representation. For those who haven't participated in this exercise, it's a ... unique experience.

Most agents want some combination of the following:

  • A query letter
  • A synopsis of your book
  • Some portion of your manuscript, from a few pages to a few chapters
Every agent is different. I've been told that literary agents receive a huge volume of queries; their job is to sift through a mountain of broken glass and find a diamond in it. I do not envy them this task. So when I find that this agent wants five sample pages while this other agent wants ten, or this other agent wants my material inline within the email while this other other agent wants it attached as a Word DOC, I'm glad to comply. Whatever works best for their workflow is fine with me, and I'm happy to accommodate.

But every so often, I run across an agent who has very particular requirements. Some agents have online forms that you must submit through, instead of sending e-mail. A few agents want to see all material, including the query letter, in the form of Word documents. It takes a little more work on my end to get my stuff prepared to meet some of these unique requirements, but if I want to get published, I have to be willing to do the work.

And then there are the agents who just seem to be constructing an arbitrary and elaborate series of obstacles for reasons known only to them. I feel at times like I'm being made to pass some sort of examination to see how thoroughly I can follow instructions. This, combined with the steady stream of rejection letters I've been getting back, makes this an exceptionally humbling experience.

So, for anyone out there who's planning to try to find an agent for a book, I would offer the following advice: when you find an agent's web site, read it carefully, and try to find the following:
  • Try to find the agency's web site, so that you can find their up-to-date information. There are several web sites that have listings of agents, but the information on those sites might be obsolete. The agent you're looking at might be out of the business, or might not be looking for your genre of fiction any more. Don't just send a query blind to someone's email unless you can determine their status first.
  • While you're on their web site, check for any danger signs that might indicate that this isn't a legitimate agent. Anyone who wants to charge you money just to read your manuscript is not the kind of agent you want to associate with. A legitimate agent earns his or her money from the publisher by selling your book. (Here is a good place to start if you want to learn more about organizations and entities that you should avoid.)
  • Try to identify whether or not they're interested in your type of work. Most agency web sites will list somewhere what they're looking for. If the web site has agent bio pages, this is usually a good place to start.
  • Find their submissions guidelines, and read them closely. You probably have a pre-prepared query letter and synopsis, but you might need to tweak what you have to meet a specific agent's needs. Don't get yourself disqualified just because you forgot to send something that the agent asked for.
  • Don't take rejection personally. Don't get upset at the agent who sends you a polite "thanks, but not thanks." Be professional. Query someone else.
In short: if you're going to try to find an agent, be prepared to put in a lot of work.