Dispatches is a new series on our blog in which our writers-in-residence, Joan Leegant and Kary Wayson, discuss topics that come up often during their office hours. Want to make an appointment with Joan? Simply schedule one here.
Nuts & Bolts: The Agent Query
by Joan Leegant
Last week, two writers came to see me to talk about their query letters to agents. Query letters, for those not up on their publishing jargon, are brief inquiries—nowadays mostly emails—designed to conjure enough of an agent’s interest that s/he will ask to see all or part of your manuscript, following which you hope she’ll offer to take you on and try to sell your book to a publisher. For fiction writers and most memoirists, this means having a finished manuscript; for nonfiction writers, it means having a proposal and sample chapters to show.
Both writers had complete novels that had been extensively revised and were ready to be sent out. Both had done their homework. They’d researched what a query should read like and, like every writer I know, had spent hours crafting their letters. There is no shortage of information online with (often conflicting) advice on how to write the perfect query, including not only what to do (be succinct, smart, irresistible) but also what not to do (be cute, compare yourself to Tolstoy). Read enough of these advice blogs, and your anxiety level can shoot through the roof.
Not without reason. Agents can get upwards of a hundred queries a day. That’s a lot of pitching. Snap judgments are inevitable. The received wisdom is that getting an agent is as hard as getting a publisher. Just getting an agent to respond to your query is a coup.
How to keep from running for the nearest pharmaceuticals? The best antidote I know of comes from the words of agents themselves, who’ve peppered the internet with observations that give the query quandary some perspective. Here are a few nuggets.
- Writers need to remember that agents work for them;that agents depend on writers for their livelihoods and are looking for work they can sell. Translation: yes, you have to write a clear and informative query (and of course a good book) but the agent wants to be enticed to see your manuscript.
- There are hundreds of reputable literary agents out there. If Agent A isn’t interested in your work, there are still Agents B through Z squared. It’s not a small pool that, once exhausted, forever closes the door to your publishing future.
- A main reason agents ignore or reject queries is that those queries shouldn’t have gone to them in the first place. Why? The agent doesn’t represent the genre. The writer didn’t follow the agent’s guidelines. The manuscript, in the case of fiction, wasn’t finished. And the clincher, the query was so poorly written—rambling, confusing, bad sentences—that it was hard for the agent to believe the manuscript would be any better.
All of which should give thoughtful, good writers hope. The publishing process is both exhilarating and fraught, a challenge to those with even the steadiest of nerves. Common sense and a well-written letter, addressed to the right people, can go a long way to getting deserving writers the representation they seek while keeping them (reasonably) sane through the process.