Query Theory (Part 2)

Swipe Write?

Finding Your Agent Match

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It’s often said that the agent-author relationship is a ‘business marriage’, and it’s certainly true that querying literary agents is a lot like online dating. You read their profile, and get that tingly feeling that maybe they could be the one. So you take a deep breath, and send them a message.

Sometimes they don’t respond. Sometimes they politely say thanks, but no thanks (‘Thank you for your submission, which I read with interest. Unfortunately…’). Sometimes, they want to get to know your book better (‘I would be grateful if you would send me the entire manuscript’) – but ultimately decide not to hook up. Sometimes they’ll say they’re just not that into you (‘I wasn’t passionate enough about it’) sometimes they’ll say it’s not you, it’s me (‘Unfortunately I just don’t have room on my list’). But sometimes…. Sometimes… the planets align, the fireworks ignite, (‘I’ve now finished your manuscript. Please can we arrange a time to speak on the phone?’) and then it’s time for your Mum to buy a new hat.

As I said in my previous post, there’s a lot about the query process that is out of the author’s control. But, we can give ourselves the best shot by paying attention to the things we can control. The second of these is WHO we query.

Do The Right Amount of Research

Bachelor number two enjoys nights at the opera, long country walks, and fine dining.

So why the hell would you send him a message asking if he’d like to go to an inner city rave and grab a McDonalds? You wouldn’t, right?

It should go without saying (but judging by the amount of literary agents I’ve seen ranting about it on Twitter, it doesn’t) don’t send your query to an agent who doesn’t represent your genre. It’s a waste of everyone’s time – including your fellow authors, who have to wait even longer for responses because agents are sifting through completely inappropriate submissions.

If an agent is seeking ‘cozy mysteries’ – don’t send them sci fi. You may be thinking, ‘but they just haven’t read the right sci fi. If only they read MY sci fi, they’d change their mind.’ They won’t. It’s not just about personal taste, though obviously that’s a big part of it, agents who rep certain genres do so because that’s the market they know. They know the editors who might be interested, they know the current trends. Even if you send Ms Lit Fic Agent a contemporary erotic space opera, and by some miracle she actually reads it and loves it, she is NOT going to offer to represent it, because she doesn’t haven’t the contacts/market knowledge to do so effectively.

So, do your research. Most agents list the genres they represent, and often the type of submissions they are actively looking for, on their web sites. You can also look at their existing client list which can give you a good idea about whether they’re a match for you and your manuscript.

The Fine Line…

Don’t over-research. For your own sanity.

Imagine you are sending a hopeful ‘hello’ message to a potential love match. It’s a good idea to have checked their profile, made sure you have stuff in common, first. (And BE SURE they are legit – see ‘Schmagents’ below) But, it is NOT a good idea to have looked for every single scrap of information about them that has ever been posted online, ever.

It’s far too easy to build a particular agent up as ‘the one’ before you even send an initial query. So, think of it in dating terms. If you knew a person’s entire life history, the fact that they tend to eat at Nando’s on a Thursday, the names of their five dogs and the tube they take every day, before they’d even replied to your ‘hello’ you’d be considered a little bit stalky, no? Moreover, you’d be waaaay too invested in an image of them that may not even be true – and the rejection/lack of response is going to hurt much more than it should.

Thing is, we writers tend to be quite good at research. We have to be, to make sure our stories ring true. I once spent hours ‘virtually’ walking through London streets (thanks to Google Street View) in order to visualise the route my character would take. I’ve bugged various tourist boards with odd questions. I’ve got a search history that would leave the FBI severely bemused. But, before you send an initial query, just focus on what you really need to know:

Does the agent rep your genre?
Are they a legitimate agent, with legitimate clients/sales?
Are they currently accepting submissions?
Does your manuscript fit with the books they already represent?
Do they seem like someone you could work with?

If the answer is yes to all of the above, send them a query (according to their guidelines). Then try to forget about it. The time to do a little more research is if they ask for a full – that way if they offer representation you will be prepared with all the questions you need answers to before you accept/decline. If they show interest, it’s a good idea to look at their ‘dating history’ (current/previous clients). Are they the type that likes long term commitment (repping an author for their whole career – come what may)? Or are they more into casual hook-ups (repping on a book-by-book basis)? Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong – but it has to match your needs.

Listen To Your Gut

If something, deep down, tells you that you wouldn’t feel happy working with a particular agent if they offered, just don’t query them. You wouldn’t send a flirty message to someone you had no interest in. You don’t have to be completely sure they’re The One (you can’t be at this stage!) but you need to at least feel there’s a possibility.

Equally, if they show interest, remember that this is a two way street – just like dating. You are not required to jump into bed with someone just because YOU were the one to initiate conversation. A query is a ‘Hey, you seem nice. I’d like to see if there might be a connection.’ – It’s the equivalent of offering to buy them a drink. If they enjoy having a drink with you (reading your submission package) maybe it’ll progress to dinner (full request). Maybe the dinner goes well, and conversation flows. But, none of this means you have to say ‘yes’ if they propose (offer representation). Similarly, they don’t owe you anything – not even an explanation (though hopefully they’ll give you one – but often not) if they don’t want to take things further. Even if they seem really keen, sudden ghosting can and does happen – a lot.

Schmagents (Author Beware!)

These are the catfish of the querying world. They are the exotic princes who are totally in love with you, and if only you could wire them your life savings they can come and live with you forever. They’re the twenty-four year old CEO who wants to wine and dine you, but when you turn up at the restaurant they’re really a fifty-six year old laybout who wants someone to wash his pants.

Reputable agents will not charge upfront fees. Reputable agents do not charge you for editing. Legitimate agents charge commission (typically 15% domestic 20% foreign – but this can vary) meaning they don’t get paid unless you do.

Be absolutely sure you are not querying schmagents. Can you imagine anything more heartbreaking than getting ‘the call’, only to find out they are actually trying to sell you their editing service? (Hint: These types likely make ‘The Call’ to EVERYONE who queries – they’re making their money from selling their editing service, doesn’t matter much to them if you get published or not. And it’ll likely be not if you sign with them).

If an agent ever asks you for money upfront – run a mile. And shout it from the rooftops on the sites dedicated to protecting authors from scammers (e.g. Predators and Editors, Writer Beware, Absolute Write)

Also, check out this excellent blog post from Rights of Writers to help you avoid falling for the top six scams targeting writers.

 

Wherefore Art Thou, Agent?

So, now you know what to look for in an agent, and what to steer clear of, WHERE are you going to find these potential literary soulmates?

Here’s a list of some (not all) of the best places to find literary agents who are seeking clients:

Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook – My absolute favourite resource (and where I ultimately found my agent). It’s not free – but worth the investment I think (or put it on your Christmas list!)

Manuscript Wish List – A list of what agents are currently looking for. Plus search #MSWL on Twitter for updates.

Query Tracker – designed to help you keep track of sent queries, but also great for finding agents who rep your genre

Writers’ Digest – Often features agent profiles, and new agent alerts.

 

Thanks so much for reading, happy agent hunting!

Query Theory (Part 1)

Are You Ready?

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Welcome to the first post in my ‘Query Theory’ series!

Querying for the first time is not unlike taking all your hopes and dreams, wrapping them in ribbons, and throwing them off a mountain in the vague hope that, beneath the swirling mists, there lies a fabled creature called ‘The Right Literary Agent’ who will catch them, cradle them, nurture them and raise them into something magnificent. Whilst all the time worrying that your precious bundle will instead be ripped apart by the ever feared ‘Rejecting Agents’, or worse (yes, worse… if you don’t believe me now, wait until you’ve been querying a while) simply disappear into the ether, being too unimportant for the pack to even bother sniffing, let alone savaging.

In short, there’s a lot about the query process that is beyond the author’s control. Which tends to bug us, quite a bit. Up until this point, we’ve been the masters of our own dreams. We (literally) wrote our own stories. We gave life to characters with a tipitty tap of our fingers, and cackled maniacally as we erased whole lives from existence with CTL X. We like control.

Don’t believe me? Why do you think there are so many resources out there for querying authors? Tools for tracking your queries, whole sites devoted to listing agents and their preferences, pitching contests on Twitter, blogs, tips, forums all devoted to the process? They help us to try to gain some sense of control. Try to find some reason/pattern/logic in what is, ultimately, a highly subjective experience that is unique for everyone.

The harsh truth is, there is very little you can control once you launch that bundle off the mountaintop. Once you’ve sent those queries out, all bets are off. I can tell you over and over again that studying Query Tracker, or rereading agents’ Twitter feeds ten thousand times, will do nothing but drive you crazy; that there is no pattern or logic to be found, but you’ll do it all anyway.

So, let’s focus on the things you CAN control.

You can control WHEN you query, WHO you query, and HOW you query. Today, let’s look at when.

 

Ready to Query?

You are the master of your queries, until you send them. Do yourself a huge favour by making sure you are absolutely ready before you hit that ‘send’ button.

 

The Not Ready and the Never Ready

A lot of writers fall into one of two traps.

Some, in their eagerness, query before they and/or their manuscript are truly ready. This can be disastrous, especially if they send to every possible agent all at once, leaving nowhere to go once they finally accept that more work is needed.

Others never feel the work is good enough, and will revise, tweak, edit and curse at their manuscript until they grow old and die; unless someone snaps them out of it. I am one of these. If it wasn’t for my critique partners screaming at me, telling me in no uncertain terms that it was ready, and threatening me with painful death if I dared shelve it without querying, I would still be rewriting odd sentences and periodically declaring myself to be ‘a useless, shitty, writer’ without ever having even tried.

As far as I can tell, the ONLY cure for writers in the second camp is bossy critique partners – so get yourself some if you’re of the it’s-never-good-enough variety of authors.

But for those who are worried they might be in the first camp, here are some questions to consider:

 

Is Your Manuscript Ready?

Is your work as polished as you can possibly make it?

This is not to say, ‘is your work perfect’ because, NEWSFLASH – it’s not. But is it as close to perfect as you can get it without industry help? The WHOLE manuscript? Because, it’s tempting, when you hear stories about how long agents take to respond to initial queries, to send off your submission package when there’s still work to be done on later chapters. For the love of God, don’t do this! Yes, sometimes they take an eye-wateringly long time to respond, if at all. But, most of my full requests actually came within days. My agent’s request came within hours. Don’t chance it.

Have you had (and taken on board) feedback?

Not just your mum, partner, friend, sister, cat etc etc (though obviously their opinions are great to have too!) have you had honest, preferably harsh, critique from beta readers and critique partners?

Have you let it ‘sit’?

Please, please, don’t submit your manuscript as soon as you finish it. You’ll read it back a few weeks later and want to bash your head against a wall. There are ALWAYS problems we can’t see when we’re still very close to our words. Give yourself some distance, because with it comes objectivity, before doing that final read-through. Please. You will save yourself the anguish of discovering problems when it’s too late to fix them.

Is it formatted correctly?

Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it certainly helps an agent’s immersion if your material is correctly formatted – and therefore easier for them to read. And we all want the agent we sign with to have been completely immersed in our words, right?

Are YOU ready?

I’m not going to insult you by asking you if you can handle rejection. You already know it’s inevitable. And nobody really knows how they’ll feel until it happens. Even if you’ve had short pieces rejected, having your book baby dismissed with a copied and pasted ‘Dear Author’ email is a whole different teapot of tadpoles. It’s unavoidable, and one of those things you have no control over. But there are other ways to tell if you, as an author, are ready.

Do you have realistic expectations?

Not just about the query process, but about agents in general. Do you know what they do, and don’t do? Do you know what type of agent (large agency, boutique, lone agent) you’d ideally like? And the pros and cons of each? If you’re not sure, talking to repped authors is a great way to work out the type of agent experience that would be the best fit for you. If you don’t know any, just try approaching some on Twitter. Authors are generally a pretty friendly bunch, and we love talking about writing and publishing. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? So maybe they won’t respond? – Well, frankly that’s just good practice for querying anyway 😉

How do you feel about critique?

Even if an agent loves your book, it is highly likely they will want revisions. In fact, a lot of agents discuss revisions with you BEFORE they offer representation. In no small part, this is because they need to be sure you are someone they can work with, someone who is open to making changes. Sometimes these changes will be obviously beneficial to the book as a whole, sometimes they may be changes that will make your book more marketable.

We all dislike criticism when we start out. But, by the time we’re ready to query we actively seek it, and embrace it (the constructive kind anyway). The first time I had to make revisions after feedback from a beta, I sat staring at my printed out pages, feeling like I was up against a wall. I couldn’t see what to do, couldn’t fathom how I was going to make it all flow again.

But by the time my agent called to offer, my mind was like an episode of Sherlock (when it came to my manuscript anyway. In real life I still couldn’t organise my sock drawer). When she made a suggestion, I could instantly see the parts of the book (even the very sentences) that ought to be changed, and the tendrils that connected those parts to other parts that would then need altering, and it was exciting. Her suggestions made my brain spark, and revision became a thing of possibility, not dread.

Do you know your manuscript that well? Do suggestions for improvement fill you with dread, or excitement? You are not going to get from finished draft to traditionally published book on a shelf in Waterstone’s without making revisions. As uncertain as the whole process is, I am certain of that much. So, this is a biggie. If you can’t bear to change a single word, you’re either not yet ready for traditional publishing, or it’s not the path you really want to take.

Do you have chocolate?

Perhaps the most important question of all. Once you hit send, you’re going to need some seriously indulgent sustenance!

 

Thanks so much for reading, please feel free to leave comments/questions.

Next post: WHO to query (researching agents, making the right choices, avoiding schmagents – there are some shark infested waters out there!)

How I Got My Agent

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In case you missed the Twitter announcement, I am absolutely thrilled to say that I am now officially represented by the very lovely Emily Sweet (Emily Sweet Associates.)

If you’d have told me two months ago (when I was deep in the emotional turmoil of the dreaded ‘Query Trenches’) that I would be writing one of these blog posts – the type I devoured to try to distract myself from constantly refreshing my inbox, I would have laughed. Or cried. Or stared at you with wild eyes, twitched a bit, and then hoovered up anything vaguely chocolatey in the vicinity. Because querying was like being in some kind of limbo-esque parallel universe. You smile and nod, you make the right noises in your daily interactions, but your brain is somewhere in an agent’s unread inbox, and your fingers constantly twitch – compelled to check your email, even though you’ve got your notifications set to ‘Sonic Boom’ so there’s no way you could have missed an incoming message… But, that little old lady’s trolley wheel was a bit squeaky, maybe you DID miss it? Better check…

So why did I put myself through it? Well, if your goal is to be traditionally published, chances are you are going to need an agent.  The majority of traditional publishers do not accept submissions from unagented authors (unless they’re running a particular competition/open submission period). Given that there are vastly more agents than there are publishers, and that many of these agents receive hundreds of submissions A WEEK, you can kinda see why. But, an agent (a good one anyway) is more than just a book seller. The right agent can help you get your manuscript ready for publishers, advise you on all aspects of your writing career, and hold your hand when it all gets a bit much.

Query Stats

So, my stats (because I know that’s what all the currently querying authors want to know 😉 )

Queries sent: 28

Full Requests: 5

Form Rejections: 5

Queries withdrawn/not responded to: 18

Offers of Representation: 2

The Journey

Initially, I sent just five queries, to agents I had seen active on Twitter who seemed like they might be a good fit. Two of them came back within days asking for the full manuscript. I was elated, overjoyed, bouncing off the walls… and naïve.

I reasoned (disclaimer: querying authors have no sense of reason. Do not trust your reason when you’re querying) that it would be foolish to send any more queries until I’d heard back on the fulls. What if there was something glaring wrong with the book? If I’d already sent it to all and sundry I could keep getting rejected for the same thing. So I waited.

And waited…

And waited…

Hint: There is a lot of waiting involved in the query process.

Summer holidays came, and I tried to put my non-pinging inbox out of my mind. But when September came around I decided I’d waited long enough (FYI, I never did hear back on those fulls). So, I resolved this time to take a more methodical approach than just querying agents I had looked up (OK, stalked…) on Twitter.

Out came the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, and I went through the list of literary agents, looking at their websites and researching their preferences and submission guidelines. Finally, I had a list of twenty three agents I thought might be interested in my humble manuscript. One of whom was Emily.

I sent twenty three queries in two days. This is no mean feat. Yes, lots of agents ask for the ‘standard’ submission package (query letter, synopsis, first three chapters), but plenty don’t. Some want differing lengths of sample material, some want you to copy and paste into an email, some want a bio. Some want your first born child gift wrapped in scented paper – OK, I made that one up. Emily’s website asked for just the covering letter initially – so I duly sent that, and continued on with my marathon query sesh.

About an hour later, while I was busy cursing an agent who wanted the sample material formatted COMPLETELY differently to anyone else, (WHY?) my inbox chimed. It was Emily, and she liked my pitch. She asked for the first ten thousand words and synopsis. Fortunately, by this point I had approximately ten squillion different files with every length of sample material you could ever wish for, so I located my ‘first 10k’ file and sent it off.

I didn’t expect to hear anything quickly… or ever, to be honest. But to my surprise, a couple of hours later she replied again, complimenting my writing and asking for the full manuscript. After the months of deafening silence, I MAY have screamed a little bit…

After squealing at my husband, and cursing Windows 10 for choosing THIS moment to do an update, I composed myself and sent off the manuscript. Shortly after, more full requests rolled in, and were sent off. Then, I prepared myself for the long wait.

Which, as it turns out, wasn’t long at all…

The Call

The day after I sent my manuscript to Emily, I received an email from her – late in the evening. She’d already read the whole book! And what’s more, she described it as ‘incredible’ and wanted to arrange a time to speak on the phone! I was at work at the time (on a nightshift) so my poor colleague had to put up with me squealing, crying, and swearing at my phone for its lousy internet connection. We arranged to speak the next morning. I mean, there was no way I was going to be able to sleep, even after a long shift, until I’d heard what she had to say.

I tried not to get too excited. I had heard tell of ‘The Call that is not The Call’ – agents calling authors usually means they’re thinking of offering representation, but some poor souls have received calls only to be told all the reasons why the agent can’t offer…

But, it was indeed ‘The Call’ – after a long chat about the book, possible revisions, and future career, Emily said the magic words, “I’d like to offer you representation.” She was so passionate, so lovely, and I could already see how her suggestions would improve the book, I wanted to say ‘Yes!’ right there and then… But somehow I kept my cool. I was already out on full elsewhere, and I had to give other agents a fair chance to make counter offers (not that I expected any!). Emily didn’t give me a time limit for my answer (yet another reason I felt she was ‘the one’), but I promised to get back to her within two weeks.

Silence is Broken

My dead-as-the-grave inbox was in for a big surprise when I started notifying other agents of an offer of representation.

At this point, I had a good hard look at who I had queried, and (not wanting to waste anyone’s time) wrote to withdraw my submission from most of the agents. For those I felt I would still consider an offer from, I simply notified them and gave them a ten day deadline if they wished to counter offer.

All of a sudden, I went from a never-changing-inbox to having more emails than I could handle. Notified agents replied almost instantly, promising to get back to me ASAP. Even agents I had withdrawn from sent congratulations ‘to you and your agent’! It was a little surreal.

In the end, I did receive a counter offer – and from an agent who was one of my top picks. Choosing between them was one of the hardest decisions of my life (more about multiple offers in a later post), but in the end I went with my heart. Emily’s passion for my novel, and the gut feeling that we were simply a better fit personality wise, drew me to her. And then I found myself in the very topsy-turvy position of being the one to make ‘The Call’ to an agent, and having to send a decline to the other.

In the end, after months of waiting on other agents, I went from initial query to offer in less than 48 hours. And signed two weeks later.

For Those In ‘The Query Trenches’

But, the query process is different for everyone. One of the best things about the writing community is its ‘pay it forward’ camaraderie.  I learned everything I needed to know about querying from other writers, and will be passing what I’ve learned on to other authors who are yet to query, or who are currently in the trenches.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing posts on every aspect of the torture that is trying to secure a literary agent. From writing a killer query letter, and doing your research, to how to cope with silence, and what to do when you receive more than one offer.

I’ll be compiling some of the best resources for querying authors, and even offering some query letter critiques to my followers – so watch this space!