August 21, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: The (Very) Beginner's Guide to Querying

Most of you Misfiteers are experts at this whole book industry thing, but it has recently come to my attention that hey, not everybody is! I’ve been meeting some people lately who, when I tell them I have a book being published, ask me something like, so, did you tell the publisher your idea and they paid you to write the book? Or, I’m thinking about writing a book. How long does it take the publisher to print it after you write it?

Since it’s sucky and kind of embarrassing to be the newbie when it seems like everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, I thought I’d take a step back in this post, and start from the very, very beginning.

Disclaimers: 1. This post assumes you are interested in the traditional publishing path. (Traditional means querying agents until you find one to represent you, then having that agent submit your manuscript to publishers in hopes they want to buy it.) This is certainly not the only pub path available to authors, but will be what I’m writing about here. 2. This is not an exhaustive post on querying. You can find hundreds of fabulous articles on each of these steps, and I encourage you to do so! This is just a basic overview to send you in the right direction.


Step One
Finish the book.
Seriously. A lot of new writers think they can get a book deal with an idea. Unless you’re a celebrity, go ahead and assume you can’t. As a debut author, you MUST have a finished manuscript to even begin querying. Finish writing your MS, then edit it until you think it’s as perfect as it can be, then have a couple beta readers give you notes, then edit it again. And again.

Step Two
Write your query.
Agents get anywhere from dozens to thousands of queries a week. There’s no way they can read all the manuscripts from querying writers, so they have a method of deciding which ones to request and read, and that’s the query letter.
Think of a query like the back cover copy of a book. It’s the first thing an agent will see, and should entice them to read your book. It should be short (preferably less than 250 words total), punchy, and exciting, and tell about your protagonist, his/her main storyline and problem, and whatever details you can add to make your story stand out from the hundreds of others in the agent’s inbox. Your query should not give away the ending (again, like back cover copy).
There is a ton of info out there about writing query letters, and it’s not necessarily easy. Writing a query is a different skill set than writing a book, and it’s okay if you’re having a hard time, but don’t rush this step!

Step Three
Decide which agents to query.
The last thing you want to do is send your query to anyone and everyone who calls themselves an agent. I mean, say you’re a fried chicken vendor. Would you take your chicken stand to every convention that comes to town—even the vegan convention? Nope. In the same way, you don’t want to send your YA horror to an agent who tends to only rep light contemp.
To find agents who might be right for you, there are tons of resources on the web. Or, you could also look in the acknowledgments section of a few of your favorite books, and see who reps them. One caveat: Try not to query an agent who already reps a MS too similar to yours. If you write urban fantasy and an agent tends to like it? Great. If she has a book about a mermaid-turned-vampire, and you have the same thing, but with a twist…it’s probably too similar for that agent.

Step Four
Decide which agents to query first. Even if you’re happy with your query, and are eager to get going, don’t send it to your entire list all at once.
Why? Because if you get all form rejections, you know something’s not quite right, and you can tweak your query and still have plenty of agents left on your list to try again. People differ on this, but I recommend querying batches of maybe ten or so at a time, at least to start with. It’s enough for a good sample, but not enough that you’re wiping out all your prospects if you end up having to change your query.
On the other hand, don’t send just one query at a time. Agents expect you to send multiple queries at once—it’s the norm. Agents are busy, and it can sometimes take them a really long time to get through queries. (Six to eight weeks—or more!—to hear back just at the query stage is perfectly normal.) If you only send to one agent at a time, you’ll be doing a lot of waiting.
Figure out each agent’s submission guidelines and follow them exactly. Each agent is different—some want you to send just a query, some want the first five pages, some want a synopsis. The agent’s guidelines should be on his or her agency website, and if you dare to think for a second that it’s not worth your time to look each one up and personalize to their guidelines, I’m sorry to say it, but you’re going to have a hard time with this querying thing, dude.
And also. I don’t think I have to say this, but be professional. Spell the agents’ names correctly. Don’t be weird or overly cocky or demanding (“This book will be a bestseller and you’ll be sorry if you don’t take it on” doesn’t sound confident—it sounds a little psycho.) You’ll put yourself ahead of the game automatically by making sure your query—and your querying demeanor—is professional and friendly and normal.

Step Five
Send those suckers!
Don’t cc: every agent you’re querying on the same email. Take the time to personalize each query with the agent’s name and why you’re querying them (and you did look at their sub guidelines, right?).

Step Six
(See above about how long it can take to hear back.) Some agents are super quick, and might write back in a day. Or an hour. Some might take three months.

Step Seven
A request will be either for a partial (some amount of pages, specified by the agent, plus often a synopsis) or a full (the entire manuscript). Send what they ask for, and promptly.
(If you’re not getting any requests at all, see above about tweaking your query. It’s okay—that’s why you sent them in small batches!)

Step Eight
Wait again.
Maybe you’ll get a bite, and an agent will up a partial request to a full, or they’ll even want to rep you! YAY!
If you don’t get any interest in your manuscript, see what the Rs (short for rejections) are saying. Are you getting a lot of requests but all form Rs on the material (a form R is when the agent doesn’t offer any specifics about why they’re passing, but just sends a short, polite rejection)? Or if you’re getting feedback, is it all contradictory? Consider that maybe it’s the MS that needs reworking, and maybe consider getting a couple more readers to help determine what might be going on.
Or are you getting multiple agents saying the same things in their rejections, like that they like the story, but aren’t enamored with the characters? Seriously consider they might be right, and maybe do some more tweaking.

Step Nine
There are two ways this can end: you get an agent or you don’t.
If you do, woohoo!! What if you don’t? How long should you keep querying this same manuscript? There’s no real answer. All I’ll say is that I’ve seen some of the same MSs bouncing around the internet for years looking for an agent, and if I were those writers, I might start working on something else. It could be that something about this particular MS just isn’t quite publication-ready yet, and that’s okay. Tons of great writers snag an agent on their second, third, or twelfth manuscript, once they get some more practice under their belts, or hit on the right storyline at the right time, or whatever. Or it could just be that publishers aren’t looking for your genre right now. Or something else. Whatever it is, it’s up to you to choose where to go from there.
Last word of advice on that: please, whatever you do, don’t lose hope in your writing, and along the same lines, don’t get desperate enough to sign with somebody you aren’t in love with just because they offer to rep you. Remember, a bad agent is way worse than no agent at all, and waiting until you have a MS that will snag you your dream agent is nothing to be ashamed of. 

Very best of luck to all you newbies!


erica m. chapman said...

Great list, Maggie! Some good stuff to remember ;o)

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