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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Iacopelli

On Querying: Part 1 - Choosing Agents

Updated: Jun 20

I want to begin with a fair warning. This isn't a step by step How to Query guide. There are dozens of places to find that information. This series will outline the process I used to query successfully out of the slush pile, twice. Nothing more, nothing less. I hope it's helpful and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out!

Before we really get started, a quick overview, for those of you who might be new to this process. If you want to be traditionally published with an imprint at Big Five Publisher (Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) or even a smaller, independent press, you’ll need a literary agent as most of these publishing houses are closed to unsolicited submissions. An agent represents you and your manuscript as a sort of first line of defense for publishers that, even with that layer of protection in place, are constantly inundated with materials. If an agent sells your manuscript to a publisher, then and only then are they paid: usually a 15% commission, though this can vary very, very slightly. Never, EVER, pay an “agent” prior to a sale and a signed contract. EVER. From there, the publisher will take the reins and get your book out into the world.

Okay? Okay. All that out of the way, let’s dive in.

Over the years one of the consistent messages I’ve seen to writers in the query trenches is never query an agent that you wouldn’t want to work with. This is advice from well-meaning agents whose time is wasted over and over again by people who aren’t doing their due diligence and making the an agent’s query inbox quite frankly, something deserving of its moniker, slush pile.

I’m here to tell you something different. There is absolutely no way you can know if you want to work with an agent until you’ve spoken to that agent about your manuscript, your future projects and your plans for your career. It is impossible.

Throw that advice out the window and look at it this way instead: the entire point of the querying process is to narrow down the list of agents you’d potentially be interested in working with, if their vision for your manuscript and your career aligns with yours. That’s what you should be looking for, not some magical unicorn that will offer immediately upon reading your query letter because they just know they want to work with you. They can’t know that without reading your MS and speaking to you. It works both ways.

Writing is an art. It requires hard work and talent and a little sprinkling of that something extra that no one can seem to put a name to, but everyone knows it when they see it.

Querying, at least at first, is a science. Querying is spreadsheets and checklists and cold, calculating decisions based upon aggregated data.

To borrow from The Godfather and later from You’ve Got Mail, it’s not personal, it’s business. Repeat it to yourself. It’s not personal. It’s business.

I’ve queried twice. Once in 2012 and then again in 2018. The first time I signed with an agent in a little less than two months. The second time, I signed after three weeks. Miraculous? Maybe, but I credit that fast turnaround to the research I did prior to sending out my queries and understanding what I needed to do to maximize my own chances of securing, not just any representation, but the right agent for my career.

As we delve into this complicated topic, I’m going to assume something about you: that you’ve written a manuscript and that you’ve polished that manuscript to within an inch of its life. You’ve addressed narrative structure, character development, themes, pacing, sub-plots, sentence variety, word choice and anything else I’m leaving out. Your first five to ten pages practically sing from the amount of attention you’ve given them. You’ve done all of that because you’re a very serious writer with the very serious goal of having your manuscript traditionally published. Therefore, you need a literary agent to represent you and your career. (Side note: if you don’t want to work with an agent, that’s perfectly legitimate. Kudos to you for taking control of your own career and you have my respect and admiration for it. That being said, this series isn’t for you.)

So, if you’ve written a polished manuscript that’s at the point where it needs an agent and editor’s guidance to get it on the bookstore shelves, it’s time to query.

But, who do you query?

The answer is simple, though somehow, confusion still seems to reign supreme in the query trenches. You should query any and all agents who may be a good fit for you and your career.

And, how do you know that?

There are three questions to answer when deciding whether or not you should query a particular agent and I’ve asked them of myself each time I added an agent to my list - or not.

  • Does this agent represent the category/genre of your current manuscript?

  • Does this agent work for a reputable agency?

  • Does this agent have a record of sales in the category/genre of your current manuscript?

Let’s address these one by one.

The first question is what I call, if you’ll forgive the mathematical term, The Given. There is some wiggle room with the second and third question, but not the first. The first is a must:

Does this agent represent the category/genre of your current manuscript?

An agent must represent the category and genre of the manuscript you are currently querying.

No, it doesn’t matter if everything else you’ve ever written is Adult Urban Fantasy. If this manuscript is YA Science Fiction, then you should only be targeting agents that represent YA Science Fiction.

Should you be narrowing your focus further if you’ve written this wonderful YA Sci-Fi, but know that in the future you want to sell your Adult Urban Fantasy? Maybe. That’s up to you, but again, you are querying this manuscript. Focus there.

Identify your manuscript’s category and genre first. (If you can’t do this, you need to take a trip to the bookstore and look around. Where would your book fit best? The question is that simple. Don’t concern yourself with subplots and, “but it has a touch of this and a bit of that.” No. Where would the nice workers at the bookstore put your MS if they had to make it fit somewhere? That’s your answer. If it truly doesn’t fit anywhere then you either need to go back and make some major changes or consider self-publishing. The bookstore model isn’t perfect and there are things that fall through the cracks. They’re rare, but they exist.

Okay, moving on, you’ve determined your genre and category. Great. Time to query, but which agents? You have your given question. Start there.

I used to help narrow my search down. The website is free (the paid version gives you some fun data analysis, but is largely unnecessary unless data is your thing. *clears throat* Data is totally my thing, so I subscribed to the paid version and obsessed over the charts and graphs). Querytracker lets you search for an agent by the genre and category you’ve determined is the best fit for your manuscript.

You now have a preliminary list of agents, but this is not the list you are going to use to query. We have to drill down further.

Time for the second question:

Does this agent work for a reputable agency?

This question becomes easier to answer off the top of your head the longer you’re in and around publishing. When I queried the first time I had no idea which agencies were reputable at all. The second time around, there were agencies that were an immediate yes, some that were an immediate no and other that I had to to look into further.

Take a look at the agency’s website. They do have a website, right?

  • Does it look high quality?

  • Does it reference authors and books you recognize?

  • Does the agent(s) you’re looking into have a page where they describe the kind of books they’re looking for?

  • Does the agency have specific guidelines they want you to follow when submitting? (Spoiler alert: the answer to this question is yes, make a note of those directions in Querytracker or your spreadsheet or wherever you’re keeping information. We’ll talk about how to follow those guidelines in Part Two of this series).

  • If it’s a relatively new agency, does the agent describe previous successful experience and sales at a larger, more reputable agency?

  • Or, alternatively, did the agency seem to pop up out of nowhere, perhaps started by an intern, assistant or a junior agent with a very limited record of sales or experience?

So you’ve looked around the agency’s website and they seem like a legitimate agency that sells manuscripts to publishers in your category and genre. Great! You’re still not done. Time for questions number three:

Does this agent have a record of sales in the category/genre of your current manuscript?

Sales record. An agency’s website will only show you what they’ve done in the past. Digging deeper, as far as I’m concerned, is part of your due diligence. What is that agency, and the agent you’re researching, doing right now and in the future? Here’s where things get less free. I highly recommend a subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace. It’s $25 per month, but it is worth every penny while you’re researching. (It’s more than possible to do all of this research over the course of a month to avoid paying more than $25.) It’s an investment into yourself and your career. Of course, you can definitely research extensively without a Publisher’s Marketplace subscription, but you won’t find a place where all of this information is at your fingertips. If you do choose to subscribe, you’ll want to dig into an agency’s sales record. Check the agent on your list.

  • Has the agent sold manuscripts in your genre/category before?

  • If not, has the agency sold manuscripts in your genre/category before (and therefore has an industry wide reputation for placing said manuscripts)?

I cannot stress this enough: take notes as you do this research. Querytracker has a “letter” section where you can put your research on a particular agent. Make a note about their submission policies and what content you’ll need for your eventual query letter. Keep good notes now and you’ll make Future You very happy.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Do this for every agent on your potential list. Sometimes you’ll see something that throws up a red flag (zero sales in a category despite claiming to sell it, an agent with zero sales at all, etc. etc. etc.). By the time you’ve gone through all those websites, you’ll have decent idea of which agents should be on the receiving end of your query letters.

But, what if more than one agent from a reputable agency feels like a fit, but the agency says you can only query one or one at a time?

Dig deeper. Check the agents’ Twitter accounts. Check Manuscript Wishlist. Google them and see if you can track down an interview where they discussed their tastes. Try and figure out which one would be the better fit. All things being equal, check Querytracker and try to gauge which agent responds to queries faster based on the information there. I usually just queried the faster respondent, first. If that doesn’t help, go with your gut. Trust your instincts.

Quickly, I’ll take you through how I knew I wanted to query my agent, the phenomenal Alice Sutherland-Hawes of the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency.

Alice was on the list of agents that appeared on Querytracker when I limited my search by genre and category. Her page on Querytracker led me to her agency’s website and I was immediately impressed by the agency itself. Madeleine Milburn, the founder, won the 2018 British Book Awards Literary Agent of the Year. The agency represents some major authors and sells books in the US, UK and almost all other territories. Alice is the agency’s Rights Agent and is looking to expand the agency’s children’s list. A quick glance at her Publisher’s Marketplace page told me that she not only sold a ton of translation and foreign rights for her agency, but that she’s successfully sold Young Adult manuscripts to Big Five publishers. Her sales record, even though she’s just beginning to really build her own list, spoke to her work ethic and abilities and she works for an agency with a respected reputation within the industry - which helps to open doors. Thus, she went on my “to query list.”

That’s it for now. Next time I’ll talk about the query letter itself. What should go into it, what shouldn’t, the art of personalizing and the pitch itself!

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