A Year In The Query Trenches & Exactly One Tip

Sometimes you wish you could just audition in person (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

This one’s for the writers. Readers, I’ll see you next week.unless you haven’t read all my previous book reviews? Why not start here?

A Year in the Query Trenches:

As many of you know, I am also a writer. In 2021, I queried my first manuscript, a dark-fantasy YA mystery about monster hunters in a pseudo-Victorian setting. I sent 42 queries to 36 agents and 6 independent presses. My hope in sharing these results is that other aspiring or newer authors glimpse an honest picture of what it’s like to send your work into the world. I’m still relatively new at this, but I have one important take-away from my experience which I believe will improve your chances at getting an agent’s attention. More on that later.

The Importance of Doing Your Homework: 

I fell just short of my goal of 50 queries. If you’re doing it right, querying agents is not as simple as googling a bunch of agents and CC-ing all in a “to whom it may concern” email. That shotgun approach is a highway to the trash folder. 

Consider: Many Agents…

  • …have a full client list and are not open to submissions. 
  • …have specific times of the year they look for new authors. 
  • …ask that you don’t submit to multiple agents within the same agency. Pick one. In many cases, they know one another’s taste and contacts, and will share manuscripts with one another if they think there is a better fit within the same office. 
  • …have unique submission requirements. There is no universal format. Read the requirements twice, prepare your materials, then read them again before mashing “send”. 
  • …represent only certain genres or age categories. To submit the wrong sort of book to them wastes everyone’s time. 

For these reasons and more, it is essential to research potential agents before submitting. Beyond just Google searches and stumbling across them on social media, I found these agent hubs to be useful starting points…

… but don’t stop there. Check the agency’s website. These folks are busy, and they’ve cast a wide net. If you find a discrepancy between the hub and their website, trust the website. For example, I found more than one agent on some of these hubs has been promoted to editor, and therefore was no longer in the business of building their client list.

Your manuscript will be under a microscope… why shouldn’t they be? (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Chances are you’ve heard this already, but in case you haven’t, please internalize this mantra: money flows toward the author.

I’ll say it again: money flows toward the author.

Professional literary agents make money by selling unpublished manuscripts to publishing houses. They do not make their money from reading fees, consulting fees, fee fees, or any other fees. If they describe themselves as a “hybrid” publisher, be cautious. That’s probably code for a vanity press, where you pay a premium to get your book published by a company who performs services you could either do yourself or pay a real freelancer to do more professionally for less money. These leeches often have little to no power to actually get your book into reader’s hands. Good publisher’s sites (not agents, those are different) are geared towards attracting readers, not writers. They highlight their published works, not their publishing services. The premier source for checking whether an agent or press is trustworthy is Writer Beware. 

That’s enough of that, on to the charts… 

The Charts: 

Overall, I sent 42 queries: 

  • 14 – No answer: No response after 3 months. Exactly two agents responded beyond this window, moving into another category. 
  • 21 – Declined: No thank you. No request for additional materials
  • 6 – T.B.D.: To be determined. As of this writing, they are within the 3-month window, but have not responded.
  • 1 – Full Request: One source asked for the full manuscript! Woot! 

Warning: Small sample sizes everywhere. I’m just one man! 

Broken down by Agent Hub, you see the number of non-answers and “no’s” typically equals out. Manuscript Wish List folks may seem more likely to actually respond… but hold on to your hats. There are other factors at play. Hint: I used that hub later, after a significant change.

Yowza, folks found on AgentQuery are efficient, huh? My three longest waits were 180, 92, and 45 days. The shortest four responses were under 24 hours, always a “no,” usually from a service that used an application widget rather than emailed materials.

The Big Change: Personalization

After 19 queries, I found that I had many more non-answers that I would have liked. It’s better to get a response, in my opinion, even if that response is “no.” It’s at least a sign that they at least have read your material. Not a guarantee, but it’s certainly more likely. 

I made two changes: I swapped my first and second chapters to get more into the action, and I personalized every query. Because I had done my homework, I already knew why I had chosen to query any given agent. It was not much more work put that info on the page. A sentence or two is sufficient: I called out either a similar title they sold, a similar author they represented, or something specific in their wish list related to my work. This signaled to the agent I did my research and chose them specifically. This introduced a subtle social contract. The query whispered I gave you 15 – 30 mins of my time, could you please do the same? 

It’s not a magic bullet. It won’t work every time, but I saw a real difference in my number of responses after the change: from 63% no-answer before, to 12% no-answer and an actual full request (!!!) after. 

Response time goes up after the change as well, indicating that the recipient is more likely to have read the material. 

Conclusion: 

Writers, it’s hard to put yourself out there. A sincere “bravo/a” to you. Having others judge your writing always feels personal, doesn’t it? These are our thoughts, our feelings… our souls. It’s one thing to think about it, another thing altogether to do it. I sent four queries in February 2021, then nothing until May. I was too anxious to check my email, much less think about querying again. I had to build up the emotional fortitude to learn to live with those feelings – because there is no moving beyond them – and take my shot.

We want to give our work the best chance to find its home. So, my advice is: 

  1. Do your homework. Research agents, agencies, and small presses.

2. Give yourself the opportunity to receive credit for that time investment by personalizing your query. It demonstrates that you thought about whether the agent is a good fit for you, and invites the agent to reciprocate.

Happy reading, and happy writing. You’re doing great. Good luck out there.

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2 thoughts on “A Year In The Query Trenches & Exactly One Tip

  1. That’s so generous of you to compile and share this data, Josh. And getting that full request must feel like the bomb. Wishing you all the best with your writing journey, and here’s to more acceptances!

    Like

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