Tag Archives: advice

How I evaluated agents when I queried

I am by no means an expert on how to select agents to query. I’m just this writer with an agent and an internship, you know? But I think I collected a solid list of criteria over my querying days, so I’m going to share it. (I didn’t actually have a list I’d consult—over time, I just learned how to look for these things without really realizing I was looking for them.) Anyway, yeah, this is not exhaustive, nor should it be your only resource.

With that said, here’s how did it. I’m not you, so your priorities may be different—keep that in mind! Also, all these resources listed are free. I don’t really recommend paying for a yearly QueryTracker subscription—I spent $0.00 on that site, used it daily, and learned all I needed to know—and Publishers Marketplace, while content-rich, isn’t worth the money if you don’t work on the other side of the desk.

  1. Find out about an agent. This could be on Twitter; Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Checks forum (I typically read the recently updated threads a few times a week, even and especially now); QueryTracker (regularly updated with new/new-to-QT agent listings on the bottom of the home page); AgentQuery; or through word of mouth, from critique partners or writer-friends, etc. There’s no best source on which to discover agents; they all have pros and cons and quirks—querying writers don’t usually air complaints with specific, named agents publicly on Twitter since their real names are attached; AW has the opposite problem, wherein almost every agent with an industry presence to speak of has an anonymous complaint lodged against them somewhere; QT has well over a thousand agents in its database, which can make it difficult to cull your list; AgentQuery is a bit of a hassle to navigate. That said, they can all be invaluable resources.
  2. Find the agency website, whether from one of those initial resources or via Google. Take general note of the site—is it professional? Relatively easy to navigate? Are the agents’ names given?—but don’t put too much stock in this. ICM, one of the biggest and most respected literary agencies, gives you barely any information whatsoever on their site. Frankly, they don’t have to. They’re ICM. Compare to The Bent Agency (which I am un-coincidentally represented by). TBA’s site gives detailed bios for each agent, a list of clients, a broad overview of what they do for their authors, recent agency updates, contact information, and other goodies. TBA and ICM are both perfectly respectable agencies with great sales and solid industry reputations. So what’s the difference here? You can relatively safely speculate that TBA agents are more actively building their lists (industry-speak for “signing new authors”) than ICM agents. This isn’t the case for every agency ever, and honestly, I’m taking an educated guess with that conclusion. But in a solid amount of cases, agents who are eager to sign new clients won’t make that process difficult for those potential clients.
  3. Get the agent’s bio, somehow. Occasionally I used Writer’s Digest as a last resort for this, since I think they require some sort of bio for agents listed on the site. Things to look for include: relevant publishing experience (working in trade publishing in some capacity, be it in publicity at a respected publisher or as an intern with established agents at their current agency or, in my agent’s case, as a scout); evidence of industry know-how (sales to big publishers are your easiest giveaway here); and clients (it helps in a big way if you’ve heard of/read even one of them for pleasure). You might only find client lists with names you recognize for established agents, but that doesn’t mean you should discount newer agents! Jennifer Laughran, a most excellent agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, breaks down things any agent needs in this blog post. (Her entire Tumblr and former blog are wealths of knowledge.)
  4. Look for sales. If agents are very, very helpful, they’ll list some of their sales on their website or blog—sometimes even in their bio. That’s not the only way to find them, though! You can search on Google, clients’ websites, or Twitter—usually in the form of Publishers Marketplace deal announcements under the Photos tab—for information. Ideally, agents I queried would have plenty of sales to big publishers, and this would be super easy to find out. Sometimes that wasn’t the case and they still ended up on my query list, though. Why?
  5. If lacking sales, look for: employment at an agency with good sales, experience at a well-known publisher, or a wealth of industry connections. This last one can be hard to discern, but if the agent has either of the first two, they probably have access to editors.

Other things:

  1. Subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly. Now. Not kidding. I get the PW Daily email every weekday morning and the PW Children’s Bookshelf email twice a week, and I read all of them. There’s usually a section in PW Daily with job moves, and this can be invaluable for finding out who joined which agency from where, who got promoted, and who’s leaving the business. PW Bookshelf lists new book deals with each issue, typically in the format of “[Editor] at [Big Fancy Publishing House] has bought Title, an [age category] [genre] [novel/nonfiction work] by [Author]. In the book, [quick plot summary]. Publication is slated for [season] [year]; [Agent] at [Agency] negotiated the deal for [world/world English/North American] rights.” (Sometimes the information is moved around, but usually it’s all there.) This is, 99.9% of the time, a source for legitimate deals to respected publishers with advances paid to the author. Sometimes a less-than-amazing small press will sneak its way on to the end of the list, but that’s pretty much negligible.
  2. Read up on terms you’re unfamiliar with. Don’t know what world or world English or North American rights are? Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency has a great explanation here—I recommend reading as much of her Pub Rants blog as you can. Need some examples of big or respected publishers? Here are some (not all) that publish YA, though the article is outdated (Penguin and Random House are now Penguin Random House, unfortunately not Random Penguin; and HarperCollins has purchased Harlequin and its imprints, for two examples that jump out at me). Wait, what are subsidiary (or just “sub”) rights? Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a relatively good breakdown, though obviously no analysis is given. Google is your friend here!
  3. Follow people who are involved with/work in the industry on Twitter. Agents! Editors! Authors! Interns! Publicists! Bloggers! Marketers! Sales people! Those brave souls in the contracts department! Me! We’re fun, hilarious, book-loving nerds. You’ll learn a lot by osmosis. And also, y’know, by the discussions we have on book-related topics.
  4. Seriously, follow me on Twitter.
  5. Do it.
  6. I’m waiting.
  7. *stares*
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Thoughts from an editorial intern: queries!

Quick disclaimer: please keep in mind that I don’t know everything. The point of an internship, alongside assisting and supporting the agent or editor you work for, is to learn. I’m still doing that—so below are observations and suggestions, not mandates. Also, while I work for an editor, the things I’ll talk about are designed to apply to all writers, regardless of whether you’re querying agents or editors—or both simultaneously, which we prefer you don’t do.

So a few days ago, February 1, marked the six-month point in my editorial internship with senior editor Kate Brauning at Entangled Publishing. (Since my internship is open-ended, I’m continuing to work with Kate past the typical timeline.) I’ve read many a thing for this internship, and by now I have something of a grasp on what works and what doesn’t. To that end, here are a few basic suggestions on perfecting your query letter. Look out for a post with tips on polishing up your manuscript (especially first pages) next week!

Be as clear and concise as possible.

I write reader reports on manuscripts, which Entangled’s submission guidelines ask for along with your query, not the queries themselves. But I almost always read the query first, and that tends to color how I feel about the first few pages. If your query has a sharp voice, a strong sense of character, and good stakes, I’m much more likely to be excited about your manuscript. Conversely, if you lack those or other essentials, I won’t be the most eager Mark when I dive into the book.

A frequent problem is simple: lack of clarity or focus. This pops up all the time across categories and genres—science fiction and fantasy might be the usual culprits because you’re constricted to ~250 words for an explanation of your world and everything else a query needs, but they’re by no means the only cases. I find sticking to this basic formula, which has been tossed around countless times online, helps in that respect:

—Who is your main character?

—What do they want?

—What is keeping them from getting what they want?

—What happens if they don’t get what they want?

Know your genre.

You don’t want your genre to be too long because it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. “Near-future fantasy adventure with romance” is not a thing—if it’s not a section in a bookstore, it’s probably not really a genre. Also, “speculative fiction” is not a catch-all for a hard-to-categorize work—speculative fiction is an umbrella term. If you wouldn’t write “novel” as your book’s genre, you shouldn’t write “speculative” either.

This point inevitably raises the question of “What if my book is hard to categorize?” I actually like this question, since I’m personally a fan of fiction that’s a little removed from genre conventions—Adam Silvera’s MORE HAPPY THAN NOT with its light science fiction, or Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF with its choice of narrator (Death, by the way—it’s done fantastically). That said, I probably don’t have the answer you want to hear: I recommend talking to critique partners or beta readers about it. If they’re worth their salt, they’ll be able to help you pin down a genre; if they can’t, it’s a sign that marketing for your book might get tricky.

Be careful with your bio.

Often writers add unnecessary details—if your manuscript’s about psychic girls in love, I don’t need to know that you enjoy baking with ingredients you grew in your garden. But if one of those psychic girls is obsessed with scuba diving and that plays a huge role in the plot and you happen to work as a certified scuba instructor, by all means, tell us! It shows there’ll be an extra layer of authenticity in your manuscript, which will only work in your favor.

Other things to include:

—Publication credits (short stories, contributions to anthologies, etc.)

—An unusually strong platform (you run workshops with bestselling authors, you have a massive following online, you blog for Barnes & Noble…also, this is exclusively for fiction, since Entangled only publishes fiction—for nonfic, include your platform always)

—Memberships or conferences (SCBWI for kidlit, RWA or others for romance, Backspace for everyone, and many more others than I can list here—this shows you’re serious about writing as a career, which is always a plus!)

Relevant miscellaneous: when I was querying and agents specifically asked for a bio in their submission guidelines, I mentioned studying English at Rutgers University and my internship with Entangled.

If you don’t have any of these things, do not stress. Seriously. Just skip that part in your query. If your book is great and you’re professional, someone’s going to snatch you up regardless of whether you have an MFA from Hogwarts or a GED.

Make every word, phrase, and sentence count.

Industry standard is that a query letter is 250 words or less, though no one’s going to throw tomatoes at you if yours is 260. (That said, do try to keep it concise.) That means every word needs to matter, and you need to be cognizant of your choices.

Try to avoid rambling when talking about your main character. I don’t need to know that she has blue eyes and brown hair unless those facts play a significant part in the plot. What I do need to know for YA queries is her age and name; those are non-negotiable. (For adult fiction you don’t necessarily need to include your main character’s age, but name is a must. The exception to this is if they somehow don’t know it because of memory loss or something.) (You’d be surprised how people leave these out!)

I also don’t need to be introduced to the MC’s mom, dad, brother, cousin, ex-girlfriend, best friend, other friend, other friend, third other friend, barista at the Starbucks she frequents, and so on. Don’t make me shake hands with everyone she runs into on a daily basis. Name three characters at most—usually the MC, the love interest, and the antagonist, though this will obviously be different if there’s no romance.

Also, be mindful of descriptions when introducing a new character. “Blue-eyed blonde Angie, the other member of Heather’s fledgling rock band” is unnecessary—the real, relevant part of this is that Angie is also in Heather’s band. But if your query mentions that Heather’s last four girlfriends were all blue-eyed and blonde, include it—now we know there’s a potential for romance! You just want to make sure that every word moves the query forward.

Thanks for reading, all! If you have any questions about queries, querying, or first pages, let me know in the comments and I’ll answer in my next post. I hope to make this something of an ongoing series on the blog, and knowing what you want to know would help so, so much.


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What I wish I’d known when I was querying

1. Do. Something. Else.

I was the worst because I had so few hobbies besides writing. Reading, sure, but after a while lines start to blur and “I’ll read this book by a stranger!” turned to “I’ll read this book by a Twitter friend!” turned to “I’ll read this manuscript by a critique partner or someone I’m beta-reading for,” and that’s not healthy. You need to have a life outside of publishing. Sometimes I joke about whatever writing- or publishing-related thing I’m doing that day being the only thing in the world—whether it’s plugging away at the first draft of my manuscript or line-editing a critique partner’s book before it goes to their agent or proofreading an author’s galley for my internship. But while sometimes those things are so intensive they seem like the only thing, it’s important that we make the distinction: it’s not, because life exists outside of publishing, and we should be living it.

2. Do not obsess.

Yes, I was one of Those Writers. I checked QueryTracker a minimum of five times a day, every day, and I say that without joking or exaggerating. If I sent an agent my full on January 1st and I hadn’t heard anything by April 1st, I nudged them that day, since three months is the general timeline when nudging becomes a thing you can do. I was absolutely obsessive about everything, and I know a lot of people for whom “don’t obsess about querying” is equivalent to “don’t breathe.”

But the thing is, it gets so much easier if you relax a little. If you realize that agents have professional and personal lives outside of the slush pile, let alone your book, #19 in the onslaught of Microsoft Word documents they might not even have time to send to their Kindle. I can’t promise that it’ll ever be easy, but it does not have to be this hard. Write and edit your best damn book. Follow guidelines. Be professional. Then let your work speak for itself.

3. Write the next thing.

Please, for the love of all things good and kind in this world, write your next project. Throw yourself into it. Get breathless every time you think about how magical it will be, how it will be the best thing you’ve ever written. (Because if you’re not improving with each book, especially if you’ve only written a few so far, you’re probably not doing it right.) If you’re absolutely in love with your next project, the sting from rejections on the one you’re querying will be so much lesser. It doesn’t mean you don’t adore the book you’re querying—it means you’re simultaneously making things easier for yourself and being proactive about your career.

4. Take things to heart.

I know—this isn’t the standard advice! You’re supposed to remember everything is subjective and wholly impersonal! What gives? Well, yes, you’re correct about rejections, but I’m not talking about those. Or I am, but I’m also talking about the good things that come from rejections.

When an agent says “Please do send me your next project,” they are not kidding. In almost every circumstance imaginable—and certainly in all the ones I can think of—this means something to the tune of “I really freaking like your writing but, for one reason or another, I can’t take on this book, but I super hope you’ll think of me for the next one.” You’re not a one-trick pony; you’ll have other books. (If not, why are you trying to break into publishing?) And even if (what you think is) the worst thing that could happen does happen and you don’t get an agent with this manuscript, you already have someone—maybe even someones, plural—you can send your next one!

5. It gets easier.

It feels like it never will. It does. It takes time, dedication, and unending patience, but you will get there, and it’ll be amazing.

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