Thoughts on Querying Literary Agents

IMG_0918*Jean Foster Akin*

A concerned woman approached me recently and told me that since her husband had uploaded his self-published fiction to Amazon, he was dismayed that no literary agents or publishers had yet contacted him. As adorably innocent as this sounded coming out of her mouth, it showed a total lack of knowledge on her husband’s part—the guy who supposedly sees himself as a “professional author”.  And there’s no excuse for it.

I am not a literary agent, but I’ve been traditionally published so you know I’ve contacted more literary agents over the years than I can count. Always after extensive research, and (even then), always with fear and trembling.

I’ve worked with other writers since the year 2000, editing their manuscripts for traditional publication. It still shocks me the number of modern writers who are not traditionally published but who want to be, and who don’t know anything about the publishing process.

It’s hard enough getting the attention of an agent when presenting good work according to an agency’s particular guidelines. When a writer doesn’t even know there are guidelines, well…So, when you feel ready to query literary agents regarding your completed work:

  • make sure you are actually ready to query literary agents. You’re not ready to query if you haven’t read and re-read your work several times, self-editing as you go. Hiring a professional editor is a good idea if you can afford it; but don’t even do that until you have done your own editing, several times. IT IS ALL ON YOU. If you have any question that your work isn’t the very best it can be before sending it to an agent, don’t bother sending it until you are.
  • When your manuscript is truly ready, sit down with a bound guide to literary agents, research literary agents’ websites online, or go to Writer’s Digest and sign up at their Writer’s Market to begin accessing their agent/publisher listings online. There are resources aplenty for budding writers!
  • Read guidelines carefully. Read guidelines carefully. Read guidelines carefully.
  • Do not send any genre to an agency which is not specified in their listing. Just because they want police procedurals doesn’t mean they want gumshoe.
  • Find the name of the person in the agency who handles your genre. If more than one agent handles your genre, read the particular agents’ information. One agent might be looking for stories involving strong female leads, another might be looking for the male under-dog. Go from there.
  • Do not send your work “To Whom It May Concern,” or you’ll probably find it doesn’t concern anyone.
  • Send exactly what the agent asks for and nothing else. If the agent wants a query letter about your murder mystery, the first chapter of the manuscript, and a brief one-page synopsis of the story, do not send the first three chapters, a ten page synopsis, and a picture of the elderly next-door neighbor on whom you based your book character’s first victim.
  • If you don’t understand what a query entails or what a synopsis is, go study up! They are different animals altogether and one resembles technical writing more than the other.
  • Do not get creative in the packaging of your manuscript if you are sending itIMG_0920 by post. A few years ago, I read special notes added to an agent’s listing wherein he warned those hoping for his representation to send their manuscripts in boxes designed for that purpose. Apparently, he’d received a manuscript hidden in the center of a large television box filled with foam peanuts. It took his staff an hour to get all the peanuts up off his office carpeting. Do you think the writer who sent this Trojan Horse got the attention of the agent? I do too. Do you think the writer made the agent happy by sending a manuscript in this memorable way? I’m guessing no. Do you want the agent you query to feel good about sitting down to read your sample, or do you want him royally pissed off first? If you want to piss him off, please, act like a totally unprofessional ignoramus and send your manuscript in a refrigerator box! All the writers waiting in the very long line behind you will thank you for getting out of their way.

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