Now that I’ve got a polished manuscript, I’m ready to take that scary next step into querying. I’ve spent hours lost in cyberspace reading about query letter dos and don’ts, tracking the Agent Editor Wish List Tumblr and following the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag on Twitter. Though I’m still in the early stages of this process, I’d like to step back and reflect on the most important advice I’ve gotten.
First, be sure you’re querying the right agent. If you’ve got a 100,000-word memoir, don’t pitch it to someone who only represents picture books. You’re wasting both your time and the agent’s time. When researching agents (and yes, I’ve read bios, perused agency’s websites, and even followed them on Twitter), the first thing I look at is whom they represent. I look for agents whose client lists include authors whose writing is similar to mine — the genre, the setting, the voice, or ideally all of the above. If they don’t represent young adult literature, I don’t even bother reading on. For my first round of queries, I actually started with a list of authors who have influenced me and then looked up who their agents are. This way, I know my query will at least reach people who represent the kinds of books that I write. (That being said, if an agent has just represented a book that’s too similar to yours, he or she will probably not want to represent you. I know, it can be a fine line to tread, but if a book looks like it’s too close to what you’ve written, then it probably is.)
Second, personalize your query. Agents get hundreds of emails a day; a “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern” will almost certainly end up in the trash folder. Tell the agent why you chose to query her — your setting is similar to another author she represents, or you saw on Twitter that she was looking for a book like yours. Maybe this agent is known for being a hands-on editor, or pursuing foreign rights. You’ve (hopefully) done your homework; show the agent that you’ve invested that time and thought into the process. I recently saw an applicant’s cover letter for a part-time position working in the library’s local history and genealogy department that said nothing about history, genealogy, or any of the tasks listed in the job description we’d posted. The letter did rattle off a string of jargon about ACRL, LCSH, and RDA (all various ways to catalog materials) … but the position has nothing to do with cataloging. If you want an agent to represent you, make it clear that you’re familiar with what he or she represents. And unless you’re writing a book about string theory, you don’t need to mention your PhD in astrophysics.
Finally, remember that this is a relationship. Some of the best advice I got while I was looking for a job was to keep in mind that while the employers (or in this case, agents) were interviewing me, I was also interviewing them. Ideally, you’ll be with your agent for most, if not all, of your career, so you want to make sure it’s a good fit. If you have reservations about any of an agent’s policies or practices, make sure you address them before you sign or agree to anything. Don’t rush to sign a contract just so you can say you have an agent; if that agent turns out not to be the right fit for you, you could both be in for some major disappointments.
These are the biggest things I’ve come across in my research. Do you have any favorite bits of advice?