You feel like you must have sent out a million queries, but not a single agent has expressed interest. With each day that passes, you begin to worry: Did I do something wrong?
It’s a cry we hear regularly in writing circles. Many writers hoping to sell their book to a traditional publishing house decide to enlist the assistance of a literary agent, who can shop their manuscript to the right publishers and bypass the dreaded “slush pile” (the stack of unread and unsolicited manuscripts that haunt an editor’s days and nights). In some cases, a publishing house won’t even consider your book unless you have representation.
Because the stakes are so high, writers often view the search for an agent as a numbers game, thinking they’ll increase their chances if they send queries to every agent they can locate. But as with any important relationship in your life—whether business or personal—it’s a matter of finding the right fit. And like dating or interviewing for a job, you want to make the best first impression possible and follow both the spoken and unspoken rules of etiquette.
If you’re having a hard time finding representation, or even if you’re just starting your search, these are some of the common mistakes you might be making—and here are tips for how to avoid them in your quest for the right agent for your book.
1. You’re querying the wrong agent for your book.
One of the most obvious reasons you haven’t heard back tends to also be the most popular.
Is this agent accepting queries? Agents have only so many authors they can represent at one time, to ensure their current clients are given the energy and attention needed. Since agents only get paid when the book is sold, it is always in an agent’s best interest to make sure they have sufficient bandwidth for their authors. And think about it—would you want to work with an agent so overbooked that they don’t have time for you?
Is this agent interested in your genre? You may not realize this, but agents are specialists. They know that in order to sell a book, the content has to be something they can advocate for passionately, so they gravitate toward their favorite genres or subjects. Often authors are so busy querying every agent available that they don’t take the time to read about the agent’s background and the kinds of books that agent is looking for. That means if an agent exclusively represents romance or science fiction, chances are excellent your query for a travel memoir is going straight into the trash.
It’s imperative that you research each and every agent you’re approaching. (We cannot stress this point enough.) You can save yourself both time and frustration by simply going to the agent’s or agency’s website and taking the time to discover which agents are looking for new authors and accepting queries, and then what their submission requirements are.
2. You’re pitching them on social media.
Twitter is an amazing resource for new authors (and experienced ones too!) that’s filled with all kinds of information and even some great opportunities. However, querying or pitching an agent on social media without their express permission is the quickest way to be ignored. Even worse, the agent may remember your social media snafu unfavorably should you submit a proper query at a later date.
Save any social media pitches or queries for things like “#pitmad”—a planned pitch party, which is held during a small window of time on Twitter. These events are a great way to practice your pitching and potentially capture the eye of participating agents. Otherwise, do not pitch or query agents on social media. Instead, use the medium to follow those agents and find out when they're looking for new authors or manuscripts in specific genres, and then send them a proper query.
3. You send attachments without checking the submission requirements.
Unless an agent has asked authors to include an attachment (such as sample chapters, a synopsis, or even a full manuscript), most agents won’t open emails from someone they don’t know if the message contains attachments. It’s a simple rule of digital safety. If they don’t know you, they don’t know what you’re sending—and your precious manuscript could be mistaken for any manner of malicious spyware or malware, or an unsavory image.
Do not send any attachments until an agent has invited you to do so. Ever. Follow their submission requirements to the letter.
4. You’re mass emailing different agents in hopes that someone will be interested.
Remember how we mentioned that searching for the right agent is a lot like dating? Let’s apply that same metaphor here: Querying every agent you can find at the same time—and worse, even at the same agency (agents talk to each other; the industry is small)—does not send the message that you have thought carefully about who you’re sending your manuscript to. If their names are just part of the long list you’re querying at once in hopes of “getting lucky,” they won’t take what you’re offering seriously. You've just communicated that any agent will do, which tells each agent that you're not long-term-partner material.
Both publishers and agents want to know that you have specifically chosen them because your book is a match for what they publish or represent. As the author, it’s your responsibility to figure out what the two of you have in common and make that connection clear in your query letter.
Take your time and be thoughtful in how you approach each agent. Make an effort to query only a small number of agents (or even just one) at a time. Don’t rush through as many agents as possible in hopes of hitting the mark. You’re not just looking for a warm body here; you need a true partner—someone who’s going to be a passionate advocate for your book and your career.
5. You didn’t personalize your query.
The fastest way to send your query to the trash is starting with “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern.” This tells the agent you didn’t even take the time to find out who they are beyond their email address. This is not the way to begin a business partnership.
Always, always, always address each agent by name. But please don’t stop there. Truly successful queries find opportunities for further personalization, like tailoring your query to mention the types of authors or genres they represent, or talking about why you respect the agency they work for.
6. Your query letter is a hot mess.
Take a look at your query letter or email. Is it riddled with spelling mistakes and grammar errors? Are there sentence fragments and poor word choices? Is it filled with tired clichés? What about the length? (It should tell the agent everything they need to know about your book in one page.) Do you have a concise hook or “elevator pitch,” or did you spend paragraph after paragraph explaining the plot?
Don’t rush writing your query letter. Writing a good one—tight, clean, engaging, and with all the information an agent needs to decide whether or not to respond—is something of an art form. (Stay tuned, as we’ll be posting an article about How to Write a Boss Query Letter soon!) Writing an excellent query takes practice, as well as an understanding of what an agent is looking for. Do some online research and look at sample letters. Once you have completed yours, run it by a trusted writing colleague, friend, or family member… or all three. An extra set of eyes can catch all those small (and big) details you may have missed.
7. Your "creative" query just annoyed the agent.
Agents aren’t huge fans of gimmicks. They’re busy, and they just want to know if your book is interesting and salable, and if you’re a great writer who demonstrates some industry savvy. Writing the query upside down and backward, writing from the hero/heroine’s point of view, or thinking, Black Times New Roman font is so boring; let’s mix it up and use rainbow Comic Sans!—all are risky ploys that can easily turn off an agent who might otherwise have been interested in your book.
Keep your formatting and structure as conservative as possible. Let your hook, book description, personality, and clean writing speak for themselves. Use a standard 12-point font (Times New Roman is best). Never ever use Comic Sans. Seriously.
8. You insulted the agent.
There is a certain subset of individuals who still think that the best way to make themselves look good is to put someone else down. These folks use criticism as a means to demonstrate their knowledge or superiority. You’re unlikely to get the response you’re hoping for if you approach an agent using a query that basically says, “You represented this book/author. Now I’m going to tell you why I’m so much better” or insinuates that if they’re smart, they’ll represent your book. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the best ways to be ignored by an agent forever (and have your name passed throughout the industry as a known jerk).
Look for positive things to say about that agent’s work or author list. An agent is going to be more likely to consider someone who is excited about working with them. Most important, be gracious. No one wants to work with a massive ego.
9. Your manuscript isn’t ready (a.k.a. "I just completed my book").
Agents aren’t going to be excited by—let alone interested in representing—any book that is a mess, incomplete, or hasn’t been revised to the best of the author’s ability. Nor are they generally interested in knowing that you just completed your first draft.
Agents expect that by the time you query, your book is in the best shape it can be. Revising and editing your manuscript carefully ensures that the agent has a cleaner manuscript—one that's ready to shop to editors. Even the best writers can struggle to create a readable first draft. If you just typed “The End” yesterday, you are not ready to query. Slow down, and take the time to do it right. Workshop your manuscript with a writers’ group, sign up for a critique session at a writers’ conference, or send it to a professional editor. Do all three if you can.
10. The market is saturated with books just like yours.
Sometimes this is just bad luck. It takes time to publish a book, so what’s trendy in terms of plot or genre now is something agents were buying a few years ago. You may have been working on your boy wizard / glittery vampire / teenage death match novel for twenty-five years, and now no one wants it… That’s a tough pill to swallow.
The best you can do is show agents that your approach has something different to offer. Think about what makes your book different from others in its genre. How does it stand out? What makes this book more appealing than others? And more important, what will make people want to read it? Once you can answer these questions, you have already written part of your query letter. If that fails, it might be time to start on something new and save that old manuscript for a future time when readers want zombie books again.
11. You’re not taking "no" for an answer.
Sometimes, when authors receive a rejection or no reply at all, they’ll try to change an agent’s mind. They may revise the manuscript and requery the agent at a later time. Unless an agent has specifically asked you to do this, it rarely works. You get one chance with an agent, and that’s why it’s so important to make it count.Solution:
Sometimes an agent may not see the potential in your book. Perhaps they don’t see a market for it. They might simply just not like it. Agents have their reasons for not taking on new authors or new books. Sometimes they’ll let you know why. Sometimes they won’t.
When this happens, take whatever feedback (if any) you’ve received and do your best to follow their advice. If you haven’t received a response, check in with a friend or writing colleague and ask them for feedback on your query letter. Most important, don’t let it discourage you or slow your journey. While you’re waiting, start writing something new.
The path to publication is sometimes paved with a thousand rejections. All we can do is take the experience and use it to make our craft better—whether that be our books, our query letters, or even how we market and promote ourselves.