I found an agent the old-fashioned way: I wrote a query letter, made a giant spreadsheet of agents with sales in my genre, and sent out a dozens of emails. It’s a weird process that can happen really fast or really slowly. Some people sign right away with their first book; others query multiple books before finding a match. It can take weeks or years. I was in the middle, about one year from when I started querying to when I signed.
Writing a query:
QueryShark – I went through a lottttt of these posts to study the format and see common mistakes. 250-300 words, a tight introduction to the main character’s initial problem, a brief and professional bio. The only comments I would add to Janet’s critiques: she prefers housekeeping at the bottom of the query (the book’s title, genre, word count), but many agents don’t care and I put it at the very top–in SFF in particular, it helps the agent to know what genre you’re going for before they dive into the plot. Also, most SFF agents are used to seeing a little more worldbuilding detail to set up your concept, so don’t sweat a couple extra sentences here and there.
I found Janet Reid’s blog pretty useful in general for publishing know-how. One of the blog readers pulled together a list of handy posts here. Be aware of publication dates–things change so rapidly that a spot-on observation for 2010 won’t be so spot on in 2022.
What to have ready in addition to the query:
Follow whatever guidelines each agent lists on their website! I found it helpful to assemble the most commonly asked-for items in advance. I kept them all in a computer folder together with my book, and then for each query I double-checked the agent’s preferences and copy-pasted from my documents. I ended up with:
-my default query text (I could paste this in and just add Dear FirstName LastName at the top, plus a sentence of personalizing if I had something in particular to say to this agent; or no personalization if I didn’t)
-a short synopsis (~500-600 words. Synopses are the one weird area where guidelines will say “a 1 page synopsis” and they actually mean single-spaced! so you get that extra word count)
-a long synopsis (if an agent indicated they didn’t mind a bit longer of a synopsis, I had one ready that was 800-900 words, that had a bit more subplot detail)
-a one paragraph pitch (I noticed some agents have started asking for this as an item in Query Manager, so I wrote a very hook-y short version of my query, just a couple sentences long)
-comps: comp titles are books in your genre, generally published in the last 3-5 years, which are similar to your book in some way (“the lyrical writing of Author A and the searing anticolonial worldbuilding of Recent Book B!” kind of giving an idea of where it would fit on a shelf, or whose fans might also like your work). If an agent didn’t ask for these I didn’t put them, because I suck at them! But some really want them, so I tried my best!
In short: the query gives the set up of the book and a hook to make the agent want to read more; the synopsis is the entire plot, including the end; and your first pages give a sense of your voice. It feels like a lot of hoops to jump through, but they are trying to decide very quickly: “is this concept interesting? and the plot doesn’t go somewhere totally ridiculous? and their prose is good? OK I’ll request more!”
Some synopsis resources:
This post by Jane Friedman (has even more links at the bottom)
Most agents initially ask for a query + first 5 or 10 pages, sometimes a query + first pages + a synopsis. All of that gets pasted straight into the email, or pasted into their Query Manager web form. No attachments. If the agent wants to read more, they’ll either request the full manuscript, or they’ll request a partial (most often: 50 pages, or 100 pages, or the first 3 chapters), and if they like that, they’ll then request the full manuscript. For fulls and partials, you do attach as a Word document.
I found it useful to paste my query on the first page of my full manuscript when I got a full request–it might be many months later that the agent gets around to reading it, in which case it can help jog their memory of why they wanted to see it.
Formatting for Word documents: Use a common font like Times New Roman, 12pt, double-spaced. Indent the first line of paragraphs half an inch using the ruler tool (as opposed to hitting the space bar 5 times), don’t put extra lines between paragraphs, last name and title in a header with the page number, align left (not justified text). It’s very similar to the Shunn Modern Format for short stories!
There are plenty of people out there who will read over your query or first 5 pages for a few bucks and offer feedback. If you decide to go this route, I would recommend looking for someone who actually has experience reading queries for an agency (as opposed to a general editor who might not know what agents are looking for, or authors who are in the same boat as you: trying to guess what an agent wants). This step isn’t necessary, just an extra option if you are sending a lot of queries and getting no requests but can’t figure out why. (Generally: if you aren’t getting requests for extra pages, something is up in the query; if you are getting requests for pages and then no offers, something is up in the book itself)
Making a list of agents:
This is a laborious step, but it is worth it to spend a lot of time researching and vetting agents. There are plenty of schmagents out there–either inexperienced, or don’t treat their clients well, or downright shady. So I pulled together a list of everyone I could find who repped fantasy, and then I spent a long time looking at who their clients were, what kind of deals they were making, and scoping various websites looking for complaints or red flags. My resources to make my initial list:
-My favorite authors! I went looking for everybody’s agent (checking their author website, book acknowledgements, searching on QueryTracker, etc). I started to see a lot of recurring names repping the heavy-hitters of the fantasy genre.
–QueryTracker: Free to make an account, and SO useful! When you are logged in, you can search by genre, search for particular agents/agencies, search a Who Reps Whom section for who reps a particular author. Then, on an agent’s page, you will see more info, links, and best of all, comments: other users mentioning turnaround time, or good or bad experiences, etc. Some people use this site to track all of the queries they send out–I used my own spreadsheet, but have heard good things from other writers who used this site for everything.
–AgentQuery: Another free database of agents. Not as many useful features as QueryTracker, but doesn’t hurt to cross-reference.
–Absolute Write: This forum is another good resource for other writers’ experiences and warnings of bad behavior. They have a section of the board that was all about agents, and I would read through the thread for each agency I was thinking of querying. The Background Check section. Index of posts including Agents A-Z. Ask the Agent.
–Publisher’s Marketplace: This is the only non-free resource I very highly recommend. It is $25/month, but easy to cancel, so I subscribed for one or two months each time I queried a book, grabbed all the information I wanted, and cancelled. Basically, you can scroll through recent book deals to see what is selling and who is selling it. Not every agent reports all of their deals to PM, so not being on there isn’t necessarily a sign that they can’t sell books, but it is some good extra data for your spreadsheet. What you are looking for is partly what kind of deals they are making: are they selling books to big publishers? Or are they making a lot of tiny deals with small presses that you could just submit to yourself?
–MSWL: Another website that collects information on what agents are looking for.
–Writer Beware: An amazing resource at SFWA, collecting all kinds of warnings about bad practices, not just agents but all over the industry
-Checking agent/agency websites, Twitter, blogs: once somebody is on your Maybe Pile, look for them all over to get a sense of what they are looking for, who their clients are, what they like to see in queries, do they appear to act professionally online, and so on.
Some people use QueryTracker, linked above. I kept my own spreadsheet, because I had a lot of information I wanted to keep track of. On one sheet, I put info about the agents on my list:
- the agent’s name
- their agency
- a link to the agency’s submission guidelines
- a brief summary of the kind of rights they sell (do they only sell the book? do they also have film/tv contacts who will try to sell media rights for you? do they also have a foreign rights team that will try to sell translations for you?)
- their multiple submission policy (if one agent rejects you, can you submit to a different agent at the same agency? or can you only pick one agent per project, and a no from them is a no from all of them?)
- their notable clients
- their genre preferences (I like to write in multiple subgenres, so I wanted an agent who would do it all with me)
- recent deals, if I found any on Publisher’s Marketplace-what they wanted in a query, and what their expected turnaround time would be (some will say, “an answer within 8 weeks” or “no response means no” in which case they do not send a rejection, it just only gets an answer if they want to see more)
This helped me sort out my Best Fit pile from my backup pile from people I didn’t want to query at all due to red flags or just not repping the kind of stuff I write.
Then, when I started sending queries, I made a second Excel sheet for the specific book and put:
- the agency
- the specific agent I queried
- the date sent
- what material I sent in the query
- when I should follow up if I didn’t hear back (some say you can nudge for a response if they are late responding)
- initial response (either a rejection or a request for more pages)
- what I sent, if more pages requested
- final response
This may seem like overkill, but it really helped me! It starts getting complicated keeping track of who has what. And since many agencies say you can only submit to one agent total per project, or one agent at a time, you need to keep track of who has rejected it and who hasn’t seen it yet! Plus, if you get that offer of representation, you need to know who else to notify. Which is in my next section! 😀
What to do if you get an offer:
If an agent is thinking of offering you representation, they will usually ask to schedule a phone call. Hurray! They might make the offer on the spot, or they might chat you up first and then decide whether to send the offer. This is their chance to ask you about your career plans, and how you feel about making revisions, things like that. It is also YOUR chance to ask THEM a bunch of questions, and decide if you feel comfortable becoming business partners with this person. It’s your book and you deserve somebody who is supportive, enthusiastic, and with the right experience to help you with your goals.
This post is outrageously long, but see below for the list of questions I kept in mind during The Call.
Important note: when an agent formally offers you representation, you do not have to accept on the spot! In fact, I advise you say something like, “thank you, I have other agents I need to notify. I’ll have an answer for you in 2 weeks. In the meantime, can I email some of your clients with questions?” This is very standard! If the agent kicks a fuss or pressures you to make a decision right away, they are not acting professionally.
Once you have an offer, you notify any other agent who: has a full or partial; or has received your query but hasn’t responded yet. You send a message to each of those email chains with OFFER OF REP big in the subject line, and you tell them you’ve got an offer, you are going to answer in 2 weeks, and would they like a chance to read the book first? Some people politely bow out because they are too busy. Some might request the manuscript and read it really fast. You may get multiple offers to choose from! In which case you schedule those phone calls and ask all of your questions again.
I also mentioned emailing the agent’s other clients. This is also normal and writers are used to getting these emails! It’s your chance to politely ask how the agent is to work with, what their communication style is like, does the client have any advice for you, are they happy with how things are going. You are checking references for a job you will be hiring this agent to do. Which brings me to…
What else an agent does:
An agent does way more than just send your submission to publishers. They negotiate the contract, seeking to improve not just the amount you’ll be paid, but also what rights you reserve that you can sell on your own for more money, marketing terms, and many other benefits. After the deal, the agent continues to be your representative. If you have a problem with your editor, or your cover, or whatever, your agent can go be the bad guy for you and make demands, so you can maintain a conflict-free relationship with your publishing team. Your agent will read all of your royalty statements and make sure you are being paid correctly, and chase money if it is late. Usually, the publisher sends the money to the agent, the agent checks the numbers, holds back their 15%, and sends you the rest. Your agent should walk you through this so you can learn to read these statements as well and check your own finances. An agent with good connections can also help you sell subsidiary rights to make extra money: translations, tv/film options, audiobooks.
Ultimately, they are your business partner, managing your affairs. They are not your boss! And if it turns out that the match isn’t right–you disagree on revisions, or you don’t like their communication style, or they try and try and just can’t sell your books–then it is nerve-wracking but totally normal to part ways and go back to querying. But that’s a whole other set of future career possibilities, so I will now end my outrageously long post with…
Sam’s Questions to Keep in Mind during “The Call”
I kept this list on hand before I started sending queries out. Once I knew who was offering, I went through my list in advance of the phone call, making note of information I’d already figured out from the agency’s website or the agent’s online posts. Then, during the call, I kept a physical copy on my desk and jotted down information as it was offered. So, when it came to my turn to ask questions, I could easily see what was left that we hadn’t covered.
Many of these don’t have right or wrong answers (or at least, there are several right answers and plenty of ways to throw off red flags). Consider your own priorities and career goals when deciding what you are looking for in an agent. You may have additional considerations that I didn’t list here, such as the logistics of living overseas or if you’re coming from a marginalized background and want to know what support you’ll get and whether the agent has represented projects like yours before.
Here are my questions, sorted by category.
Rights and Financial Details
– Do you have a verbal or written contract (if written, can I see it?)? What terms? What is duration? How do parties terminate? Does contract cover all of my writing, or just project by project as sold and contracted?
– Do you handle subsidiary rights? How so?
– Commission structure? (Should be 15% domestic, 20% sub-rights handled by agency)
– How do I get paid? Payment divided by publisher, or sent to agent who then sends to me? Do I receive a 1099? How often is money distributed? Do you regularly audit royalty statements?
– Will you be billing me for any submission costs? If so, what should I expect and how will they be charged?
– What contingency if agent retires/is unable to work/agency dissolves?
Clients and Sales
– How long have you been an agent? Do you have recent sales in my genre?
– Do you have editors in mind already? Which publishers? How many do you generally query at a time? How many rounds before giving up on a manuscript?
– Do you work with authors considering multiple sub-genres? If this one doesn’t sell, do we move on to the next one? Do you allow a hybrid model (say if, in future, I want to self-pub short works)
– How many clients do you have? Can I get in touch with some of your current clients? (should be YES, and email contact info)
Working and Communication Style
– (if they didn’t send editorial notes back already) Are you an editorial agent? What changes do you envision for my book? What is your editorial style (numerous drafts? One round of suggestions?)?
– What is your usual turnaround time, answering emails and returning manuscripts?
– How often will you update me while a project is on submission? Do I get to see the original offer and then final offer from a publisher?
– What happens if this particular book doesn’t sell? I am looking for a career partner, not a one-off book deal.
– What are your business hours? When do you prefer to be contacted? Do you prefer phone or email?
That’s it! GOOD LUCK OUT THERE!!