So your project feels ready. You’ve compiled a list of literary agents you want to approach, and you’ve drafted a query letter. Now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, the shit to hit the fan, and for similar cliches to apply…it’s time to start querying!
But wait…Should you submit one query at a time, or should you carpet bomb the entire literary agent community with your pitch? How long do you wait for a reply before moving on? Should you follow up with agents who ignore you? Here are some thoughts based on my own recent search.
Start by reviewing and ranking your prospect list:
Consider the names on your agent list. Maybe you heard an agent speak at a conference and walked away smitten. Perhaps one of your prospects represents your favorite book of all time. Or maybe your novel is set in Boston, so you really want an agent with ties to the city. Whatever the rationale, you’ve likely got some favorites, so rank your targets accordingly.
I sorted my intended agents into three groups: Platinum, Gold, and Silver. I had about ten agents in each category, with Platinum my top choices. My Platinum agents were: women (because I thought a woman would be more drawn to my memoir than a man;) well-established and/or well connected (because I’m hoping for a deal with a major house, not a small press;) agents with a track record in memoir; and agents I thought I had a reasonable shot at attracting. Only you can determine who qualifies as a top tier agent for your unique project — but trust that there are lots of excellent people out there who might not look perfect at first glance. Finding THE ONE may take time. Perseverance is key.
Test the waters with a reasonable sample size:
I wasn’t planning to do a major agent search this year. Here’s what happened: in January I met an agent I liked at a writers’ conference from a respected boutique agency. This young woman was new enough to the business to be scouting for clients, but she’d recently sold a book of parenting essays to a major house — and she asked to see my material! I tried to seize the opportunity.
After revising and polishing my work, I sent my proposal to The Conference Agent in April. Then I waited around and daydreamed about working with her. Her boss had represented one of my competing titles, so the agency seemed like a perfect match.
After a few weeks of post-submission silence, I followed up. The Conference Agent promised to get back to me within a week. Two weeks passed. I stalked her on twitter and saw she’d gone on vacation, so I waited some more.
After nearly three months of no movement, I got impatient. I understand that the publishing industry operates at glacial speed most of the time, and I still hoped that this woman would fall in love with my project, but at this point I realized I needed to take charge of my career.
I’d been compiling a list of agents for a while in anticipation of an eventual search. I asked a friend if I could query her rep, an agent who happened to be a top choice for me, and got the green light. I sent my book proposal off to My Friend’s Agent and prepared myself to wait again. Then I stumbled upon this video from The Book Doctors, about creating a competitive environment for your manuscript.
I felt inspired. I’d worked really hard to make my proposal the best it could be and felt my query letter was solid. I decided to cast my net wider.
By now it was summer. Conventional wisdom says that summer is a bad time to reach out to agents because of rampant vacationing, but The Book Doctors video had me wound up. I shot out seven or eight query letters to Platimum prospects on a Friday afternoon in July with the subject line: “MEMOIR QUERY from a writer published in NYT, Washington Post and more.” Maybe a lot of agents were in the Hamptons, but a few had to be working, right?
Indeed they were. Monday morning, I woke up to a request for my memoir proposal from The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. I was THRILLED, but I knew what I had to do next.
If you’re certain your query is attracting interest, send out more feelers:
Three agents now had now shown interest in my work. A completely cold query had prompted a request for material from an agent I’d be humbled to work with. Inspired by The Book Doctors video, I resolved to maximize my chances. I sent The Agent of a Super Famous Writer my proposal, and then spent the rest of that Monday morning sending 8 or 9 more queries to folks on my Platinum and Gold lists. I also continued researching agents to see if there were hot prospects I’d missed, adding more names to my target list so that I’d be prepared to keep the search going as long as necessary.
Thankfully, by Tuesday, additional requests for my proposal were rolling in. One agent even requested both the proposal and the partial manuscript! Each time I got an additional request, I sent out two or three more queries. Every time I got a rejection, I sent out two or three more queries. I told myself it was a numbers game and I needed to keep hustling while cultivating as much detachment as possible (though by now I felt gobsmacked by the the prospect of working with The agent of a Super Famous Writer. OMG!)
If you’re getting real traction from one agent, let others know:
At this point, about five agents had my proposal, and one had also asked for the first 50 pages of the manuscript. To keep the momentum going, I sent follow up emails:
Hi Agent of a Super Famous Writer,
I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review my memoir proposal, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve had some interest from other agents, including requests for the first 50 manuscript pages. Please let me know if you’d like me to send along the partial manuscript, so that you have the pages handy should the proposal spark your interest. I’m quite interested in working with you should you feel the same.
Thanks so much!
Guess what? The Agent of a Super Famous Writer got back to me within 24 hours to let me know she loved the proposal. Yes, she wanted to see the manuscript! In fact, I heard back from almost everyone I nudged, and all who responded asked for my manuscript.
I also followed up on all the Platinum prospects whom I hadn’t yet heard from yet:
SUBJECT: Follow up due to agent interest
I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review the query letter I submitted on July 12, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve had multiple requests for my proposal and pages from other agents. I’m sure you’re terribly busy, but I’m following up with a fool’s optimism because your name was at the top of my query list.
My original query is included below. Please let me know if you’d like to see my proposal or manuscript. Thanks so much.
Some of these follow ups were ignored, but many prompted replies with requests for material. I also got friendly, personal rejections from many of the Platinum agents due to the follow up, a courtesy I preferred to being ignored.
Next, The Agent of a Super Famous Writer told me she wanted to schedule a call as soon as she finished reading the partial manuscript. She even suggested a specific time for the conversation. I jumped up and down with joy!! This could be it!!! After I calmed down, I sent a couple more queries, praying I was being overly diligent; I hoped that an offer of representation was around the corner.
Don’t let dashed hopes slow you down:
I never did talk to The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. She finished reading my partial manuscript and sent a message saying the manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the proposal and was “overwrought and overwritten.” I was shocked. I’d hired a former acquisitions editor to go over all my material prior to submission, and the editor had felt the manuscript far stronger than the proposal!This was par for the course. Getting an agent so quickly would have been way too easy. But “overwritten” still hurt. And what if she was right?
I shared my distress with my husband and a professional networking group, got some pats on the back, and then I tried to shake off the heartbreak. I decided that if I got similar feedback on the book from other agents, I’d suspend submissions and regroup.
All you need is one:
The day after The Agent of a Super Famous Writer rejected me so harshly, I got an email from another agent who said my manuscript actually had moved her to tears! The Agent Who Cried wanted to schedule a phone call, so of course I said yes! Then I sent out one more round of follow ups and immediately heard back from a second agent who also wanted to chat. I scheduled both calls for later in the week. I knew it was possible that I could have those two calls and not get an offer from either agent, but there was also a good chance I’d end up weighing two offers — and all you need is one!
I’m so thankful that I saw The Book Doctors video and had the courage to apply their strategy. By keeping my submission energy active and moving, I felt more in control of my fate. Perhaps some agents were turned off by my follow ups, but if so, nobody told me. EVERY rejection I received was personal, and included a thanks for querying and following up. In the end, the numbers broke down this way:
Total queries sent: 29
Queries that went ignored even with follow up: 12
Personal rejection letters received to query: 8
Requests for proposal and/or manuscript: 9
Personal rejection letters from agents who read material: 7
Requests for a phone call: 2
Offers of representation: 2
As you can see, almost half of the queries I sent were never acknowledged, despite the fact that my search went incredibly well! To me, this proves that if you and your project are truly ready, it’s a matter of persistence. Don’t be passive and don’t give up!
In my next post, I’ll talk about preparing for an agent call, what to do when you finally get an offer or offers.