How Many Times Should You Query an Agent?

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If you’re thinking about doing any kind of querying to literary agents, or if you’re in the middle of that process, then you’ll quickly find that the most efficient way to go about it is to send off emails in batches. The rationale is that, as responses come in, you can take the feedback, tweak your query/book, and try again, rather than having everybody reject your initial poor first try.

But at what point is it enough? Where is the line where you stop and either self-publish or shelve the work?

Generally speaking, if you read blogs from real-life, active agents, the recommendations range from 50 to 100 queries. The gist here is that, if that many agents are saying no, then there’s probably a reason. This might have much less to do with your talent than the current perceived marketability of your concept.

But is that true? Is 50 to 100 some kind of magic?

There are plenty of stories of famous writers who had to go well beyond 50 to 100 queries. Jack Canfield, for example, who’s responsible for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, hit 144 big fat nos. So there’s evidence that a lot of agents can be wrong in thinking a book won’t sell, and that a little tenacity can pay off big. If you stop before you reach the agent that believes in you, it’s like giving up on digging a tunnel out when you’re just inches from breaking through.

But let’s look at the number of agents, too. There are at least 1,000 agencies within the United States. So if you’re stopping at 50 agents, then you’re only inquiring at a whopping 5 percent of American houses. Now consider that many of those agencies will allow you to submit the same project to other agents within the house, so long as you allow a specific amount of time to pass and/or clarify that another agent has seen the book already. Many agencies overseas still work with American authors, too.

Are you really going to tell yourself that a 5 percent effort is good enough? At what other job would that ever be considered acceptable? And can you even argue that you’ve seen all the different opinions about your book agents might have if you’ve only tapped 5 percent of those professionals? That’s hardly majority rule.

In full disclosure, I’m around 170 rejections on my current book. And for the reasons above, I’m not going to give up any time soon. My personal opinion is that you should stop querying your work only when you run out of options, you’re mentally or physically exhausted, or both.

Now, if you get to that point and you genuinely just can’t stomach the thought of one more email, it’s OK! Independent publishing is a totally different animal than it used to be and has more sway than it ever has. It can be incredibly profitable. Just because you don’t query anymore doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It just means that you walked one path, figured out that that one wouldn’t work for you, and set yourself on a different road to the same goal.

I recognize, too, that there can be a race against the clock financially. If writing is your only job, then you can’t go forever without a paycheck. So self-publishing might become a necessity, even if you haven’t queried as much as you’d like. There’s no shame in setting yourself a customized cutoff point in this case. I am assuming, however, that like many other writers, you have other work that pays your bills, and that the querying can take the time it takes.

Agents can have a great sense of the market. But sometimes they do get it wrong, just like Steve Jobs initially thinking that people wouldn’t want a device without a keyboard (hello, there, iPad). So don’t necessarily assume that people won’t read your book, just because the rejections start piling up. Sometimes you really do just have to wade through the agents who are wrong to get to the one who is right. Query until you can’t anymore and be aware of just how many emails you actually have the opportunity to send off. And even if you get to the point where you’re out of agent options, you still can get your work out into the world.

So prepare yourself. You’ll be published. It’s just a matter of time.


How to Write a Killer Query Letter

If you want to break into the writing business, your job isn’t over when you finish your final draft. You have to keep going and write a killer query letter. This document essentially introduces your work to an editor, so the better your query letter is, the more likely it is that the editor will take a gander at the manuscript you’ve sent.

Your first job with the query letter is to make sure you’ve listed the contact information for the editor/publishing house. Always address the letter to a specific person rather than using “To Whom It May Concern” or “Editor” unless you are specifically instructed to do so in the submission guidelines. If you don’t know to whom you should address the letter, email or call the publishing house and ask. Next, include your contact information–you want the editor to be able to contact you quickly and easily if they get interested in your work. Also include subject and date lines so the editor knows right away what the purpose of the letter is and how long ago you wrote it.

The first paragraph of your query letter introduces your manuscript. It includes a “hook” or engaging line that catches the editor’s attention. Don’t shortchange the time you spend writing the hook–if you can’t catch the editor’s eye here in the first few lines, he might not keep reading. Be creative and to the point.

The second paragraph goes into a little more detail about the manuscript, summarizing some of the main plot points (think dust jacket here). Include a specific word count. Explain to the editor how the manuscript fits his publication needs and tell why it is different from the competition. This shows you’ve done some basic research into the publishing house and have an idea of why your work could sell compared to other manuscripts in the same genre.

The third paragraph of a query letter details some of your publication experience, if you have it. This gives you some credibility, which helps the editor decide whether you’re prepared for the publication process and whether the public would accept or believe what you wrote. If you don’t have any publication credits, then focus on your education or other experience that has made you an expert in writing the manuscript. For example, if you want to write a book on anatomy, you might mention you are an M.D. or have taught anatomy for x years.

The last paragraph of your query letter brings attention to the enclosures you’re sending (i.e., the manuscript, your writing resume). At the end of the paragraph, invite the editor to contact you if he is interested in your work, and reference your contact information. End with a professional closing statement such as “Sincerely” or “Thanking you in advance.”

Once you print your letter, be sure to proofread it. The letter is the first experience an editor has with you, and he won’t take you as seriously if your first correspondence already contains errors. Have a friend or family member read it over, too–you might miss something, as people have a tendency to skim over document text.

After you know your letter is perfect, get your enclosures together, sign the letter, and get it all in the mail. Now all you have to do is wait for a response!