Monday, September 20, 2010

Querying an Agent – what I’ve learned about it

What I really like about is that it provides you with specific information on how the chosen agent wants to be queried. There are many ways to do this, and for me some of them are automatically ruled out by my circumstances.

The major question that arises when querying is that of which medium is best used to query an agent: paper and postal service (appropriately termed snail mail) or virtual documents and email. Both have pros and cons to be considered when choosing.
Snail mail means that you print out your cover letter, query, synopsis or maybe even your whole manuscript on paper, stick it in an envelope and send it to the agent like any old letter – and don’t forget that SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), or you’ll never see your manuscript again. Depending on how much you’re sending and where you’re sending it to, this can become very costly (costs for printing out the documents/manuscript + shipping charges), especially when querying several agents at once, which is always a good idea as a newbie. Even nowadays some agents prefer snail mail and holding the manuscript in their hands rather than email and reading it off the screen – they don’t even accept email queries.
Many of them do, though. In you can choose whether you want just the agents who also accept email to be listed. Email queries are cheaper and faster – but often, agents get so swamped with email queries that they won’t write a response when they choose to reject one. So the writer who sent the query might end up waiting a long time for an answer that never appears; this should be taken as a ‘thanks, but no thanks’.
But it can take a long time before you receive an answer in both cases – four to six weeks seems to be normal, so don’t lose hope when you don’t receive an answer on the same day, week or even month of sending the query out.  

Personally, I make use of that little check box in that lets the search focus on those agents who accept email queries. As a student, and living in Germany but querying in the US, I just don’t have the financial means to send snail mails at the moment. Emails will have to do. I emailed out my first queries a little over two weeks ago, which means I still have a lot of time before I might expect an answer. I received two rejections on the same day I sent them out, which, although negative news, I really appreciated because I won’t be waiting for those agents’ answers anymore.

I started a list in Microsoft Excel, in which I keep track of the agents/agencies I sent something to, on what date I sent it to them, when I received an answer, and what that answer was. What I also include in this list is what exactly I sent them, because here the agents’ specifications vary the most: some want only a query, some a query and the first three or five chapters of the manuscript; some agents want a query and a two-page synopsis, some only a 500-word synopsis; others want the query, the synopsis, and the first five pages of the manuscript. It’s nice that they inform you on their agentquery-page what exactly they expect for you to send them. (Also, devoted a page to the proper formatting of queries/cover letters and synopses in both snail mail and email queries.)

A friend of mine, who recently got a short-story published in an anthology, was kind enough to look over my query. As with the novel draft, it helps to keep polishing your queries and synopses until you get a fish to bite. The better they’re written, the more interest the query arouses. Friends’ or families’ opinions can help in polishing the query, especially if they’ve never read the story itself, because they can say whether they’d be interested in reading it from just the query alone.

I read somewhere that you shouldn’t query all the agents you’ve selected at once, but rather send out your queries to five or six of them, then wait several weeks before you query the next ones. This makes sense to me, since you can wait for feedback that might come your way, and which you can use to make your ‘performance’ better with the next query-wave you send out.

What I’ve also read many many (and once more, just for emphasis) many times is that you need to accept an agent’s rejection and, if they’re really awesome people, feedback, and move on. Professional agents don’t get personal when writing a rejection and neither should you. There’s no use in writing a scalding answer to a rejection, berating the agent for not considering your story (especially if the agent has taken the time to write you his or her reasons for rejecting it!). This isn’t professional behavior and will neither get the agent to accept you as a client, nor will it make him eager to read anything else you query him/her with, because you’ve made it obvious you can’t communicate and work in a professional way. Same thing goes for being impatient and writing emails or phoning the agent to see how your query is coming along. With snail mail, since you would like to have your fairly costly manuscript back and included a SASE for just this purpose, if you haven’t heard back within six to eight weeks, go ahead and – politely! – ask about it. If you sent an email-query, don’t bother; I was told that no answer after two months is tantamount to a rejection.

There are probably many more issues to be considered when querying an agent, but I think I hit the major ones, and professed my personal affinity for acting professional.
For more insightful and at the same time often hilarious information on the subject, check out Miss Snark’s (- the literary agent’s) vacated blog.

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