Query Trenches: How I Prepared to Start Querying Literary Agents

Entering the query trenches

As of October 2020, I have officially entered the query trenches. Writing that sentence feels a little surreal. Totally dramatic, I know. But I’ve wanted to be a published author for so long. Of course this is the first step to potentially getting published and there are no guarantees this book will go anywhere. However, I am super proud of myself for entering this next phase of my writing and putting myself out there. For a long time, it felt like I was going to talk about wanting to be an author but wasn’t actually taking those next steps to be one.

Preparing to query is a lot of hard work and organization. It definitely isn’t something you can do on a whim. So, if you’re preparing to enter the query trenches and want to know what I did to get ready to do so, keep reading.

But wait… what’s a query?

If you don’t know, a query letter is basically a cover letter for your book and you as an author. In order to be traditionally published, you need to find a literary agent to represent you. To get representation, you need to send query letters to various agents with a short (250-300 word) pitch of your book that does NOT spoil the ending (save that for a synopsis). Additionally, in a query letter you include a short bio about yourself and any writing credentials you have, if any. Also, you need to include the title, age category, word count and comparative titles.

Google will be an amazing resource to what a query should look like. One of the most popular resources is Query Shark, so I highly recommend taking a look there. Bookends Literary Agency has an awesome YouTube channel where they discuss many topics related to publishing. They also have this video to help you know what agents look for in queries.

Don’t stop here with this video. Look at the rest of their videos for really useful information.

Writing the Query

Writing a query is such a different skillset from writing a book. In many ways, it’s harder because you have such limited space. I won’t give tips on writing queries, because I’m no expert, but my first step in preparing to enter the query trenches was research. I researched what made a great query letter, read examples of good and bad queries (check out this reddit thread) and got to work. My query went through many rounds of revisions and tweaking.

Though, in the end, you’ll never know if it’s perfect and have to send it off with the knowledge that despite all the effort, it still might not work. Many people suggest having people who have and have not read your book take a look at it. I also wanted to make sure my query was enticing while still leaving room for questions. Do make sure the questions the agent has at the end will leave them wanting to read the book, not leave them confused or questioning whether it makes sense.

I ended up having two versions of my query letter I will send out in different batches.

Researching Agents & Agencies

Do your research

Probably the most tedious and time consuming part of the query trenches preparation process is this one. Researching the right agent and agency for you is such an important decision. You need to put a list together of who you will query to keep yourself organized. Before querying, you need to make sure the agent accepts your age category and genre and are currently open to queries. But the work doesn’t stop there! Just because an agent accepts your age category and genre, doesn’t mean they’re a right fit for you.

What publishing houses have they sold to? Are they a new or established agent? What is the reputation of the agency they work for? Who are some of the agency and agent’s other clients?

Those are basic questions you have to ask. When researching agents, sometimes I simply didn’t feel connected to the agent/agency. Other times I saw that most of the agent’s books were digital only. As that is not what I envision for my publishing career, I scratched them off the list. This is a step you do not want to rush, no matter how eager you are to get started. It took me months of research to curate a list I was satisfied with. Not saying it will take you this long, but I’d suggest at least two to four weeks of intensive research.

How many agents should you query?

Keep a list of agents and agencies

As with everything, there is no hard and fast rule to this question. You may often come across the “100 agent” rule. I personally think that’s a load of crap. If you found one hundred agents you’d be GENUINELY excited about working with, then sure, go for it. But I don’t think you should add people onto your query list just to reach some magic number. Of course I have my list of “top agents” that are favorites for me. But, I only included agents who if any of them offered representation I’d be excited and not disappointed.

Before entering the query trenches, my number of agents was around fifty five. The number doesn’t account for agencies that allow writers to re-query if they’re rejected. Not saying my number is what you should aim for, but I do think you should not waste your time or an agent’s time by querying them if you’re not actually interested in working with them.

Many people also recommend querying in batches. This is recommended because if your query letter or first pages aren’t working and you need to tweak them, you haven’t blown through your entire list of agents. It’s very rare for agents to give you personalized feedback, but this could also be another reason why batches would be useful. Once you query an agent, you typically can’t re-query them with the same manuscript. So make the time you query them count!

Agent List Organizational System

In my list of agents and agencies I color coded them by my favorites and also which ones I was a little iffy on. As per my last point, if I was accepted by any, I’d be stoked. However, a few agencies/agents may have had certain aspects I wanted to remember. For instance, one agency seemed to have a huge focus on fantasy although they do accept other genres. While I do hope to write in fantasy one day, the novel I’m querying is an adult contemporary novel.

In my mass list, I included any agents from that agency who I felt was a good fit. Most agencies have a “no from one is a no from all” policy, so I also highlighted my first choice of agents from each agency. Lastly, I had the agencies organized alphabetically. This made it so much easier to find the agents, trust me.

Preparing Other Materials

In September I was part of the AuthorTube Virtual Retreat, a two day online event. I hosted a writing sprint on my channel. If you’re interested, check out the replay!

You’ll need more than just a polished query letter before entering the query trenches. Firstly, you need a completed manuscript. More specifically, you need a completed, edited and polished manuscript. Do not send agents your first draft. Your manuscript should have went through several rounds of self-edits as well as seen other eyes (critique partners and/or beta readers). Most agents don’t want to see your full manuscript right away. It varies by agent, but it’s common to only send your first 10 pages, first chapter or first three chapters.

Check out this video from iWriterly where Meg LaTorre (founder of the channel) and a current literary agent critique first pages of manuscripts.

Some agents/agencies also want a synopsis. A synopsis is usually one page single spaced detailing everything that happens in your book. You include any plot twists and spoil everything right down to the ending. Although you have more words to work with, I found writing a synopsis to be way more difficult than the query. Again, do your research on how to write one.

Putting Together a Spreadsheet

I created a spreadsheet to aid in my query trenches preparation

Knowing I’ll be sending off a ton of queries, I wanted to have an organized system right off the bat. Thus, I went to Google Sheets and created a spreadsheet. My spreadsheet included the following categories:

  • Agent Name
  • Agency Name
  • Query Version
  • Batch #
  • Email
  • Date Sent
  • Initial Material Sent
  • Average Response Time
  • Current Status
  • Requested Material
  • Requested Material Sent
  • Nudge By
  • Comments
  • Reason for Passing

Okay, I realize this is a LOT of information. Some of it may not prove to be useful, but this is what I started with. As this is a new experience for me, I’m continuing to go through this process and find out what works for me and what doesn’t.

Final Steps

Being in the query trenches can be a long process

Once I knew what agents would be in my first batch, or round, of queries, I did even MORE research on them. For my general query, the housekeeping (word count, genre, etc.) went at the bottom. But I learned one of those agents preferred that at the top. Furthermore, another agent really wanted to know the themes present in the book (which many sites will tell you NOT to do). Another wanted all of my social media links. None of this information was on the agency website, it was all discovered elsewhere. While I don’t think these agents would reject based on these things alone had I not known, I want to give them reasons to say yes.

Thus, I tweaked the queries for each agent to make sure their preferences were met. A week before sending out my first queries, I created a new email specifically for querying. I already get anxious checking my email and I know it would only get worse if every time I opened my personal email I also was worried about seeing a rejection. Besides, it makes it much more organized and professional.

Mental Preparation

Being in the query trenches can be tough on your mental health

I touched on this a little bit mentioning my anxiety over emails. But preparing myself mentally for entering the query trenches was also a priority for me. Rejection is hard and I know I will face lots of it. While I do believe it’s still going to hurt, doing research on statistics of querying really helped me adjust my expectations and truly know what I’m getting into.

Not going to lie, my heart hurt reading this tweet. But I’ve heard similar stats given from agents. Getting an agent is tough and competitive, and if I want to get published I’m going to have to put myself through it for… who knows how long. There will never be a simple fix to avoiding self doubt when rejections pile up. But I’m hoping to have made it a little easier on myself by knowing it’s hard, it’s a business and I have to keep going.

Conclusion

That’s all I have for you. I’ve been preparing to start querying for so long, it feels amazing to finally be in the trenches. In the meantime, I’m not sitting around twiddling my thumbs, I’m writing! Because there’s a possibility this manuscript I’m querying won’t catch, I need to be working on my next project. Since this is such a long and grueling process, I probably won’t update again until there’s a major development. Perhaps if I need to do a major overhaul of my query or first pages. Or, and crossing my fingers, if I get an offer of representation!

Thanks for reading and for those also querying (or preparing to) good luck and hang in there! How did you prepare to enter the query trenches?

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