When you’re finally finished with your writing project, and you’ve got your query letter all typed up, the final step towards getting literary representation is – well, getting literary representation. Querying agents is the process of emailing your pitch to the people that you think will best represent your work to the publishing world. The process shouldn’t feel anywhere near as daunting as the process you just finished – but that doesn’t mean you should do it thoughtlessly.
The agent querying process is the ultimate example in first impressions. You have to be eloquent, concise, and convincing, not to mention totally on top of your game, in terms of who you choose to email, how you address them, and how you come across. It’s essential that you be thorough when it comes to the point where you’re actually sending out emails because a little grammatical mistake could be the difference between your dream agent deciding to open the word document containing your work of art, or them deciding to pass without even looking.
Here are some of the top DON’TS when it comes to querying agents:
DON’T SEND OUT A CUT-AND-PASTED BOILERPLATE EMAIL TO EVERY SINGLE AGENT
Creating a query is so time-consuming and stressful that it might be tempting to hit the copy-paste strategy to all agents after you’ve finally perfected it. Resist the urge, though: every query letter to an agent should be specific to the agent you’re emailing. This doesn’t mean you have to change the bulk of your query letter, just the intro and conclusion. In other words, you can keep the information about your project the same in each email, but you should provide a unique explanation to each agent for why you think they’re suited to represent you. This can just be a simple sentence at the opener, too – always keep it concise!
For example, you might add a sentence in the intro paragraph that references the other work the agent has done: “I thought of you for my novel because, like [insert novel title here that the agent represents], this novel is a coming of age story about female friendship and disillusionment with the adult world.”
DON’T MESS UP THE AGENT'S NAME, OR ASSUME A GIVEN NICKNAME
This one might sound obvious… but it clearly must happen a lot, since it tends to be a top query pain point for literary agents. Double, then triple check that the name in the email and the subject line match the agent you’re emailing, or you risk throwing away a potential connection with your dream agent.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject: don’t make many assumptions about your agent’s name or other personal information, like nicknames, unless you’re certain that this is the way they like to identify. You should also try to double check if they confirm their gender identity on social media or in interviews.
So if the agent’s name is John Appleseed, you should address the letter in some form of “Dear John,” or “Dear Mr. Appleseed,” unless given any other direct indication that you should do otherwise.
DON’T BE IMPULSIVE ABOUT SENDING OUT YOUR QUERY LETTER
Let’s face it: every writer who wants to be represented and hasn’t found an agent yet will likely reach a point where they’re feeling anxious to get the job done, so to speak. But don’t just hit send before you’re fully ready. From the time you complete your query letter to the time you email it out to agents, there should be several days in between. During these days, you can take the time to re-read the letter with fresh eyes, and even have a few other people look it over for you, too. Don’t stress about the time lost! It’s a blink of an eye in your life, and might save you a serious grammatical or personal error.
DON’T FOLLOW UP WITH AGENTS REPEATEDLY IF YOU DON'T HEAR FROM THEM IMMEDIATELY
There is no more painful a time than the period of weeks (or months) when you’re waiting to hear back from agents. But no matter how painful it becomes, you should try to resist the urge to follow up with agents within the first month, at least. Many agents can take up to six months to respond to cold queries (i.e., queries that come to their inbox without a recommendation or other type of flagging). If, after several months, you’re going out of your mind, then you can write a polite and extremely brief email as a follow-up.
There is a slight exception, here: if you receive interest from one agent, you are then totally within your right to email the rest and let them know that you’ll be making a decision in the near future and wanted to give them that update. For all you know, they might be finishing up reading your work and will be happy to have the chance to offer you representation. (But you definitely shouldn’t lie about having received interest if you didn’t actually receive it — the literary world is small, and agents talk!)
DON’T QUERY YOUR AGENTS BLINDLY WITHOUT DOING YOUR HOMEWORK
As much as it might be hard to remember, literary agents are people too. They have likes, dislikes, personal interests, and more – and a lot of that info can often be found in a brief online search. So before you send a query to an agent, take the time to do a little research on them and read any interviews or profiles of them that you can find. That way, your message to them has a better chance of having an accurate personal touch. Plus, it helps to be absolutely positive that your agent is a) accepting new clients and b) still representing the genre you write in.
DON’T SUBMIT TO MULTIPLE AGENTS AT THE SAME AGENCY
This is just a basic form of etiquette. No ifs, ands, or but’s about it: you should only query
one agent per literary agency. It’s not cool to email multiple at once. However, once an agent declines an offer of representation to you, you can feel confident querying another relevant agent in the same agency.
DON’T LET YOUR QUERY OR YOUR PROJECT SYNOPSIS GO ON FOR TOO LONG
Whether it’s your query or your project synopsis, neither of these documents should go for longer than a single standard printer page. And yes, there’s a difference between the two: a query should be a high-level overview of what your project is, why it’s right for a given agent, what the major themes and plot points of the story are, and who you are as a writer (again: all of it should be brief!). In contrast, a project synopsis (which you should only give to an agent if they request it of you) is a more granular breakdown of the beats of your project. For example, you can give information on a chapter-by-chapter basis within a synopsis, but NEVER in a query. With both projects, you should ask yourself: does the agent NEED to know this piece of info? If not, scrap it.
DON’T OFFER AGENTS YOUR FULL LIFE STORY
Unless you’re pitching a memoir, your agent needs to know very, very little about your life within the first email you send them – and even then, you should only be pointing out the “highlights.” Generally, you should give them a brief overview of who you are, what you do for a living, and any other pieces of personal information that you find relevant. For example, if your real-life experience inspired a work of fiction, this would be a relevant sentence to throw into your email. Otherwise, you should let your project stand front and center, rather than your biography.
DON’T LET A REJECTION END YOUR LITERARY JOURNEY
Some of the most famous authors in history were rejected again and again before they found success. Even some of the most famous books were rejected in their entirety by agents multiple times before finding a home (and eventual stardom). So when you’re on the journey towards representation, the name of the game is positivity. Just because one (or two, or fifteen) agents don’t think you’re right for them, doesn’t mean another agent won’t find your content and style absolutely thrilling. With that said, if agents give constructive feedback, you should always consider it! The key is to know the difference between words of advice, and words that basically translate into “it’s not my cup of tea.” So keep your chin up, always, and keep querying, even if there are a few road bumps along the way.
If you want to learn more about the process of finding and securing an agent, you can check out these other resources by NY Book Editors: