I’m an assistant to the author AUTHOR NAME, and we are seeking representation for his children’s picture book intended for middle grade audiences. BOOK TITLE is complete at 570 words and features a heartwarming tale of wisdom passed on from the older generation, and relatable and educational reasons as to why children need to stay in school.
Huh? Oh good grief… Someone sent me an agent query letter. Why is that a problem? Well, mostly because I’m not an agent, but let’s take a more detailed look at where agents fit in the publishing process and how querying agents works.
Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing
While there are many publishing options today, at a macro level the two main paths are the traditional approach and the self-publishing (or “independent”) approach. Most other options, such as “hybrid” publishing, are some variation on these two.
When you self-publish, here’s the general process:
- Write your book – This includes revision and editing.
- Produce your book – Design and format the interior, design the cover, create files for ebooks, proofread, manage upload logistics and metadata, press “Publish.”
- Launch and market your book – You savvy business folks know marketing can start while other steps take place, right?
With self-publishing, you control and are responsible for everything. You can choose to do everything yourself, or you can hire folks like me to help you with various aspects.
Traditional publishing process
When you pursue the traditional publishing path, here’s the general process:
- Write your book – With fiction, you generally write the whole book before looking for a publisher. With nonfiction, you may write only a few chapters (keep reading).
- Write your book proposal – For nonfiction, manuscripts are often sold on the quality of the idea and the author’s marketing platform. A book proposal is largely a description of your book (including sample chapters), why the market needs it, and how you’ll reach the market.
- Find an agent – An agent represents you and your book to publishers. (There may be some presses you can approach directly, but typically an agent will be needed to reach larger publishers.) You query agents with a one-page query letter; if they are interested, they’ll ask for your manuscript (fiction) or book proposal (nonfiction).
- Find a publisher – This is where your agent is doing legwork: helping revise your manuscript and proposal, sending the proposal to publishing houses, negotiating the contract, and so on.
- Finish writing your book (if it wasn’t complete) – Of course this may be occurring simultaneously with the prior steps.
- Complete the production process – This includes editing, cover design, proofreading, etc. The publisher is driving this process, though you participate.
- Launch and market your book – Your book hits the world!
The traditional publishing process can take significantly longer than self-publishing simply due to the challenge of finding the right agent and then finding the right publisher—and there’s no guarantee of either.
How NOT to query an agent
Let me give you two giant tips for what NOT to do when querying agents:
- Don’t query someone who is not an agent! I have no idea where my correspondent found my name, but if you’ve spent any time on my website, I think it’s pretty clear that I am NOT an agent.
- Don’t query an agent who does not represent your genre! My correspondent was pitching a picture book for middle grade readers. Besides the potential disconnect of a picture book for middle graders (age 8 to 12 is probably too old for a picture book), even if I were an agent, I work with adult nonfiction!
Whew. Got that off my chest…
How to query an agent
To query agents effectively, first realize that their inboxes are crammed with submissions. Your query must catch their attention and be a good fit for their agency. To improve your chances, follow these steps.
Step 1: Identify potential agents.
It is critical to target your book to appropriate agents, i.e., agents who focus on the genre/topics you’re writing about. In this first step you are simply filtering out agents who are not a fit and identifying agents who are a possible fit.
Start with sources for locating agents. For example, QueryTracker is a database of agents that you can search for genre, location, whether they are open to submissions, and so on. Manuscript Wish List is another good research site.
There are plenty of other sources for finding possible agents, including the Acknowledgements page of other books in your genre and author-colleagues who may be able to connect you with their agent.
But don’t stop here!
Step 2: Research individual agents.
For everyagent you identify as a possible fit to represent your book, you must research them further. Go to their website.
- Are they still in business? (Databases are often out of date!)
- Do they (still) represent the genre or topic you’re writing about? (Databases are often out of date!) Go beyond the generic term “nonfiction.” Look for interest in your specific area, e.g., business leadership, self-help for people going through life transitions, how-to skill-building guides.
- Is there something that stands out about the agent that indicates a potential good personal fit? You have a book about rowing and they’re a sports enthusiast; you have a book about a ’70s music group and they love contemporary music history.
Additionally, you may wish to check which associations they are a member of, e.g., Association of Authors’ Representatives. This can be an indicator of professionalism and ethical standards.
Step 3: Read submission guidelines.
Every agency has its own specific submission guidelines. The guidelines may be similar, but they are different enough that you must pay close attention. Some agencies use email; some have online forms. Some want manuscript pages up front; some don’t.
When agents are asked their pet peeves, one of the most frequent complaints is “people who don’t read the submission guidelines.” Don’t give agents a reason to toss your submission before even looking at it.
Step 4: Prepare all your materials.
In many ways, submissions are a numbers game. You are likely to hear nothing from most agents. You are lucky if you get a rejection form letter. You are doing great if you get a personal email saying “thanks but no thanks.” And you may have won the lottery when you get the magic email that says “I’m interested in seeing more. Please send me your book proposal.” (Well, maybe not the lottery—it’s more like a job interview.)
Before you start sending queries, make sure you are ready for that magic request. Have your nonfiction book proposal ready; have your fiction manuscript done and proofread.
Step 5: Begin querying agents.
You’ve got your list of vetted agents, you’ve read their submission guidelines, you’ve got your materials ready… Okay, it’s time to roll.
You can find plenty of advice on how many queries to send at a time, what your query letter needs to say, and so on, but whatever you do, be sure to track your submissions so you know which agents you’ve queried and which have responded.
What’s your goal?
I’ll give my querier one compliment: she tried to make a personal connection by writing, I chose to query your agency because it fits with ideas and goals. (So apparently she did see my website.)
Yes, I want you to express your ideas skillfully, and, yes, I want you to achieve your goals. If those goals include pursuing the traditional publishing path, I also want you to be smart about it so you increase your chances of success.
I work with authors who plan to self-publish as well as with authors pursuing a traditional publishing path. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. If you need help determining the right strategy for you, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.