Dear Literary Agent,
Under normal circumstances, I only send out canned replies to my query rejections—or none at all if it’s a particularly high-rejection week—but I’m making an exception just for you. Humor aside, I get you. Honestly, I do. The service you provide authors is invaluable. You open doors that we otherwise would not even see.
So, let me start by first giving you a sincere “thank you” for what you do. I can’t imagine the sheer number of queries you receive each day, week, month, and year. The accumulated words are probably more than any person can read, even if they spent all day every day trying. Finding a diamond in the rough is no doubt a daunting task.
I’m here to help. You didn’t ask for my advice but indulge me while I offer you some of my thoughts that might make the query process go smoother. Not just for me, the unagented author, but for you as well. Obviously, you’re free to reject my critiques, but hopefully, you’ll find at least one thing worth considering in my words below.
Who am I to tell you what to do?
Before I get to my suggestions, let me first acknowledge that I know very little about your day-to-day job. I only know what I see from this side of things. I have, however, been on the receiving end of job applications, which I imagine is at least somewhat similar. So many words to sort through with many being miles off the mark. It makes you wonder if they even read what you’re looking for before submitting.
Am I close?
Hopefully, this gives me a little bit of insight and credibility for the suggestions I make below.
Oh, also… I’m super organized. I spend a great deal of my life figuring out how to shave valuable seconds off day-to-day activities. Flossing while peeing and cleaning the shower while showering are just two TMI ways I save time every day. Maybe my suggestions can help you save time as well. We can all use a little more of it.
Ways literary agents can help themselves by improving the query process
I’m sure you already get so many queries that you see no need to make the query process even easier. I’m not trying to ad to your workload. The goal here is to make it easier for writers to “reject” you as an agent. More opportunities for authors to rule themselves out of your query pool before they even submit. That gives you less of what you don’t want and more of the queries you do.
Ready? Here goes.
List your interests clearly
Yeah, you have them on your website. Sometimes they are on our bio page, sometimes on the submission page. Maybe you send people to your #mswl or have your representation interests buried in a paragraph with your non-work-related interests. It’s safe to say that you’ve made it perfectly clear what you’re looking for somewhere. The problem is, some of that information is out of date and some is vague. A clean bulleted list detailing exactly what you are looking for makes it very easy for authors to see whether or not you’re a good match. The clearer you are, the more queries you’ll receive that are a match.
List all your interests, not just the ones you want today
If your interests change based on the market or gaps in your list, by all means, keep that wishlist updated with what you want right now. However, if it’s possible you may swing back around to a specific genre, keep that information available. This allows authors to check back regularly to see if you’re now accepting those submissions.
Be clear about what you don’t want
Letting querying authors know what you don’t want can be just as important as telling them what you do. This is especially true for genres that have a lot of sub-genres. For example, sci-if can mean space opera, zombies, aliens, colonization on other planets, time travel, or just plain old speculative fiction set in the real world. If you love sci-if but not all of these subsets, this information can help me decide you’re not the right agent for me.
Ask about secondary or sub-genres
I did a little experiment for a pitching contest the other day. Even though my story is sci-fi, I also call it an action-adventure time-travel thriller. While researching pitch recipients, I created a spreadsheet noting each genre they were interested in. After eliminating all non-applicable classifications I was left with five, with adult and sci-fi being the two constants. Next, I rated each person according to how many classifications they were looking for that were a fit for my story. If they wanted all 5, they were at the top of the list. If only two, they were at the bottom.
After researching each of the recipients in more detail, here’s what I found out. Those also looking for stories that classified as adventure, thriller/suspense, and contemporary were a far closer match to my sci-fi novel than those looking only for sci-fi and any other genre. And it wasn’t even close.
If this helped me, I can imagine it would also help you a great deal. Author’s putting you at the bottom of a submission list decreases the chances of you being queried for stories that are a close, but not the best match for your list. And at the very least, this information can help you sort through your slush pile, looking for hidden gems.
List the genres your agency accepts and the agents that accept each
I know it’s customary for each agent to have a page outlining their own interests. But how about listing all the genres your agency represents and then placing the names of the agent by each genre? This allows writers to zero in the agents most interested in their work with fewer near-misses at your agency.
Submit to the agency, not the agent
This only applies to those agencies that say a rejection from one agent is a rejection from all. The best way to handle this is have submissions go to the agency rather than specific agents. If you already pass them around, the single-submission makes sense and helps us authors trust that it truly is being passed around and not discarded by the agent we submitted to.
Also, keep in mind, that there is currently no downside to authors who choose to submit to multiple agents at your agency anyway. The worst that can happen is another rejection. Submitting to the agency as a whole eliminates anyone receiving a second submission.
Eliminate the need for a “connection” intro
I’ll admit, this suggestion is completely selfish on my part. I am absolutely terrible at small talk. Finding something relatable as a way to small talk my way into a query just seems fake. I suspect other introverted writers feel the same. Isn’t it more important that they choose you based on having researched the types of stories you’re looking for? This seems significantly more important than noting that you both love cats, can’t wait to vacation in Italy, or brush your teeth in the shower. (Or am I the only one that does that?)
If there’s a legitimate connections, such as having met at a conference, I have no doubt the author will include that info.
Estimate duration of being “closed to queries”
A lot of you are closed to queries. I totally get that. The problem is, as a submitter, I don’t always know if the closure is temporary or permanent. If the goal is to help querying authors to be more thoughtful in their queries, it helps us to cut down on the amount of time we spend checking back on agents we hope to submit to. And if you’re closed for the indefinite future, not likely to open again, that’s helpful to know as well.
Be clear about timeframe for a (non) reply
Most of you do this so let me just say, thank you. Knowing when we can expect a reply helps us manage our expectations. It also helps us know if/when we can query another agent at your agency. But the timeframe becomes even more important for those of you who don’t send out the rejection notices. Without a timeframe, we never know if we’ve been rejected or if our query is still pending. And since most agencies ask that we don’t query two agents at the same agency at the same time, this information lets us know when we can query the next agent without penalty.
Use Query Tracker
Even though I have sent out far more query emails than I have queried through Query Tracker, I have come to love QT as a submission tool. With QT, I don’t have to worry about forgetting to include certain information that might get my query rejected. If the goal is to receive more queries that you may want to represent, every query rejected by technicality is time wasted on your or your team’s part.
For me, the best part of QT is the genre selector. Many times I’ve ruled myself out based on the options (not) available. Heck, with QT you can eliminate the need for a query letter altogether and just require the information you need to make a decision on the submission. And since QT allows authors to check on the status of their queries, we are far less likely to follow up via email if we don’t hear back in the noted timeframe.
If you’re an agent, and read this far, I honestly appreciate it. None of my suggestions are meant as criticisms. Consider them only as helpful feedback from someone who has submitted a good number of queries. I hope you take my suggestions to heart and would love your comments if you feel I’m right or wrong.
If you’re an author going through the query process, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did I miss anything?