The comments I received from my last two posts have shown me that a lot of authors don’t know much about querying agents. You can easily find any number of resources for writing an attention-grabbing query and synopsis. This is not that post. Instead, I’m going to talk about the non-creative aspects of querying. The mechanics of the query, if you will.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very process-oriented. For better or worse, spreadsheets rule my life. More than one person has accused me of being 63% robot. With no actual mechanical parts in my body, I take that as a compliment. (If you’re looking for proof of my process bonafides, look no further than my book, The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!)
In this post, I’ll walk you through querying research and submission processes that have helped me stay organized and on track. If nothing else, you can learn from my mistakes!
Effective query submission tracking
Prepare your tracking mechanism. Before starting your research into agents, figure out how you’re going to track every aspect of the research process. You’re not just tracking the agents you have queried, you need to keep a record of who you have researched, submissions made, rejections received, and everything else in between. I mentioned I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, right? Well, you’re in luck. Feel free to steal my Literary Agent Tracker spreadsheet. (Just be sure to make your own copy.)
There are also tools such as Query Tracker, which I have found to be a good source for research, but not so much for tracking. A spreadsheet gives me far more control and allows me to make my notes in a way that makes sense to me.
Research agencies. There are a lot of resources that help you find agents looking for stories in your genre. Those are an absolutely great place to start. But I caution against looking at agents before the agency as a whole. Researching agents only will have you jumping around from agency to agency. Unless you keep track of every agent you research and reject, it’s very easy to lose track of who you have or haven’t looked into. Instead, use the “find an agent” resources to building a list of agencies.
Researching the agency means looking at every agent at the agency. More often than not, I find multiple agents seeking queries for my genre that were not listed in my agent resource. I typically don’t track agents I have rejected because I know that by researching the agency, I have already ruled out anyone from that agency not noted in my spreadsheet. Of course, agents change agencies all the time (and change what they are looking for) so it can often pay to revisit agencies at a later time.
You may also want to track agencies in which you found no agents to submit too. I failed to do this and found myself researching the same agency multiple times. That was time ill-spent.
Quick Rate the Agents. Not every agent accepting queries in your genre is a great fit. I like to rate agents on a scale of 1-10 based on how strong of a fit I feel they are. 1-5 is reserved for those who do accept my genre, 6-10 for those who don’t mention it specifically but do mention particular types of story elements that are a fit.
You’ll want to get a pool of 10-20 agents before making your first query submission. This gives you a chance to work out your scale, learning what makes one agent better than another. I don’t typically perform in-depth research into any agent in this phase. Just enough to rate them. I’ll dig deeper right before submission.
Know the specifics of what they want. I pay particular attention to what the agents are looking for, going beyond genre. Many agents oddly bury this pertinent information making it difficult to find so it helps me to have this information in my spreadsheet. At a glance, I know why I rated the agent as I did. This information often finds itself in the query letter. The more I know about what an agent wants the better my query can be customized to match.
Balance research and submissions. Over the course of time, you’ll find hundreds of agents worth submitting to. Don’t wait until you’ve researched them all before submitting. I suggest you submit to one agent for every four hours of agent research performed, at least initially. Or just query the agents you rated #1. Once you have exhausted that shortlist, go find more agents. Only when you’ve run out of new research you can dive into the level 2 and 3 submissions and so on.
Learn your agents. This is the hardest part and probably the part I fail at the most. Every agent wants you to feel as if you are picking them specifically. In reality, it’s more like applying for a job when you don’t have one. You throw your resume out at every open position that is a fit, only caring about the company when you get a call for an interview. But agents want to feel special so be sure to find something about them shows them you did your research. Maybe you have something in common you can make a connection with. I dunno, I suck at this part.
Track every submission. Jot down the date of every query. Track when you submitted, the agent’s typical response time, and when you were rejected. (I also keep track of the number of times I have submitted to (and been rejected by) an agent.) [I get points for the double parenthesis, right???]
Many agents do not inform you if they have passed on your submission. Knowing the response time lets you know when you can assume you have been rejected. Since it’s generally considered bad practice to submit to multiple agents at the same agency at the same time, knowing your assumed-rejection date lets you know when it’s okay to submit to another agent at the same agency. Wait until you are “rejected” by one before submitting to the next.
Track the status of every submission. I use a lot of color-coding in my spreadsheet (see the eyesore below) to visually track my submissions but you can just as easily use a status column. Keep a record of the agents you have queries pending, which agents are currently closed to queries (I check back on them once or twice a month), which agents I cannot submit to until I get a rejection from another at their agency, and so on. This information is critical. The last thing you want to do is blow your chance with an agent trough a tracking error on your part.
Never submit to an agent more than once. Unless… I mentioned above that I have submitted to some agents more than once. This is typically a huge no-no, however, there is an exception to the rule. If you have made significant changes to your manuscript it may warrant a fresh look. Personally, I would only do this for a really significant and noticeable edit to your writing (or plot) and if it’s been more than a year since your previous submission. Be sure to mention this in your query. If they remember the submission, you want them to know why they are receiving it again.
I think that’s all I got. I can’t promise this will make your query more successful, but it will make you a more successful queryer. Now, if only I can find some way to get paid to query. Then I’d be rich.
Got any tips or tricks of your own to help you stay organized in the query process? Let me know in the comments below. (And don’t forget to subscribe to receive my posts over email.)