Querying strategically

How to start querying literary agents

By David Griffin Brown

When you are at last confident that your query letter conveys craft, concept, and market savvy, that your synopsis demonstrates a keen awareness of structure and arc, and that you have done all you can to fine-tune and polish your manuscript, you're ready to begin the hunt for representation.

So—where do you start?

1) Identify the top ten agents you'd like to work with

The most important consideration is that your manuscript fits their criteria—that it's a genre they represent. Next, consider their client list. Are they promoting books that feel like a good match with your own work? Finally, narrow in on your ideal candidates based on whether or not you'd like to work with them. Can you imagine yourself in a long-term business relationship with this agent? This final step may take some digging: their agent profile is the obvious starting point, but you might also uncover interesting tidbits in interviews, on personal blogs, as well as on Twitter.

2) Set these agents aside for later

That's right. Do NOT query them. Few writers land representation in the first five or ten queries they send out, and you only get one chance with each agent, so don't blow your first round of submissions on the best of the best.

Make a new list of ten suitable agents and start with these instead.

3) Send out five queries... and wait

The waiting is painful, but it's part of the querying game

Keep in mind that agents' first priority is their clients. They generally don't read queries as they roll in. More likely, their submission box waits quietly until they have a spare minute in between reading new drafts or revisions from their current client list.

Wait at least two weeks. If you haven't heard anything back, send out five new queries.

4) Wait... and revise

Once you have ten queries out in the world and you've given the agents a few more weeks to poke at their slush piles, it's time to go back to the revision bench. Tweak your query letter. Have another look at your opening pages. Now that time has given you some distance, is there anything you might tighten or improve? Is there another opening scene that might catch more attention?

5) Resubmit

At this stage, you might want to include a few of the agents from your top ten, though it makes sense to keep at least half of them in reserve. Either way, keep searching out more agents who might be a good fit, and follow the same submission pattern—five at a time.

The reasoning for this trickle approach: if there is something in your submission that isn't catching attention, you don't want to burn through fifty or a hundred possibilities before realizing it. Treat each set of five submissions as a test. If none of these agents requests to read your full manuscript, you still have work to do.

6) And then, finally, you get a "full request"

Awesome! An agent has requested to read your full manuscript. Cross your fingers, send it off, and open a bottle of wine. This isn't success—not necessarily—but it's a big step forward.

THIS is the moment you've been waiting for. As soon as you send off that manuscript, jump on those top agents that you've been keeping in your back pocket. You finally know that your submission package has the potential to catch an agent's eye. Now is the time to go for your top ten.

7) And wait...

Remember, always, that this is a long road. Some agents will take a year or more to read your query letter. Some will take equally as long to read your complete manuscript. An agent's first priority is their current client list. This may seem frustrating, but once you've finally landed representation, you will greatly appreciate your agent's attention and responsiveness.

8) Keep writing

Querying a manuscript is part strategy, part luck, and a lot of hard work

Very few writers land representation for the first manuscript they write. Also, even if you end up with a great agent, there's no guarantee that they will sell your manuscript. Keep your head down. Keep learning. Keep up the daily writing habit. If you expect instant success, you are likely to be crushed by failure. Instead, just as you treat each round of query submissions as a test, treat each manuscript you write as an experiment.

People will tell you that "this is a highly subjective business" and that somewhere, somehow, there is an agent who will fall in love with your manuscript. That is very often untrue. Persistence is important—there may very well be one agent out there who will light up at your pitch. However, persistence in querying is not the same as persistence in writing, rewriting, and the endless quest of self-critique and self-improvement.

David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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