The traditional agent-search process involves sending out query letters to agents. In these letters, you describe your novel and yourself, and sometimes attach a few sample pages or chapters of your book to give the agent a glimpse of your writing.
Querying is an exceptionally democratic process. Anyone can do it. It’s free. You don’t need an MFA or a publication history or an acquaintance with the agent.
The upside to this is that you, unpublished writer, can query any agent, no matter how lofty. Michael Chabon's agent? Go for it. Donna Tartt's agent? Nothing's stopping you.
The downside to this is that, when your query arrives in an agent’s inbox, it's mixed in with a ton of other queries – some of them excellent, a lot of them mediocre, and a few the work of complete wackos. According to agent interviews and blogs, the typical query letter slush pile looks a lot like this:
The Query Letter Slush Pile
Really influential agents get between 50–200 queries a week, so the amount of time they (or more likely, their assistants) will spend reading your letter is minimal. When I say minimal, I'm talking in terms of seconds, not minutes, here.
As you might guess, the odds of an agent picking your query letter out of this heap are not great. So, if you have a method of getting your manuscript to an agent without going through the querying process – take it!
Do you have a friend who already has an agent? Have you met a wonderful agent at a conference or workshop? Is your old college buddy married to an agent? Ask for an introduction. Literary agents are more likely to seriously consider your work if it comes with a personal recommendation.
When it came time for me to begin my agent search, the first thing I did was ask a writer friend of mine to introduce me to her agent. That agent, an extremely busy woman who might’ve breezed right passed my query letter in her inbox, read my sample pages within a few days and requested the full manuscript a week later.
So, I highly recommend the personal connection. It's quick. It's easy. If the agent works with someone you know, or if you've met the agent before, you can get firsthand knowledge of what she's like (or would be like) to work with.
However. Even though the query process sucks and the odds of being overlooked are high, you should still query.
Why? Well, the personal connection might not work for you, for two reasons:
- The best agent for a friend of yours might be very different from the best agent for you.
- Maybe your friend writes literary fiction, but you're working on a commercial mystery. Or, you might be looking for an editorial agent, but your friend's agent is very hands-off with clients.
- Odds are that you don't have too many shots at the personal connection – maybe one or two agents at best (unless, of course, you're personally acquainted with a lot of agents – in which case you probably don't need to be reading this post).
- I know of one person who had a love-at-first-sight agent story (the very first agent she reached out to ended up offering her representation), but most of us end up querying several – or lots – of agents before we find "the one."
The good news is that, online, you can discover agents who match up closely with your sensibilities and process. If you research thoroughly and target only those you believe would be a good match for you, an excellent query letter could get you further than a personal connection.
As I mentioned before, querying is free. And magical things can happen when you query, as I'll talk about in Step 3: Write a Query Letter.
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles is the founder of Fresh Ink Consulting, an Austin-based company offering top-notch editing and writing services.