Finding an Agent the Old-Fashioned Way: Querying

Yesterday, Louise gave some of the best advice I’ve read on how to research agents. She suggested going to conferences and events, reading blogs and subscribing to Publishers Marketplace, attending webinars and consulting Twitter. It’s kind of hard to blog about getting an agent after the wealth of spot-on information she gave.

Except I didn’t do a single thing she mentioned.

Ads for Writers-Feb 1929
Ads in the New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1929
Call me a slacker, call me uninformed, but my hunt for an agent was exceedingly low-tech. Some might say it was downright old fashioned. This was my game plan:

Novel Perfection
The first thing I did was make sure my novel was perfect. I mean perfect. I wrote it. I revised it. I sent it to my writing group. I revised it some more. I read it out loud (this is an amazing way to get a feel for the rhythm and catch errors). I did such a good job making sure my novel was perfect that, when I eventually did get an agent, I only had to revise it three more times. BUT! It was as perfect as I could get it at that time.

Pick Whom to Query
The next thing I did was scour my bookshelf. I pulled all my favorite books and flipped to the acknowledgements to see who they thanked. Authors almost always thank their agents.

Of course I don’t own every novel in the world (although my husband may disagree with that statement), so next I visited my local Barnes & Nobles. I found yet more books that I felt either had similar themes or resonated with me, and I sat on the floor of the store, taking notes as I read yet more acknowledgement pages.

Organize
Once I had a list of potential agents, I created my master list in Excel. I wrote the agents name, who she or he represented, and I left a blank column for other information.

Now came a different type of research: I read a lot of Writers’ Digest literary agent guides and did a bit of Internet research. I looked for other information that might be useful. Oh, this agent went to the same college I did! Oh, this one specializes in Jewish writing! I put that in my spreadsheet.

Because each query letter was personalized for each agent, the letters took a bit of time to write and send off. I set myself a goal of sending out four a week (which I didn’t come close to hitting, but I stand by the idea that goals are good to have). I diligently kept track in both Excel and in QueryTracker. QueryTracker does just that, help you track your queries, and because others also input their queries, it can give you an idea of response time, what the rejections look like, and other helpful information. I opted for the premium version of QueryTracker, which I highly recommend (it’s only $25 a year). The premium version has a feature where I could look up, “Folks who queried this agent also queried that agent.” It gave me a whole list of new agents to try.

Personalize the Query
At last, I worked on my query. Oh, did I work on that query! I think my writing group saw the query almost as much as the novel. I made sure I had a personalized greeting. Always a “Dear Mr. So and So” or “Dear Ms. So and So.” A few times I had to check gender because of androgynous names and at least once, I couldn’t be sure, so I ended up using the entire name as in “Dear Chris Jones.” I put in why I was contacting that particular agent (“I have read that you are the agent to Allegra Goodman, whose books I admire. Like Ms. Goodman’s story ‘The Four Questions’ from The Family Markowitz, my novel is about the intersection of the secular world and the Orthodox Jewish world”; “I am seeking representation for my novel CONTINUITY. My main character works in the film business, and I hope that you, as a former film executive, will find her character compelling”).* I briefly summarized my novel. I wrote a short bio, which included my writing education and where I had published. To finish, I mentioned word count, gave my thanks, and hit send with crossed fingers.

*Huh? CONTINUITY? What about MODERN GIRLS? While I hate to remind others of my failures, I guess I should remind you that I queried for a previous novel that my agent was unable to sell and that’s to what this refers.

Wait, Drink Too Much, Then Breathe
Over a period three months, I sent out 22 queries, and I still had a list of 13 more to query. The best thing you can do while your manuscript is on submission is start writing the next book. Everyone knows this. I have yet to meet anyone who has done this. Me? In the months that I waited, I ate an obscene amount of gummy bears and consumed possibly more than my fair share of bourbon.

Lippincott Massie McQuilkin Literary AgentsAnd, then, the responses: Of those 22 queries, 12 agents said no, 6 agents requested full manuscripts, and 4 hadn’t responded at the time of my “yes.” When I got my “yes” from Laney Katz Becker of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, we had a long phone conversation, in which she evaluated me and I evaluated her. She was definitely the right agent for me, so I withdrew my queries from the other agents.

I feel like I completely lucked out with Laney. Laney is a career agent: When my first novel didn’t sell, she told me to get back to my computer and work on the next novel. When I finished MODERN GIRLS, she accepted it with arms open and red pen in hand.

Since my time querying, I’ve found all sorts of resources to help folks on their journey to agenthood. Start with advice on writing query letters from Query Shark, written by agent Janet Reid. I’ve heard Twitter pitch sessions are terrific for those who can figure out how to summarize their book in 140 characters. I was also surprised when I realized that publishing in literary journals is a way to pique interest. After I already signed with Laney, I was contacted by an agent who saw one of my pieces in a journal. Even though I didn’t need an agent, it sure felt good to be sought after!

Having an agent isn’t for everyone. If you choose to indie publish, aka self-publishing, you won’t need one (I can’t speak to indie publishing with authority, however many authors, such as Hugh Howey and Claire Cook do publish independently and write about it). Those who choose the middle ground of hybrid publishing also don’t require an agent. But I knew that I wanted to give the traditional publishing world a try. And that meant querying. As boring as that may sound, querying was my best path to finding the right agent. Querying isn’t fun. It’s time consuming and depressing and will drive you to chocolate. But when you get that “yes call,” well, you’ll still be eating chocolate. But this time in celebration.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 5 Comments

    1. I’m so glad you found that helpful, Jill! I don’t know if you saw (we Tweeted it this morning) but over on Women’s Fiction Writers, Amy Sue Nathan has a feature on 10 literary agents who are seeking women’s fiction now (written by a PW writer!). Good luck on your search and do keep us updated! https://womensfictionwriters.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/10-literary-agents-seeking-womens-fiction-now-8-query-tips-by-chuck-sambuchino/

  1. Awesomely awesome advice, my friend. I really should listen to you, like, always! You are such a writing smarty, and your can-do spirit is an inspiration.

    And someone, someday, will fall in love with CONTINUITY the way that we all did, and it will be a “real” book in people’s hands. This I know for sure!!

    And finally, yes I would very much like to win the free book because like you I don’t own every novel in the world. But I would like to, very much.

  2. You’re so right about the idea of “perfect!” It seems that at first the book is perfect enough to get an agent, then perfect enough to sell, then perfect enough to be printed…and hopefully, perfect enough to be loved by readers. I try to tell myself at each stage, that it just has to be good enough to get to the next stage…like you said, as perfect as possible!

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