A Letter About Query Letters

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

Every once in a while, I get asked for advice on writing. But just recently, I was asked about writing the query letter.

We’ve done a few rounds here on the Reboot, speaking to agents and authors about the process of getting from the finished document to the rest of the world. But I realized that, until recently, I’d never put my own ideas and experiences about query writing into, well, writing. Today, I am going to reproduce my response. Thank you, friends Nick and Nich, for the question.

The Question: at what point in the process should an author send a query letter?

I’ll start by giving you a little insight into how agencies work. They will ask for anywhere between one chapter to first 50pp to the entire manuscript. It truly varies that much. When it arrives (unless you have been to a writing conference and met them in person), it will go on the “slush pile.” That means it may be 3 weeks or 9 months before anyone will read it. Example–One summer, I sent to 20 agencies, most wanting 50+. I heard from an agent in two weeks who wanted to see the whole thing. I heard back in about a month that it didn’t fit their catalog. So, from start to finish, 2 weeks for complete MS and then a month and two weeks for decision. BUT–I didn’t hear from one of the agencies at all…then,  about 9 months later, they wanted to see the whole MS. I sent it the next day, and they had it for nearly a year before I heard anything else. Same query letter, same “type” of agency, but radically different experiences!

Given all that, the two most important things that should guide your decision about when to send are:

1. You will be competing with MANY writers for an agent. Agents only want finished, polished and ready-to-go work.

2. There is no such thing as finished, polished, ready-to-go work.

Most agents–and publishers–will want you to change a lot along the way. I once had the following experience: the first editor wanted me to make a series of major changes (including re-writing a character and cutting 100 pages). I did this and returned it, only to discover that agent had left the agency–and the new one wanted me to change the character back and expand the narrative (!)

So: send now, send tomorrow, send always, send often–but send and send and send. It’s quantity as much as quality when it comes to query letters. All the same, don’t just canvas with generic letters–agents hate that, and there are some good pointers out there (often on their websites). Here is my short list:

1. Do some research on the agencies and publishers. Going with an agent or going with a small press can both work in your favor, but find out what sort of publishing you want to do. Big 6? get an agent. Just want to get a good story out there? look at small press, which may be interested without an agent. There are lots of great ones out there.

2. Whichever you choose, do a bit of research on who they are and who they publish. Find out what *kind* of work they want to see so you don’t waste time for either of you. This can be tedious. I hired a college student to help sort through this material for me. Consider: you should send to 25 at a crack, or more if you can keep that many balls in the air (unless they say “exclusive reader rights” in their info).

3. Keep track of who you send to, but a “No” isn’t forever–you might try them again with something else down the road (and there are also staffing changes to consider and the changing tastes of the market, of agents and of editors).

4. Keep sending, but keep exploring. There are new online publishing venues out there and several successful self-pubs now that e-readers are king. Publishing is undergoing a lot of re-shuffling. There are new avenues all the time.

5. Really want to break into the world from both access points? Go to a conference. Lucienne Diver and David Coe (DB Jackson) were just at Dragoncon–both are very talented and have been guests on my blog. I have gotten to know so many wonderful writers–I am encouraged by their talents and success. So go out and meet authors and agents and publishers. Get business cards. Get creative, get busy, blog hard–

And best of luck!

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