That's what writers who've been through the process say. "Querying is hard." I always thought they meant that rejection is hard. And that's true--rejection is not a lot of fun. I wrote novels (and edited and critiqued and workshopped them) for twelve years before I was both a strong enough writer and also ready to weather the waves of rejection.
Still, the process seemed overwhelming, and I wasn't sure how to start. Bearing in mind that I'm new to querying and am far from expert at the process, here's how I've approached the task of finding an agent. The below notes are for fiction only.
1) Complete your novel. Revise it. Work it through critique groups and beta readers. Enter contests to get feedback. Polish it until it shines. When you can't make it any better without professional/editorial feedback, move on to step two.
2) Why query agents? If you want to indie/self publish, or you're pursuing small-press publication, you can maybe skip querying agents with your manuscript. But, if you're hoping to be published by a major publishing house, you'll probably need a literary agent. Most editors/big houses do not accept unsolicited submissions.
3) According to QueryTracker.net, there are about 2,000 literary agents. Which one is right for you? And how do you know? I started at QueryTracker. Agents > Search for Agents > Advanced Search > Genres. Selecting my genre narrowed 2000 agents to 117. This is a far more manageable number. What next?
4) One of my critique partners, John Frain, spent much of last year searching for an agent. He created a table to help keep track of various factors to help him determine which agents were likely to be good fits for his work and career goals. I took his table, tweaked the headings, and asked Paul to make it into a spreadsheet for me. Now, bear in mind that my categories are completely arbitrary and possibly wrong. I needed a place to start. The first two columns are Agent Name and Agency. I've removed those from the attached image, but I've found including Agency as a separate column is critical. Many agencies have "only query one agent at a time" or "a no from one is a no from all" policies, so being able to sort by Agency is important in the AgentTracker spreadsheet.
5) Now, I know who to query first! I started with "matches" of 8 and above and am working my way thought the list, sending several queries a week. But, how do I keep track of all my submissions? That's a different spreadsheet. Again, Agent Name and Agency columns are redacted. Also, some agents use QueryManager rather than email for submissions. I include those links within my Agent Query Submissions spreadsheet, but removed them for this image. I use colors to differentiate the two different novels I'm querying right now. (I've also learned to send only one project to each agent.)
6) The query! Finally! I worked on my query letters for weeks. I read Query Shark and other industry blogs/columns until my eyes blurred. I went through several drafts of each letter. I ran them past my critique partners and, for one project, a professional editor. I continually tweak the letters. But even a solid query letter isn't enough. In my experience, a personalized query earns more personalized responses (both personalized rejections and requests for more). By "personalized query," I mean more than simply addressing the letter to its intended recipient. That's a given. I mean: I'm querying you because you represent this author whose career I admire and here's why. Or: your website says you're looking for projects like this and here's how my project does that.
Populating the AgentTracker spreadsheet took me easily 60 hours of work. But each customized query takes the better part of an hour by itself.
So far, perhaps because I was so ready for it, the rejection hasn't been too hard to handle. Still, querying is hard (time-consuming, creatively demanding) work. It's also--dare I say it?--a lot of fun.
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