Authors often hear agents saying “do your homework before you query” but many authors struggle with understanding that assignment.
Tailoring queries properly–both in content and in recipient scope–actually increases an author’s chances of success. The content aspect of querying is covered widely (and well) in other places–Janet Reid’s blog, and her QueryShark archive are fantastic sources of information. (Many other good resources exist, but those two are reliable and more than enough to get you started.) However, today’s post focuses on the “how to know who to query” aspect of the process.
Let’s look at some useful tips for figuring out which agents (or mentors, etc) might be a good fit for your work & query:
1. Pitch or query only to people who represent works in the genre where your manuscript belongs. Note: this requires knowing what genre you’re writing.
Protip: every work has a genre–sometimes more than one, but ultimately, it needs to be shelved somewhere. Figure that out BEFORE you query. Even if you’re writing a speculative-historical-mystery-YA/MG-romance…one (2 at most) of those are primary. Know your genre.
The first step in finding proper agents to query is narrowing the list of “all agents/mentors in the universe” to “those who want to represent MY genre.” No matter how well you write, you won’t convert a romance specialist into a mystery lover–or vice versa. Do not try, even if you really think your personalities or business styles would match. The easiest way to rejection is querying agents who don’t represent the type of book you’re offering.
2. Check the agent’s bio, website, or posted wish list (if any) to find agents who want the type of book you’ve written.
Finding the right agent for your work involves more than simply a genre match. Huge diversity exists within genres. You need to find an agent who likes the type of book you’ve written (e.g., cozy mystery) rather than something on the other end of the genre spectrum.
Many agents also use the “MySecretWishList” (#MSWL) hashtag on Twitter to let people know what they’re looking for. Check this too.
3. If you can’t tell exactly what the agent is seeking, look at the agent’s client list and see if your work fits into that “group.”
An agent whose client list consists primarily of cozy mysteries and middle grade novels might not be the best candidate for your gritty, erotic police procedural. It’s tempting to just send queries out to every agent in your genre, but don’t. It wastes a lot of time and effort on both sides.
Determining whether your work fits into an agent’s client or wish list requires honest self-reflection about yourself & your work. The question is not “do I want Agent A to love me?” but “do I genuinely believe Agent A will love this book I wrote?” These are not the same thing.
A side note: Over the years, I’ve become friends with many literary agents. The tips I’m giving come largely from things they’ve told me.
4. Google the agents you’re considering querying; look for interviews in which they talk about the type of work they’re looking to represent.
I decided to pitch my agent because I read an interview in which she mentioned being drawn to character-driven mystery. Since that’s what I write, I thought my work might be a good fit (and history proves me right–pun intended).
Reading interviews and articles takes some time, but also gives great insight into whether an agent might be a good fit for your work. If the agent has a blog–I strongly recommend you read it, and not just a single entry. Check the archives, especially entries that talk about what the agent likes (or doesn’t like) in manuscripts and queries.
The more thorough your research, the better you will be able to target your query list to agents (or #PitchWars mentors) who are likely to love your work.
The query process isn’t just about sending a thousand missiles into the night and hoping one of them hits a target. “Aim” comes before “fire” (or “send”) in queries as well as warfare.
The more you know about the people you query, the better you can tailor that query to hook and intrigue them, which increases your chance for a MS read.
Finding the right literary agent isn’t about the number of queries you send. It’s about identifying the best possible matches for your work. To some authors, it seems counterintuitive to send out fewer, but better-tailored, queries–and yet you only need one agent. Doing the research and finding the agents who best suit your work is actually a faster route to success than carpet-bombing queries.
Have you had an experience–good or otherwise–with tailoring (or failing to tailor) queries? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!