I was lucky enough to sign with a literary agent last year (read about that story here), but it took me years to get to that moment. Here are 10 query tips I learned over the years that will help you land an agent!
1. A great query gets a full request. A great manuscript lands you an agent. A writer friend told me this once, and it makes sense: a great query can only get you so far, and ultimately the manuscript has to be as perfect as you can get it before you even start to write the first query. At the same time, no agent will ever read your novel if the query is written poorly and doesn’t properly reflect the book or the agent’s tastes.
2. Keep a master list of each agent, particularly those who have requested my work before. Pay close attention to the agents who represent books that I love, and that I love to write. These are two bits of advice I followed from the very beginning, and I currently have a master list of agents that goes all the way back to 2010. Of course, every six to twelve months I did a complete update, to make sure I wasn’t querying agents who have quit the business and who no longer represent young adult. I also always bolded the agents who are LGBT friendly, since many of my novels feature LGBT characters and themes.
3. Put YA Query in the subject line. Not YA Fiction Query. The first four books I queried I put YA Fiction Query in the subject line, and I’ll never forget the e-mail I received from an agent, a personalized rejection that included the following note: “How many non-fiction YA queries do you think we get? Just put YA Query.” The note was a little mean-spirited but absolutely essential, because now my subject lines make me look a little less stupid.
4. Personalize the query to the agent. It was difficult when I was sending fifty, seventy, a hundred queries, to personalize each one, but I did, because I felt like if I was going to spend a year working on a novel, I should spend a few weeks picking the right agents to send my work and then told them why. I always told the agent if he or she had requested one of my books before, I always put a little note at the beginning about why I felt he or she would want to look at my work, especially if there’s that LGBT connection. To not personalize a query at all sets you up for failure, and you want to have the best shot possible.
5. Keep plot summary to a minimum. This was a huge problem I dealt with in the beginning. I always felt the query needed to give a clear idea of not just the overall story but the main characters, and ultimately, as I’ve said before, the sole point of the query is to get the agent to request pages, so to overload him or her with too much story is a bad idea.
6. Give the agent a clear understanding of the audience for the book, and what other books on the market are similar to mine. Beyond giving the agent a brief glimpse of the story, the query also needs a paragraph that discusses who I think the audience for the book is and what other books I can compare to mine. For example, I wrote my first middle grade book in 2014 and had to do some research to find a couple of titles that were similar to mine. I had to do some homework, and ultimately reading some of these new titles gave me a richer understanding of the genre.
7. Keep the author bio as short and relevant as possible. In my author bio I could put down every literary magazine I’ve been published in, but the bio needs to be as brief and relevant as possible. All you need to put is two, no more than three, sentences about yourself.
8. Don’t query in December. Or on holidays. Or on Mondays and Fridays. Or in the week before or after major conferences. This one is really baffling, and it’s only something I paid attention to after many years of querying. You can query an agent anytime you want, of course, but it’s in your best interest to query at the slowest times a year when the agent isn’t being inundated with a thousand other queries and isn’t on some sort of vacation. Most agents close up shop after Thanksgiving, for example, and I’ve heard that they receive so many queries in January that they struggle to even read all of them. In all the research I’ve done, it appears that March, June, and October are the best times of years to query, and that’s what I ended up sticking to.
9. Don’t pester an agent with an update on my partial or full manuscript they’ve previously requested until at least three months have gone by. An agent requests your manuscript. You jump for joy and have a celebratory drink. Two weeks go by. Six weeks go by. All you want to do is e-mail them and ask, have you read it yet? But I learned over the years that I had to be patient, agents are very busy, and that if they have interest in my work, they would reach out to me. That being said, sometimes agents actually forget they have the manuscript (this happened to me at least three times), so reaching out to the agent after three months is worth doing.
10. Write the next book. This is the most important piece of advice I was told time and time again since I wrote my first novel, and one that I hear all the time at conferences, and one that I know in my heart is true — keep working on the next project, even when the latest manuscript is out on submission. As much as I desperately wanted my newest book, whatever it may have been, to be the one that got me an agent, I had to keep working on the next one, because the more books I produced, the better chance I had at not just getting published, but by becoming a better writer.
Follow at least some of these tips and you will be that much closer to signing with a literary agent!