The Five Phases of Querying

QueryingAhhhh, querying… What else can throw a writer into such a frenzy of excitement and terror? For those of us on the hunt for a literary agent, a solid query packet can make or break our plans for publication. So imagine how excited I was at the conference to attend not one, but three breakout sessions on snagging the attention of that most coveted of business partners.

After cramping my hand with hours of feverish note taking, I give you the combined wisdom of these literary sages- and my plan of attack on getting the attention of an agent. (For those of you not after an agent but still looking to traditionally publish, just replace the word ‘agent’ with ‘editor’ and proceed.)

Phase One- Edit your manuscript.

As much of a pain as editing can be, it is absolutely crucial to selling your manuscript. Although some agents are willing to work with authors on heavy editing, getting a book submission ready is completely and solely the author’s responsibility. Don’t count on an agent being willing to spend a ton of time editing your work- after all, agents only get paid when you do. Expecting them to put in a ton of free work just because you can’t figure out how to clean house on your own isn’t fair.

Your first page will be your most vital, but the agents all agreed that your first three chapters (about fifty pages) should be pitch perfect before querying. Eliminate anything that slows the reader down. Remember that agents are busy, busy people. If you lose their interest for even a moment, you seriously risk losing it forever. Make that manuscript sing.

Phase Two- Research your market.

Once you have your belle all ready for the ball, figure out where it has to go. We all think our manuscripts are lovely, unique creatures, but odds are pretty darned low that they are so unique as to be uncategorizable (which is most definitely a word, no need to look it up, shhhh). This category is your specific genre.

Think about where your book would rest on a shelf. The chances are pretty slim of Barnes and Nobles putting up a new set of shelves and placing just your book there. So where would they put it? And make note of the same books in that section- these are your comp titles. (But when searching for comp titles, don’t find big names that don’t really compare, and don’t use books that just generally similar. Find books similar in a very specific way- whether that’s style, theme, audience, whatever. And keep notes on all this for your query packet later.)

Think also about all the kinds of people who would be buying your book. Maybe you’d rest on the YA fantasy shelf, but if your book also prominently features mammoths in prehistoric Alaska, also consider mammoth fans or paleontologists or Alaskans or anything else. Go deeper than just a genre. Know your exact audience and pinpoint precisely what would make them shell out fifteen bucks for your book. Not only will you need to know this for future marketing adventures (wheeee!), but it will also help you find the most perfect agent on the planet for this specific book.

Phase Three- Research the proper agent.

For pity’s sake, do not blast the same query packet to every human who comes up on a Google search for ‘literary agent’. Since you already researched your perfect market back in Phase Two, take the time to find out your perfect agent as well. Laurie McLean’s rule of thumb is ten percent- spend ten percent of the time you spent on a novel researching agents.

The nice thing about this day and age is that all the information we need to figure out our best agent is online. Check out agency websites,,, Publisher’s Marketplace. Look at an agent’s client list, what kind of books they’ve sold, who they sell to.  Follow them on Twitter, read their blogs.

(But seriously, don’t stalk agents, digitally or otherwise. They want to only be queried with those projects best suited to them, so that sort of info is probably pretty available.  You’re not going to find the secret chink in their armor by hacking into their private Facebook page and looking at pictures of their daughter’s third birthday. Just don’t.)

And if you find you have the time and money to do so, definitely try online events, webinars, classes, conferences. Anything that gets you interacting with agents (in a good way!) will help you sort out whom to query with what, and how to best do it.

Phase Four- Assemble- and check!- your packet.

Once you have your dream team of potential agents post-it noted over your writing desk, carefully ready their submission requirements. Not all agents ask for the same stuff! A query packet can include many things. The most common is a query letter, but the packet might also include a proposal, a synopsis, sample pages, a marketing plan- basically whatever the agent finds necessary to assessing your viability as a client. The most important thing here is to know exactly what the agent wants to see, and give them exactly that.

In the words of Andy Kifer, “Put together a packet designed to intrigue.” Make the query letter personal and interesting- butter up the agents about their list, about their talks, tout all the research you’ve by telling them how perfect they are for this manuscript. Sell your book, and sell yourself. Don’t make a synopsis that sounds like a fifth grade book report- inject the voice of the narrative, keep statements brief and powerful, prove that you can write an absorbing story from start to finish. Be very clear on what you have, and what you’re looking for. In each facet of the packet, make every sentence fascinate.

And then go back through it with a magnifying glass. Read it out loud. Get your friends to read it and give feedback. Edit. Reread. Make sure you spelled the agent’s name right. Eliminate all mistakes. And then send it through another round of beta readers. Do this as many times as necessary to get it just right.

Phase Five- Click send and get to work on the next project.

After all that work in phases one through four, Phase Five should be a cinch. You’ve done the legwork- now give that packet a kiss for luck and send it off.

But don’t just wait idle in the time it takes to receive a reply. Agents don’t want to work with a one trick pony- they want an author who can provide top notch work time and again. So get to work on your next masterpiece! If nothing else, it will keep your mind off the agony of waiting, and it just might produce your next best seller.

Best of luck in your querying adventures!

As mentioned throughout, this sagacity came from literary agents Danielle Smith, Laurie McLean, and Andy Kifer, all of whom are fun and nice and not at all terrifying demigods! Who’d have thought?


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