Pub Life #1: Query Advice from a Literary Assistant

When I was still in school, I set myself the goal of having a career centered around books in as many ways as possible. Which means that now, as an adult, I wear two hats within the publishing industry. There’s writer-me, who signed with an agent in January, who participated in Pitch Wars, who writes from 6-11pm on every weeknight she can manage and every weekend she’s at home. And then there’s literary-assistant-me, who spends business hours working for the literary agent Matt Bialer of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. What my job entails is flexible depending on the day, but some of my daily tasks as Matt’s assistant include evaluating manuscripts, mailing contracts, tracking submissions, and, of course, reading a whole lot of queries.

My experiences on both sides of the query inbox have left me with a lot of accumulated knowledge about the process of finding an agent — so I’ve decided to turn this info into an advice post for the Writer’s Block Party audience! Over the course of my years in the writing and publishing communities, I’ve realized there is a large lack of transparency about the inner workings of the publishing industry. So I’m honored to be kicking off a brand-new series on this blog called “Pub Life.”

Through our Pub Life posts, Writer’s Block Party will be hosting guests and contributors who  talk about their jobs within the publishing industry. There are many more career paths in publishing than a lot of people realize, and we’re so excited to spotlight a few of them for you guys!

Below are my top 10 query tips as an agent’s assistant. Whether you’re a querying veteran or you’ve barely begun your writing journey, I hope you find some of this advice helpful!


Tip #1: First Impressions Matter


Spelling an agent’s name wrong won’t necessarily sink your chances of getting a request — but why take the risk? Double-check who you’re addressing your query to. Double-check whether the agent wants no sample pages, or five pages, or ten; whether they want them in the body of the email or included as an attachment. You can’t control what mood an agent is in when they look at your query, or what kind of book they’re looking for. But you can — and should — do everything in your power to make their reading experience as pleasant as possible. One of the best ways to do that is to get all the tiny details right, because it shows you paid attention, and that shows you’re genuinely invested in that agent — therefore, they can invest their time in you.


Tip #2: Stakes, Stakes, Stakes


The single biggest mistake I see people make in queries is an inability to distinguish between summarizing story and summarizing stakes. Queries aren’t the place to give an agent the blow by blow of what happens in your book — it’s the place to tell us why we should care. Why should we be invested in your story? In your main character? What happens if they don’t get what they want? Be as specific as possible — “the world will end” is something agents have seen before. “Giant killer robot llamas will raze the earth” isn’t. (Probably. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an agent out there who’s gotten this query.)


Tip #3: There’s No Such Thing As Universal Appeal


It makes perfect sense for authors to want to indicate how large a potential audience is for their book. But often, this leads to vague phrases in queries that make it difficult for agents to know what kind of manuscript you’ve actually written. What is the precise age category and genre of your work? Is it YA Fantasy? Women’s fiction? MG contemporary? These details matter because an agent needs to know how this work will fit into the larger portfolio of authors they represent if they were to take you on.


Although it’s true that there is literature out there read by many age categories, classic literature as well as more modern books like the Hunger Games and Harry Potter attained their “all ages” status after they were sold. Pitching to an agent as a specific category won’t make you sound niche — it will show that you understand the market you’re writing for. And that’s something agents like to see.


Tip #4: What Makes Your Book Different?


The agent I work for specializes in genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. As a result, I see a lot of queries that lean pretty heavily on familiar tropes. Trust that agents (and their assistant or intern) are familiar with the hallmarks of the genre you’re writing in. Instead of spending your precious few query paragraphs telling us how your book is similar to others, emphasize the parts of it that defy expectations.


Tip #5: Comps


Comps — or “comparative titles” — are tricky. They’re an important part of a query because they show that, as mentioned above, you understand where your book falls in the market. But there’s a delicate art to choosing comps that will entice an agent to read your book instead of leaving them confused.


As a general rule of thumb, you want to avoid super-popular mega-best-sellers that define your genre. Instead, choose titles that sold well, but aren’t household names. Also, make sure that you choose comps that highlight different elements of your manuscript, giving agents a more complete picture of your concept. Comping to movies and tv shows in addition to other books is completely fine — I did this when I queried — but I’d caution against using solely comps that aren’t books. You want to show agents that you’re familiar with similar works in your genre.


When used correctly, comps are an effective tool that evoke the mood and spirit of your book, showing an agent where it fits into the market. Make sure you use them to your advantage.


Tip #6: Always Be Polite


There’s no way to get around it — querying is often unpleasant. It doesn’t feel good to watch rejections pile up in your inbox; to gnaw your nails off waiting for responses on requested materials; to fret that no one is ever going to see the beauty in the book you worked so hard on. I know this because I’ve been there. So do all the venting you need to do — in private. But keeping your correspondence with agents professional and polite is an absolute must.


Agents remember when people are pleasant during the submission process. Even if they don’t sign you as a client, if you had a positive interaction with them, they’ll be more likely to remember you favorably should you ever query them again with another project. Of course, it goes without saying that agents will remember when people are unprofessional, too. The publishing industry is tiny. Be respectful. Be courteous. Please remember that agents don’t get paid for the hours they spend looking through their query inbox — they invest their time because they genuinely want to find great new projects.


Tip #7: Fonts and Formatting


If your query is in size eight, lime green Comic Sans, it’s going to be almost impossible to read. Ditto for your manuscript. 12-point, double-spaced Times New Roman with 1-inch margins is the default for manuscripts, while queries should be in a clean, uniform, legible font.  I suggest sending test queries to yourself so that you can get a feel for how your query will be perceived in an agent’s inbox.


Tip #8: Are You Ready? Are You Sure?


I’ll let you in on one of the greatest universal truths of the publishing industry: almost everyone queries before they’re ready.


I did it (before Pitch Wars, before I revised two more times and queried again). And I know I’m not alone. But you don’t have to be like me. Put your best foot forward. Make sure your manuscript is as polished as you can possibly make it before you send it out to agents.


One of the best ways to do this is to find beta readers and critique partners who will help you pick out problems you’re too close to the manuscript to see. I’d also recommend waiting a few extra weeks between your final revisions and querying, then going back in for one last polish — waiting is incredibly painful, but it’s also necessary. And on that note….


Tip #9: Publishing is a Snail Race


There are lightning-fast query stories out there. They’re a seductive, easy thing to buy into — the idea that an agent will recognize your genius as soon as it lands in their inbox and scoop you up within a few days. But the truth is, that’s probably not going to happen to you — and that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal.


Agents have a lot going on at any given time. As a result, it may take them a few weeks — or even a few months — to get to your query. This can be agonizing to experience as a querying writer, but it doesn’t mean an agent has forgotten about you. It just means you have to wait.


And guess what? This waiting is good practice, because the publishing industry as a whole requires extraordinary patience. If you sign with an agent, you’ll most likely spend months doing revisions. After that, you can look forward to spending months on submission. And, assuming your rockstar agent sells your book, you’ll still have to wait a year and a half to two years before you can hold the finished copy in your hands.


Is this frustrating? Yep. But it’s not likely to change anytime soon. So take deep breaths, watch something relaxing on Netflix while eating whatever snack helps calm you down, and remind yourself that no news doesn’t always mean bad news. Sometimes, it just means you haven’t gotten the good news yet.


Tip #10: Allow Yourself to Be Surprised


There is a wealth of information on the internet about querying these days. Websites like QueryTracker and AgentQuery are incredible resources; as, of course, are individual agent and agency websites. As a result, it’s easy for a querying writer to build impressions of agents based on their submission statistics and their public social media presence.


But that doesn’t mean those impressions are accurate. The impression of yourself that you give off through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. is probably not exactly the same as who you are — and this goes for agents, too, since, y’know, they’re people.


I’ve had friends sign with agents they believed were their dream agents — who turned out to not be a very good fit. I’ve had other friends sign with agents who were less well known, and have incredibly positive experiences. Querying is a long, hard road — but so is a writing career.
You want an agent who you can see yourself riding out the good times and the bad times with. Someone who you trust; who you jive with, who you can communicate with, who you believe can sell your book.

So when you do finally get to the “finish line” of querying, remember that it’s not the finish line at all — it’s a starting line. Pick someone you want to go the distance with.

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