What I wish I’d known about querying agents: and what I wish agents knew about querying

Hello gentle reader. It is I—Chelsea Counsell. Long time no talk. I, like you, have been trying to survive during corona, which generally means dragging myself out of bed like a rotting mollusk and continuing to labor under the yoke of capitalism even though I feel… like a rotting mollusk.

In November, I began actually querying my middle grade novel Magic Princess Academy. (I say “actually” because had been sitting on a spreadsheet of sixty agents I wanted to query since about July, but hadn’t queried any of them.) As of today I have queried twenty-two agents and been rejected by five. I am currently taking a break from querying to fix up a scene and see if I can make cuts anywhere in the novel (as one rejection pinged me that the novel was too long.)

During this lull in the process, I thought I would share some anecdotes about what I’ve learned about the agenting process this year.

What I wish I’d known about querying before I started querying:

  1. Certain times of year are worse than others for querying: Before I started querying, I knew that agents frequently closed shop in August, and that December 1st was not a great time either due to it being the end of Wrimo and the beginning of the holiday season. I thought I would be safe querying agents a week into November, but I was surprised to find how many agents were already “closed until the new year.” If you want to get your book into agents’ hands, there may be times that are more fruitful to query them than when I chose.
  2. Some agents are much vaguer than others in terms of what they want. It seems relatively easy to pitch to someone when they mention something specific on their Manuscript Wish List that fits right in with your novel. (Manuscript Wish List is a great resource for finding out an agents’ taste, what published books they’ve enjoyed, and what they are looking for right now.) I definitely felt more confident pitching to agents who had specifics rather than just asking for the next great novel. Honestly, I avoided agents who didn’t give specifics of what they were looking for… but that’s just me. Specifics are like reassurances.
  3. Agents play musical chairs with their agencies. It is a good idea to check which agency an agent is affiliated with THE. DAY. you query them. I recommend checking both the agency page AND their twitter account. Because I started my agent spreadsheet in July, by the time I started querying in November, many agents had changed agencies, closed to queries, or even decided not to be literary agents anymore! Always make sure you have the most up to date information. Checking their twitter is doubly reassuring because sometimes agency websites don’t update as quickly as the agent’s twitter feed.
  4. Have your entire query package ready. Many agents are moving to a more standardized form for their query submissions, and with that, they ask for specific things: a query letter, perhaps the first ten pages, a synopsis of your novel, a one sentence pitch, and comparable books. When I started, I had all this except the synopsis, and that definitely waylaid my query process for a couple weeks while I tried to write it. If you have all your pieces ready to go, you will feel much more confident in your querying process.
  5. An agent could get back to you in several months… or an agent could get back to you the next day. I had heard some horror stories about agents taking a long time to reply. As we all know, publishing is slow. So I had emotionally prepared myself for the long wait. What I had not prepared myself for was the rejections that came next-day. And I wasn’t sure if I should read that as a red flag… There could be something wrong with my query, or some agents could be very on top of their inboxes! Do your best to ready yourself for that flavor of rejection as well as the long ones. And be ready to consider that your book may need further tweaking.

What I wish agents knew about the query process from the other end:

  1. Searching for agents would be profoundly more fruitful if an agents page had not only what they were looking to rep, but also a list of a few choice books they had repped… with hyperlinks. It has been a profound annoyance when an agent has a) who they are b) what they’re looking for and c) what they’ve repped in the past on three different pages. Acquiring a smooth user interface is just good business.
  2. For the love of baby puppy Balto can we implement a moratorium on the requests for great works of literary merit? I understand that you want “world-building that sucks me in” and “characters that leap off the page!” Like, we all do. We, the authors, have done our best to write good books. We all believe our books are great. But it also feels super awkward to query like “yes, you said you wanted a work of art and the next great American novel so I am querying you.” Compared to agents who request this, it is much easier to query an agent who says “I liked The Hunger Games but also the works of Cornelia Funke.” Specificity gives queryers something to cling to.
  3. On this note… if you don’t have a Manuscript Wish List, please get one.
  4. EVEN MORE for the love of little baby Balto—can some higher authority come up with specifics for what, for example, a synopsis is supposed to be? Or could all agencies please put (very detailed) specifics of what you want on your query page? When querying, I would feel much more confident knowing that my synopsis was two pages if the agencies asked for a two page synopsis. And I would feel even more confident if agencies listed their upper limits for wordcounts. I’m still not sure what wordcount triggers an auto-reject for a middle grade novel. Is it 80k words? 90k? When I first researched the middle grade genre, I looked at books like Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and thought “well this must be the norm”—but now I’m worried they may be grave outliers. It would hurt to have a door shut by the words “we don’t want your book if XYZ” but that would be much preferable than wasting everyone’s time by querying a book that is outside of an agent’s acceptance zone. With market demands changing every day, it seems inefficient for agents to not share the template they’re working with.

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I’ve decided to stop querying for now and see if I can cut ten thousand words from my novel… based on one rejection. I don’t know if this is absurd or if it’s a proactive choice in the face of what might be two-dozen auto-rejections.

As if 2020 needed more stress! Haha!

I hope you are doing okay. If you need me, I will be a cocoon in my bed.

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