Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Query Process: The Numbers Aren't What You'd Think

I've come to about the end of my agent research, a cumulative effort of five years' work.

1. I combed through the data bases on both Agent Query and Query Tracker and created a list of potential agents based on what they said their preferences were. I ended up with nearly 300 names.

Great start, right? I thought, I'd surely find several interested agents with these odds.

2. Next, I visited each agent's website or did further research into what they want, what they represent, and if they were still agenting or taking unsolicited queries. This took up most of my time, was often tedious and frustrating, but was well worth the effort.

Some agent's are very open about who they represent and specifically state what they want. Most are vague and tend to generalize. Compared to when I began my research five years ago, more agents have an online presence today. So if their agent bio on their website unhelpfully says they want YA projects, there are usually interviews, spotlights, and other data available online to clarify what types of YA projects they gravitate toward.

By the end of this phase, my promising list of 300 was down to 160 agents. And I learned another valuable piece of querying information which promised to dwindle that list even more.

3. Many agencies state that you may only query one agent. Some say "at a time" but most give you the option of one and one only. Often this is because agent's will pass on a query letter to another person in their office they think would be a better match, or because they discuss query letters as an agency. It makes sense and is good news for querying writers.

However, this meant I needed to prioritize my agent list. So I drew up a second list, one which pulled the agencies from the first list. I put all the potential agents under the banner of their agency and then researched them further to give them a pecking order. I found that every agency that didn't have the "one only" rule, I had only one potential agent for. With the other agencies, I assigned numbers to each of the agents, based on who I thought would be my strongest fit down to the least likely. It's a rather revealing process, one which should make my query letters better when I state why I chose to query that agent.

My list went down from 160 to 95. The odds might look not so well in my favor now on one hand. On the other hand, I stand to waste less time querying agents who wouldn't fit, and the potential of garnering more partial or full requests raises.

4. This step goes with step 3, but I'm giving it a separate place. This is my last step in the research phase, delving deeper by subscribing to Publisher's Marketplace. Here I can find out exactly what these agents are acquiring, selling, and representing. I'll go back through my prioritized list to make sure the pecking order is as it should be. I expect there'll be changes. The number may even drop from 95.

And that's okay. As I stated in my recent query advice post, you want to target the right agents. It's not about how many agents you query, but who you query and why.

I had to think long-term when making cuts to my agent list. While my current project fits under one genre banner or age group, other projects differ. I don't mean as drastic a difference as say, a thriller versus a children's book, but rather more like the difference between a fantasy and a science fiction. Some agents don't do both. I had to find potential agents who would fit my entire writing career, not just one project.

I know I took longer at it than the average writer. I like to be thorough. So don't feel like you have to take five years to research. But I can't say it enough, do more research than you first feel inclined to do. If anything, it will help cut the depressing numbers of rejections you'll receive.

If I had only done step #1, then sent out query letters to those nearly 300 agents, my rejection numbers probably would have killed my publication aspirations within weeks. Querying after step #2 would have been better, but I'd have not only received a lot of rejections, I probably would have alienated quite a few agencies as well by not following the "query only one agent" rule. Querying after step #3 might have been fine and safe, but what if the agent I targeted hadn't been the right one for me, and they didn't feel like passing on my query to anyone else in the office that day? Despite well written query letters and research, sometimes getting an agent depends on luck and an agent's mood.

From my point of view, why not take the time and give your story its best chance for success?


  1. Holy schnikes-- five years just looking for agents to query.

    When I started out, the thought of doing all this work just for the chance to have someone read my work would have scared the crap out of me.

    Looking back now, though, I think I could have gotten a lot more done if I'd done more research instead of diving straight in the way I did.

    1. It is a scary thought. I can't count how many times while researching agents that I considered giving up on the notion of publishing. Trying to pin down who might like what I write, or finding a kindred spirit, who then comes out with an interview saying they don't rep the genre my book is in...well, it makes you question how serious you really are about publishing. But I did come out of this process determined to try and I'm grateful for the hard work it put me through.

  2. Yikers! That's a lot of work!

    One thing I fear with your method is that publishing changes so quickly, the agents may be gone or closed to queries by now. Like in any other profession, people move in and out of the business. They go from agency to agency. What seems like a straight forward list may develop holes.

    Three times over the course of my querying journey (with 3 novels) agents with my fulls or partials moved on. In one case, they passed on.

    I'm sure you recheck their guidelines before you query. But I'd also keep an eye out of new agents at good agencies. I'd rather hit every possibility than have a high percentage rate of requests.

    1. No worries. I redo the entire list at least twice a year, and I keep tabs on updates that I run across. My current list went through the bi-annual overhaul last week. It's just part of the fun that is agent research.

  3. This is a good setup, though. I will have to use it when I return to the research.