The last couple of weeks have seen an outpouring of invitations to Black writers to submit works to agents and editors. As many of us are new to the traditional publishing process, or are transitioning from self-pub, here’s a long-ish primer on what it means to query.
What is a query?
A query is essentially the packet of materials you send to a prospective literary agent in an effort to get them to represent your work in pursuit of being traditionally published. It typically consists of a formal query letter and sample pages from the work you’re trying to publish. Now, FIYAH specializes in fiction, so this information will be relevant to people publishing fiction. Non-fiction and picture books or comics and graphic novels have different processes.
The Query Letter
The query letter is your cover letter. It introduces you and your work to the author and primes them for what they’ll read in the sample. It consists of your story’s hook, your bio, nuts and bolts (word count, genre, age category) and thanking them for their time.
I always used “Hello, [First Name]” because the old “Mr./Mrs. [Last Name]” doesn’t respect the spectrum of gender identity, and I’m not writing my beloved from the front lines of 1816’s battle of Who Shot John, so “Dear” feels antiquated and weirdly intimate for an aspiring business relationship.
Things The Hook Is:
- Brief – Think 1-2 very short paragraphs highlighting the key elements of your story. Who is/are your character(s)? What do they want? How do they get it? What is at stake? What’s in the way?
- Interesting – Your goal is to entice the agent to read not just the sample pages, but to be willing to invest even more time in finishing the story you’ve decided to tell.
- Professional – This is a business communique. Mentions of how attractive you find the agent, of how garbage you find the rest of the industry in which you are trying to work, your plans to be the savior of the genre… leave all that in the group chat.
Things The Hook Is Not:
- Written from the POV of your characters – This is not a clever or interesting or unique approach. This is corny. Be clever and unique and interesting in your story.
- A page long – Did we mention it’s supposed to be brief? The entirety of the query letter should not be longer than a single page using a minimum 11pt font.
- A century of world-building context for the events taking place in your manuscript.
- The tale of how and why you came to write the book – save that for your call with the agent when you get there.
In a paragraph separate from your hook content, you’ll get into market jargon.
Intended Market: Adult, Young Adult, or Middle Grade audience?
Genre: Sci-fi? Fantasy? Thriller? Romance? What’s the word count?
Comp Titles: If you have comp titles, this is where they would go, but they are by no means a mandatory element of your query letter.
Word Count: Be aware of your age group/genre’s standards in terms of word count. 40,000 words is a novella, not a novel. You’re not going to sell a 100,000 word book intended for the middle grade market. And 100,000 words is stretching the upper limit of a YA fantasy. I know you’ve held books with the approximate weight and dimensions of a cinderblock, but don’t try and pitch 300,000 words of anything as a debut. A too-high word count signals that the manuscript has not been sufficiently edited or doesn’t exist in a format they will be able to sell (i.e. it’s actually two books and you don’t understand enough about story structure).
Querying a series: You’re only pitching one book at a time, so the manuscript you’re shopping should be able to stand on its own with self-contained character and narrative arcs. This is the paragraph where you’d mention “series intent” or “series potential,” though. You’d go over the specifics of how manageable this is with the agent should they request a call once they’ve read the manuscript.
DO NOT QUERY INCOMPLETE WORK. But you just want to see the response to your concept? That’s what beta readers are for. But you’re missing this really cool Twitter pitch event? There will be another one. The first step to querying is actually finishing your story.
Your bio should also be its own paragraph, and include information like any previous publishing credits, relevant degrees (is your main character an architect? Here’s where you plug your architecture degree), awards, certifications or other information about you that is relevant to your writing.
There is also the question of self-identifying in your query, and it’s a personal decision you’ll have to make on your own. Our ethnic names sometimes give us away, but if we are writing, say, Black characters or a West African setting, it may be beneficial to identify yourself clearly as a Black writer. Similarly, if you share an experience such as a trauma, mental illness, learning disability, queer/trans identity with your characters, it may help to state as much to whatever degree you are comfortable, as an indication that you are your frame of reference for these accurate representations.
For reference, below are two successful (they landed agents) query letters.
Sometimes, an agent will request a synopsis along with the other submission materials. This is a separate document from the query letter and sample pages (unless agent guidelines specify otherwise). A synopsis is a distillation of the story, usually into 1-2 pages. Honestly, it’s probably harder than the query letter. In a synopsis, you cover all the major events of the story, including plot twists and ending spoilers, and the ways your characters are changed by those events. A synopsis allows the agent to gauge how well the story works in terms of plot and narrative structure before committing to reading 100,000 words of it.
Hashtags and other terminology
#OwnVoices – used to indicate that you share a particular marginalization or experience with your characters.
#MSWL – Refers to an agent’s “Manuscript Wishlist” or the tweet or profile they used to announce specific content they are interested in representing.
CNR – or “Closed, No Response” is a designation you give to queries that were sent out but for which you never received a response, so you are closing it out as a rejection just to move on with your life. Some agents don’t respond. It sucks, but is what it is.
Partial – After the initial query sample, an agent may request a “partial” or only part of the manuscript, up to a certain number of pages or chapters.
Full – After the initial query sample, an agent requesting a “full” is requesting the entire manuscript.
R&R – Some query responses will be qualified passes or “Revise and Resubmit” requests, usually after the agent has had an opportunity to read the full. They will typically outline in some level of detail what you might consider changing/restructuring/editing on a fairly significant scale in order for them to reconsider representing it. It will be your choice whether you do it or not. Some requested changes may make the story stronger. Others might turn it into a story different from the one you set out to tell. At the end of the day, it’s your art. An R&R is not a guarantee that the agent will accept the story when you resubmit it. If you choose to do one, do it because you believe it will make the story stronger so that you are satisfied with it in the end regardless of if the agent approves.
Log Line – Sometimes used as the first line of a query, a log line is used to draw the reader in on the glimmer of a theme or premise. In Sample Query 1 above, that’s “Sometimes fate chooses us, and other times we choose it.” Log lines are optional, so don’t stress too much over it.
Visiting the agent’s website will tell you what they expect in terms of page/word count and formatting. This is typically anywhere from the first 5 pages to the first three chapters, to the first 100 pages. Even if they request the first 100 pages, you have roughly the first 10 or so to grab their attention. The work you submit should not be your first draft. It should be polished, edited, coherent, and formatted to the agent’s requested specifications. Most will request Standard Manuscript Format, which you can find here (it’s the same format FIYAH uses).
Finding agents and other resources
The querying process takes extensive research if you want to find a good fit. Here are some tools to help with that.
QueryTracker: Here, you can search for agents based on a number of factors, including the agency they work for, the genre/age group they represent, whether they are currently accepting submissions, and more. Each agent’s profile also has a comment section where users submit their query statuses, what form vs personalized rejections look like coming from that agency, and other relevant experiences. QueryTracker will also link to the agent’s website and social media if they have them, and you can continue your research through those avenues. QueryTracker has free and paid tiers depending on your needs.
Manuscript Wishlist: This started as the #MSWL hashtag event on Twitter, where agents would post the manuscript content they were most interested in reading/representing at the time. It’s still a hashtag, but now there’s a website where agents have completed profiles to the same end. You can find agents who are looking for elements you may already have in your manuscript. This would be something you’d mention in your query letter.
Writer Beware: SFWA’s Writer Beware feature offers a list of resources on finding and vetting agents, and how to identify predatory business practices.
Publishers Marketplace: Here you can access deal announcements and view an agent’s sales history.
Agents receive thousands of submissions, some of them daily. Chances are you’re not going to see responses from many agents for 4-6 months even though their website says 2-8 weeks.
However, the agent listing a turnaround time will also tell you when it’s okay to “nudge,” or check the status of your query. To nudge an agent, you will use the same email thread you started with your query, and send them a short, polite note simply stating that you’re checking on the status of your query as X number of days/weeks have passed. Most agents will get back to you and give you a more realistic timeframe. Some agents also announce on social media when they’re behind, or that they’ve read up to a certain date and that anyone who did not receive a response can nudge/assume it’s a pass.
If you are not at least friendly with rejection, this may not be the path for you. If you are in any particular rush, this may not be the path for you. If you are coming from a self-publishing background and are used to retaining 100% control over every aspect of your story’s presentation, this may not be the path for you. It takes querying multiple books for most people to find an agent. I landed my agent on my first queried manuscript, but it was 18 months, two revisions, and 140+ rejections later.
Many writers recommend querying in batches of 10 or so agents at a time. If you get an offer, you’re going to want to notify the other agents who still have your materials so they have an opportunity to counter, and you don’t want to send that email to 49 other agents at once. You can also choose to apply any consistent feedback agents offer in order to improve the manuscript before sending it out to a new batch. Did multiple agents complain about pacing? Were your verb tenses inconsistent? Prose too purple, plot hard to follow? Many passes will be subjective, but sometimes there’s a glaring issue in the manuscript on a craft level that you can work on before exhausting the entire field.
The best thing to do while you await responses is to work on something else entirely.
That about covers it. There are exceptions, of course. Some agents only accept a query letter with no sample pages. Some only accept submissions via a form on their website.
Above all, FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS. DO NOT GIVE THEM A REASON TO REJECT YOU FOR BEING HARD-HEADED.
Don’t send a query in someone’s DM’s. Don’t rage out in a follow-up email from a rejection. Keep it together and find a community of writers where you can vent frustrations and get new eyes on things to see where you may be failing. Sometimes it’s the agent. Sometimes it’s the industry. Sometimes it really is just your story. The key to all of this is persistence.
That’s it from us. Let us know on Twitter if there’s anything we missed that you need covered. Good luck out there.