I have not published before (self or otherwise) but I would love to be traditionally published one day, and because of that, I have extensively researched the industry as much as possible (though, still learning myself) so I may have some insight to give.
There’s a lot to know about the trad-industry, some of it seeming like it’s obvious to know while other times, it comes on as brand new information because it isn’t talked about that much. So, if you have a bunch of questions you’d like to know, I can try to answer them. c:
But as far as some dos and don’ts? A couple that comes to mind about querying (as it seems like that’s the topic for now lol):
- Do your research on the agents you’re about to query.
What kind of books have they worked on, meaning their genres and target audiences? Were they popular at all? Were they published by the Big Five or other major or well known publishing houses? What are the things the agent/agency is looking for in regards to the guideline list?
The reason why you want to know about the agent and agency is because many writers don’t research who they’re about to query, which also means that they’ll query an agent who doesn’t represent their genre, target audience, or what have you. Querying an agent who doesn’t represent anything you write will give you an instant rejection. However, learning about the agency can also help you because if they’ve worked on some pretty big books, that means they can give you a chance at working with a big publishing company or at least with other opportunities (because technically, you don’t have to be published by a major publisher to get a movie deal or other kinds of opportunities).
- Do query a handful of agents at a time.
While you do want to keep in mind of agents who you want to represent you, you do want to expect to not be picked by most or all of them. This also goes back to researching about them because you do want to make sure they are a good fit for you, but also making sure you query agents that could potentially represent you whether or not they may check all the right boxes you’ve set up.
The other thing about this part is that you need to query a small handful of people before making any other decisions. First of all, querying to 50-100 agents at once can do some damage in various ways that are both on your behalf and theirs. Try querying 5-10 people at a time and if they give you feedback, review it and see if it can apply to your story. Then try again with a different handful. And again. If you’ve already queried like say 20-30 people, all rejections, look back at your query. Fix it. Or go back to your story and revise it. Then try again, with different people. If you’ve queried around 50 or more agents, and they’ve all rejected you, you may either want to revise your query or story again (make sure it’s been seen by beta readers and critique partners) or perhaps focus on another story and put this one on the backburner for a little bit.
- Do address the agent by their name.
Querying agents is very similar to applying for a job, and part of getting a job is writing cover letters (which is pretty much like a query letter). The problem that I’ve noticed with either group is that they might not address the hiring person (or agent in this case) by their name, but say something like, “Dear sir or madam” or “To whom it may concern.” And this can earn an easy rejection because it shows you didn’t do research. These people want to know you’ve done your research and that you put in the work and effort into the professionalism. If you’re querying to a Lauren Thompson or a Gregory Soto (fake names by the way), then address them in your letter by saying, “Dear Lauren Thompson” (or “Dear Ms. Thompson”) and “Dear Gregory Soto” (or “Dear Mr. Soto”).
- Do include the ending in your query.
When you’re writing the summary part of your query (talking about your story), you’re writing all of what happens in short. This means the ending is included. Your query shouldn’t be withdrawing information like that because the agent is wanting to know about the entirety of the story.
Again, think of it like trying to be hired for a job. The application includes any kind of work history you’ve previously had. If you’ve never had a real job before, you can talk about volunteer work, babysitting, mowing lawns, things you’ve done that shows you’re a hard worker and have some kind of experience.
Now yes, you don’t want to make your synopsis too long. However, you want to make sure everything major is included, and that goes for the ending.
- Don’t talk too much about yourself.
A lot of agents have reported an abundant of writers making query letters that are only about them… and this a red flag. You’re trying to sell your work, not yourself. If you want to sell yourself, then write a cover letter to employers. Not a query letter to literary agents. The only time when it’s probably okay to add something is when that information you’re about to share is relevant to your writing career like saying you have an AuthorTube channel and it has 20,000 subscribers or that you’ve written multiple short stories and novellas that have won multiple contests or that you’ve self-published a novel that has earned a bestseller status.
- Don’t follow up with agents if you haven’t heard from them yet… and it hasn’t been that long.
The publishing process is a long and tedious waiting game. This includes querying agents. They’re very busy people—even if they have assistants who’ll look at the queries for them—and get dozens upon dozens of queries. It typically takes a few months (even up to six months for some agents) to reply back if they do at all. If you try following up with them after a month or so, it could ruin your chances because they may think it’s annoying.
Now, if you have gotten some agents to take a bite, even said anything about requesting a full manuscript (which is a good sign) or may represent you, then you should email the rest with an update which could sometimes be good in your favor because then those agents who haven’t replied back might’ve actually liked it and may hurry up with an answer which gives you multiple agents to choose from to represent you.
- Don’t submit to agents within the same agency.
When you query to a single agent and they reject you, that means the entire agency rejected you. What I’ve heard what happens during the querying process is that the agent will pass the query around if they aren’t particularly interested and see if anyone else in their agency is, but if they give you a rejection, it means no one there wanted it.
This doesn’t mean you can’t query them ever again. After a certain amount of time—I believe it’s like six months or so?—you can query back to that agency, even to another person. But you do want to make sure your query is different along with a revised beginning of your story. If it’s the same exact query and opening scene you did before, there’s a good chance they’ll reject you.
Going back to the applying for a job analogy, it’s the same thing. I recently changed my job this summer. I used to work as a night auditor for a hotel and now I work at a library. I’ve applied to the library a few times—the first time (which was a few years ago when I barely had any work experience) they instantly turned me down, saying they’ve already hired someone. The second time was more recent—I got angry at my job one night because of how unfair and toxic they were being and decided to see if the library had any openings now that I had two years of customer service experience under my belt. I made a cover letter and revamped my resume (which hadn’t been revised since my mom made it for me when I was a teenager—and trust me, it needed a new look). A few hours later, got a job interview. But after a week (which they said they’d get back to me by then), they sent a rejection letter. A few weeks later, I went on vacation and found out they had another job opening. I emailed them, saying I would redo the application for their convenience and I decided to include a new resume look and a brand new cover letter (which was a tad bit longer as I added more about my passion for working in a library and my work ethic). Instantly got another job interview and a few days later, a job offer.
See, all these people—hiring managers and literary agents alike—are looking for people who actually put in the effort. If they weren’t particularly interested the first time (or interested enough to give you an offer), they probably won’t be the second time with the same information, you know? And yes, there are dozens of reasons why they may reject you, but you can’t always take that risk where it could’ve been because of the trends or they had too many queries at that time or whatnot. You need to make sure your story and your query looks their very best at all times.
- Don’t let rejects hold you back.
It’s very common to get rejected, even hundreds of them. But don’t let that stop you from querying or trying to publish overall. Some authors have written Book A that always got rejected, then decided to take a break and write Book B which, surprisingly, got them an agent and even published, and then eventually went back to Book A—whether right after Book B or after a few other books—which did get published. It is possible that this can happen.
It is also possible that the next agent you query will be the next who changes your life forever (for the good). Stephen King continuously got rejected and wanted to give up, for example. He threw his manuscript in the trash, but his wife told him to keep going. And now, he has published over seventy novels, sold millions of copies world wide, has dozens of movies and shows made based on his works, and is called the “King of Horror.” If he stopped trying to get published, he wouldn’t have been the author we know of today. And this is the same for every other author out there, so don’t give up!
I don’t think there is one specific way as there are a few that could help your chances.
When I revamped my cover letter/resume twice, I used examples off Google for the cover letter and a website to format my resume for me with filled in details.
Like, this is what I said in my first cover letter:
And this is what I said in my second cover letter:
This is what I’m meaning about revamping, etc. While the first one looks nice, it wasn’t all that great. The second one is so much better and doesn’t feel as monotonous like the first one.
Query letters a similar, and there are plenty of examples and websites for formatting to help you.
I definitely recommend looking into Reedsy—the YouTube channel and the blog! This one, for example, is all about comp titles! c: