Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed . ~ 2 Timothy 2:15

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Agent queries: one size does NOT fit all

    It took me two years to write my first novel, and when it was finally ready for submission, I figured the work was done. Not!
    I now faced the daunting task of finding a publisher—not an easy feat these days for a first-time novelist. Most publishers consider only manuscripts submitted by an agent or one they’ve requested after meeting the author at a writers’ conference.
    Since I can’t afford to attend more than one writers’ conference a year, it seemed imperative to secure an agent.

First: Finish It!

    Wanting to see if my idea would float (and being fairly wet behind the fiction ears), I started the marketing the book when I had only a one-page synopsis, the first chapter, and a vague idea of where I was going with it. Although the response was encouraging, I learned lesson number one: finish the novel. No agent or publisher would even consider it until then.
    “We get lots of ideas,” one agent told me, “but only a few follow through and finish.”

Do Your Homework, Part 1: Use the Market Guide
    Two years later, completed manuscript in hand, I learned lesson number two: A one-size-fits-all query would not suffice. One agent wanted a one-page synopsis, another a six-page synopsis. One wanted the first 50 pages, another the first three chapters, still another only the first chapter. Two wanted the entire manuscript, but one wanted it submitted electronically, while the other wanted hard copy sent via USPS.
    When I realized that my baby wasn’t going to snatched up by the first agent I contacted (or the second or third or fourth . . . ), the real work began.
    Poring through the “Christian Literary Agents” section of the Christian Writers’ Market Guide, I highlighted those I thought might be a good match for both me and my manuscript. In particular, I noted the following:
  •  Length of time in business: when the agency was established and how many clients it represented
  •  Open to first-time novelists and new clients: if it was open to newbies and if a referral was required
  •  Genres it preferred
  •  Commission they received
  •  Expenses, such as copying and postage, for which the author would be responsible
  •  Contact: How the agency preferred to be contacted: via email or USPS; and what they wanted to see: query, synopsis, sample chapters, or any or all of the above
  •  “Tips” for “insider information”

Do Your Homework, Part 2: Research Online

    List of potential agents in hand, I first went to the Predators and Editors website, where most of the agencies were listed. I crossed off those that weren’t recommended, starred those that were, and noted whether the agency had verified sales to a royalty-paying publisher on record. (Note: Sally Stuart gives additional resources to research potential agents in the Christian Writers’ Market Guide. Also read carefully the information on the Predators and Editors website prior to the alphabetical listing.)
    My list trimmed, I then visited each agency’s website. I crossed one off when I noted misspellings. I spent hours on each site, reading every page carefully, and taking note of the following:
  •  Tone and appearance: Did the agency’s web presence appear professional, yet friendly?
  •  Information about the agency: history; agent bios and genres each agent handled; clients; recent sales; submission guidelines; and contact information
  •  Information for authors: some sites gave excellent resource information, such as how to write a query, how to make a pitch—workshop-quality stuff.
  •  Submission guidelines: Exactly what they wanted (query, synopsis, sample chapters, number of pages, book proposal, entire manuscript), how they wanted it (electronic via email or hard copy via USPS), and if a simultaneous submission was OK. Here is where I learned I had to tailor the query letter to the agency.

Develop a Spreadsheet

    To keep track of submissions, I developed a spreadsheet in Excel, making columns for the following:
  •  Date sent
  •  To whom
  •  Agent or publisher (A or P)
  •  Material submitted
  •  Manner of submission: electronic or USPS
  •  Response time
  •  The date I could begin looking for a response
  •  The date I received the response
  •  Response (yes or no)
  •  Comments the agent made about the manuscript
I also included on the spreadsheet the publishers and editors I’d contacted on my own. This gave me a complete submission history at a glance. I stapled the spreadsheet to the inside of a file folder, which I tucked inside a pocket folder that included my notes and any correspondence pertaining to the manuscript.

Prepare the Submission
    Each submission took at least an entire workday to prepare, following the agency’s requirements exactly.
    If I wasn’t sure about something, I emailed the agency. They were glad to know I was taking their guidelines seriously. And it’s always good to verify that it’s OK to send an attachment (plus they’d be expecting it).
    Make sure you send the file in a format they can open. I inadvertently sent a file as a Word Perfect document, instead of WORD. The file can be saved as RTF (rich text format), which most operating systems can open. Some agencies prefer submissions copied and pasted in the email message box.
    If you’re submitting hard copy, keep the following in mind:
  •  Use good quality paper; I prefer 24-pound, with a brightness of 96 or above.
  •  Keep the pages loose; do NOT use paper clips or staple the pages together. A blank sheet of paper, folded in half, may be used as a mini-file folder, separating the synopsis from the sample chapters.
  •  Put your name, the title of the manuscript, and the page number in the header and, if you want, a copyright notice in the footer. (The Header and Footer feature in WORD will automatically put this information on each page.)
  •  Always include an SASE for the agency’s response.
  •  Don’t forget contact information: your name, address, phone numbers, email address.

Don’t Send It Yet
    Not until another writer or freelance editor reads it over. Fresh eyes (and fresh brains) will find what your overworked ones miss. Reading the page backwards doesn’t always work.

Forget It!
    Once you’ve sent your baby off into the world, let it go. Move on to your next project—until you get that phone call letting you know all your hard work has paid off.

(This article appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of Advanced Christian Writer)



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