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  • Writer's pictureKate Akhtar-Khavari

Everything I Know About Querying: Selecting Agents

Welcome back to my series of blog posts in which I detail all I learned about querying over the course of querying three books in three years.

So far, we've talked about preparing to query, and this post is all about selecting agents. You can find a lot of great information about querying from experts (like agents) just by Googling "querying," so I'm going to do my best to only focus on ideas and experiences I haven't seen discussed all that much.

But, sorry, I lied. There is one final step to complete before you go down the agent research rabbit hole. It's probably the easiest thing you'll do querying, so get ready for a quick win.

A spreadsheeeet!

I know. For writers, whose lifeblood is creativity, it sounds horrible. But it's not. It's so easy and quick and will make querying a lot easier.

You can absolutely do this on paper and not on the computer, but I did my querying spreadsheets just on Google Sheets. You could use Excel or even just a Word document. It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that you are stepping into the querying process fully prepared to keep careful track of every important detail. It would be embarrassing to send your query to the same agent twice (and likely get a double rejection). Pro tip: once you've gotten a rejection, use the strikethrough feature to make it super obvious that agent is out.

This is a screenshot of some of my OG Saffron Everleigh querying records. I feel comfortable sharing this with you guys because none of this is information you can't find yourself online, and there is nothing wrong with the fact they rejected (or ignored, in some cases) my query. I'm not salty about it, even if it was disappointing at the time.

A spreadsheet helps you understand your own querying statistics. I know, creative lifeblood and all. I hate math, too. But it was so damn useful in reflecting on my querying journey and actually helped me realize it was not time to shelf A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons.

I started querying Parties and Poisons in December 2019 (get excited, in the next post in this series I'm sharing my query letters!) and spent most of 2020 sending queries out. By the time we got to February 2021, I was really disheartened. I'd received five full requests and double that number of partials, but nobody went further. I decided to shelf it to focus on my other projects.

Then I was on Twitter, as writers will be, and I was reading some other peoples' querying statistics and realized that the number of requests I'd received seemed pretty high by comparison. (This happens to be the one time comparison worked in my favor!) Seeing that made me think that maybe I didn't need to shelve P&P, maybe just rethink things. (Of course, it was then that I realized I could pitch my book directly to publishers, and that's how I ended up selling the first two books in the Saffron Everleigh series! But more about that later...)

I tell you this to emphasize why you need to keep track of your receipts so you can see if querying is working. If it's not, and you have 0 requests, consider rethinking your letter and your sample pages, and you might need to more carefully vet the agents you're contacting.

If you're getting partials but not fulls, you need to look at that partial to see what might not be working. A partial is usually 50 pages or a handful of chapters, enough to see if the writer can shift from the hook opener into the actual plot.

And if you're getting partials but not fulls, see what your whole manuscript might be missing (pacing is a huge one!)

And perhaps most importantly, check to see the reason they're giving for the rejection. Unfortunately, it'll likely be a pretty vague stock reason. You'll get stuff like "this isn't right for my list," and "I didn't feel passionately about this project." But if everyone is saying they're having "a hard time connecting to your protagonist," that tells you that you need to improve on that in your letter and manuscript.

In my spreadsheets, I kept track of:

  • Agent's name and agency

  • Their agency's website/submission page

  • The agent's Query Manager, if they have one

  • Whether or not they were currently open to queries, because sometimes you find an agent that sounds perfect but isn't open at the moment.

  • Date of first contact (including the link to the Query Manager page, if relevant)

  • Response to first contact

  • Any further communications, i.e. requests for more materials

Now, I would add a few more things:

  • The specific reason I'm querying them (wording from their MSWL- Manuscript Wish List, see below, the authors they already represent, and/or books they've sold). This would have been great to have handy so I wouldn't have to go back to their websites a million times! As you'll see in the query letter post, this is helpful.

  • Which query I sent, to track to see if it made a difference in how many partials and fulls were requested. For statistical purposes!

  • Given reason for rejection.

Some people spring for subscriptions to querying services so you don't have to keep track yourself but... I wouldn't rely on that. Not every agent uses Query Manager.

Let's talk real quick about Manuscript Wishlist- the idea and the website. Agents often have the things they're looking for in manuscripts listed on the actual website, their Twitters, their agency websites, and sometimes their own websites. They discuss their wishlists in articles, interviews, etc. It is not enough to look at the genres they say they represent. You have to see if your book fits with the specific things they're looking for.

I cannot tell you the number of agents I burned by not paying close enough attention to what they were really looking for and what they'd sold. I saw "Historical" or "Mystery" on their wishlists and thought that meant they'd want A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons. I had dozens of agents on my list that would have never wanted my book, even if the query and sample pages had been flawless, because it wasn't something they could champion or sell.

For Blood Print and Nights of Nael, two fantasy projects I worked on alongside P&P, I was smarter. I looked to see who the authors of my comps were represented by. I checked for specific features agents wanted. Specifically, for Nights of Nael, I looked to see what agents were interested in non-Western fantasies, woman-centric books, multiple POV books- things specific to my own manuscript that I could use as selling points.

This being said, I had a rather unpleasant surprise when querying Nights of Nael. I came across an agent that looked absolutely perfect. Nights of Nael is a high fantasy, court intrigue romantic story set in a non-Western-inspired feminist nation. It's sex-positive and has a lot of diversity across many spectrums. This is what the agent's MSWL said:

"most interested in {stories that} tackle modern-day issues around sex, feminism, monogamy, and marriage...romantasy of all kinds...stories with intricate religious, magical, and sexual worldbuilding."

And about two days after I submitted to this person, I got a form rejection. I was shocked. I could not imagine a story better suited to what they'd asked for! It felt like they'd written that description about Nights of Nael! They referenced one of my comps, and they didn't even want a few chapters to chew on?

Now, you can 100% find this person using this list, and I think that's ok because there is nothing wrong with them rejecting my query. I'm not mad about it, though I was surprised at the time. My book just wasn't what they wanted.

There's a good lesson in this: even if an agent looks perfect, there are a dozen reasons why they might not want your story. Maybe they just signed another author with a really similar story and they don't want to try to sell both. Maybe they're looking to fill a specific hole in their list. Maybe they're taking on another agent's clients and have too much to do. Maybe they didn't like how you phrased something, or they didn't know your comps, or they didn't vibe with your writing style.

Even though this process feels as personal as writing the book itself, don't take querying personally. This is a business. Nobody is rejecting your book because they don't like you, specifically.

This should go without saying, but check the audience (adult, YA, MG, etc) and genre agents want. After discussing with my own agent her process of finding publishers for my stories, it's pretty clear to me that agents don't compromise on genre or audience.

The reason for this is that agenting and selling books is really about connections. My agent has a ton of connections with editors who sell the genres her authors' write. She sells adult fiction books for the most part and therefore has few connections in the nonfiction or the kid-lit world. Even if she found an amazing kid's book, she wouldn't have the best resources to sell it. (Although I don't doubt that Liz could sell it!) Some agents might have flexibility about word count and such, but audience and genre are pretty much set in stone. Check that the agent you're querying has placed similiar books at reputable publishers before. It is possible that they're new or working to break into a new segment of publishing, so just be aware!

We all have to remember that finding an agent is just as much about finding someone to form a trusting, working relationship with as it is about finding someone who wants to work with us. Check online forums and warning sites to make sure the agents on your list are people with good reputations and not assholes or scammers.

And here is my obligatory reminder that querying should never ever cost you money. (Unless you're going to a pitch event and spots cost money, or you're paying a service like Query Manager.)

In short, when forming your "To-Query" List, look for:

  • Agents of the authors who write in similar genres or styles to you

  • MSWL that includes specific features found in your manuscript (audience, genre, the vibes, POVs, setting, etc)

  • What books they've sold recently to see if they are similar to yours and/or are placed at publishers that sell what you write.

  • Agents with a good reputation

Write down the pertinent information on your spreadsheet, and use that spreadsheet to inform your querying decisions. And don't take it personally. Bookselling is a business!

In the next post in this series, we get to the actual good stuff: writing the query letter.

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