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Good Lord there is a lot of bad advice about querying out there. And I don’t know why people continue to dispense it, but it’s clearly coming from people who haven’t done their research in the right ways… like, by listening to how good, respected agents actually feel on the subject.

So, let’s discuss a few of the bad pieces of advice out there, and why they’re so bad, shall we?

1. Query only your bottom choices first, in case your query sucks.

Now, why is this bad advice? Well a couple reasons.

  • It uses agents as your test subjects on a query. Why on Earth would you use agents as test subject on your query instead of other writers? You should not be sending out a query that sucks, period, even if it’s to agents you don’t care about. (And you definitely shouldn’t be querying agents you don’t care about, because what’s the point for either of you?) Use the right test subjects – other readers and writers. When a minimum of three people (who aren’t of the varity that tell you everything you produce is a unicorn tear) tell you they’d request from your query as is, then you’re probably ready to go. Until then, you’re just wasting everyone’s time, including your own. (And yes, obviously you may still receive comments that suggest your query needs tweaking, but that’s a chance you take, especially because of #2)
  • If you get an offer, you’ll never actually get to query your top agents. Now, apparently, some people think that if you get an offer, you can toss out your query to your top choice agents with an “I have an offer of rep.” No, no you cannot. Here’s what you do when you get an offer of rep – you e-mail all the agents who have material (this is non-negotiable), and depending on circumstances* you might also e-mail all the agents who have just a query. THAT IS IT. YOU DO NOT GET TO SEND OUT MORE QUERIES. This is how it works for agents/editors as well – once an agent gets an offer while out on sub, (s)he only gets to nudge the other editors who are reading. You’re not going to intrigue new agents with “Here’s my query – YOU HAVE ONE WEEK TO RESPOND.”

*I did this when I got an offer because it was within the week I started querying, and I’d queried agents who’d requested fulls before, so I had significant reason to believe they might be interested but hadn’t had time to respond. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this if an agent’s had it for two months and has never requested from you before.

2. You should be taking advantage of every opportunity possible, all at once.

This is, to an extent, great advice. But what it’s missing is the part where they’re the opportunities you actually want, and that going after what you want still requires a certain amount of respect and professionalism.

For a while, I was getting a lot of questions about what to do if you got an offer from a small press while you were looking for an agent. But here’s the thing – in reality, you shouldn’t be bumping into that issue. And here’s why:

When you query, what you’re saying is “I want an agent to work with me and this book.” When you sub to a small press, what you’re saying is, “I want to work with you on getting this published, in a partnership between me and you.” When you do both at the same time, what you may well end up saying is either:

  • “Agent, I’ve taken the opportunity to do what you think is best for my manuscript out of your hands and made the decision for you.” It’s taking all the trust you’re supposed to be putting into an agent and basically tossing it out the window. Not to mention that as much as I love small presses, they’re seldom going to be an agent’s first choice. (More on that here.)

or

  • “Editor, you’re actually not my first choice – really, I want an agent. But I also want a book deal, so, just hold on while I awkwardly navigate this whole agent thing I’m in the middle of and then I’ll get back to you, please?”(This is definitely the lesser of the evils, and I have plenty of friends who’ve scored an agent while navigating a book deal to no negative repercussions. But, it’s a lot harder to deal with this paragraph without also having to deal with the previous one.)

Now, I also know what you’re thinking – WTF am I supposed to do when I’m in a contest or Twitter pitch party and both agents and editors are requesting? The answer is you don’t have to send material to everyone who asks. If you want an agent, and you’re not looking for a book deal with a small press right now, don’t sub to the small press you don’t want. Remember that this isn’t set in stone: you can always sub to the small press later, or query these agents later.

3. If you really, really love your book, you will never, ever give up on querying it.

Look, I stand by all my manuscripts. I love them. But here’s the thing about querying – even though what you’re querying is just one manuscript, what you’re really doing when you query is trying to find an agent who wants to rep your career. So yeah, you can send out your query to 300 agents (at least I think you can; I have no idea how many actually exist) and number 300 may want it, but then you’ve got your 300th-choice agent repping your career.

So what to do? Well, you have options. (Please note that I am simply presenting the options that exist; each has its own pros and cons as well.)

  1. You can shelve it and move on to query something else. This may result in that ms being buried forever, or it may not. It’s possible that once you sign an agent with a new ms, (s)he might be willing to look at that one too. Or maybe you’ll get a book deal and be able to use it as an option, or “book 2” or whatever.
  2. You can self-publish it, and then if you still want to pursue an agent, you can query with a different manuscript.
  3. You can submit it to publishers that don’t require agents, and then if you still want to pursue an agent, you can query with a different manuscript.

So if you’re asking yourself “When is it time for me to put this manuscript away?” here’s my personal answer: The time is when it’s been rejected by all the agents you want, you don’t want to self-publish it, and either you don’t want a small publisher for it or you’ve been rejected by all the ones you do.

4. Always mention/avoid the topic of having previously submitted to this agent.

See that slash? It’s because this isn’t a black-and-white thing. What matters when deciding whether or not to mention having previously submitted to an agent is what happened when you previously submitted to an agent.

DO mention if you’ve queried with a different manuscript and (s)he requested a full.

DON’T mention if you’ve queried with a different manuscript and received a rejection at the query stage.

There’s no reason not to try again with a new manuscript, even if you were rejected at the base stage earlier. New manuscript, new shot. The one caveat to this is that you must put some time between the queries. Getting a rejection from an agent and coming back with a new manuscript the next day? Raises suspicion about why you have another manuscript at the ready, and whether or not you’re querying both simultaneously, which you shouldn’t be doing. I believe six months is the standard time to wait between when an agent rejects and when you query him or her with something new, but obviously variables will always factor in there!

5. Mention your age in your query.

This may not work against you, but it’s not likely to work for you, either. Just skip it.

6. Mention the agent’s other clients in your query (in suggestion of a referral).

This is good advice only with the client’s explicit, expressed permission. Do not ever fake a referral. I pretty much guarantee the agent will find out you did not have permission. This goes triple if you don’t even know said client. (Parentheses added to clarify, as Laura said in the comments, that if you’re saying you’re interested because they rep a client whose books you love, that’s definitely OK!)

7. Exaggerate your publishing credentials.

Hahahahahaha yes, because NO ONE WILL EVER FIND OUT YOU DIDN’T REALLY PUBLISH A BOOK YOU SAY YOU DID, or that you sold 10K copies fewer than you said. For real, if you think agents are that stupid, why do you even want one?

8. Offer an exclusive to your top agent so (s)he will take you more seriously.

This one is a huge no. First of all, as I’ve blogged about before, exclusives are decidedly not in a querier’s best interest. Now, it’s one thing to decide to give an exclusive to an agent who asks for it, but agents who don’t ask for them actually don’t want them. Exclusives just put undue pressure on agents they didn’t want, and maybe it’ll speed them up or maybe it won’t, but how would you feel about repping someone who put a burden on you you didn’t ask for? Whether you want to grant an exclusive to someone who asks for one is up to you, but it is the only circumstance under which you should be giving one.

So, those are my opinions on Best Querying Practices! Agree? Disagree? Questions? Comments?

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