Saturday, February 26, 2011

Query Quest: My Journey to Agent Land

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For my debut novel, I queried eight agents. I got four manuscript requests and three offers of representation. (I know, you all hate me, but hang with me a little longer). If The Shifter had been the only book I’d ever queried, I would have thought this whole publishing thing was easy. But it was the fourth “real” book I’d ever written (written with the intent to try and sell). The other three didn’t go nearly so well. Like thirty form rejections each. Very few page requests. Certainly no fulls.

So what was different about this book?

For one, it was a better book. A lot of attention is placed on writing the perfect query letter, but truth is, the best query in the world can’t sell a book that isn’t working. With my first submission attempt, I never got past the query stage. My second attempt, I got a few page requests, but all were rejected (including the agent I would later sign with). Clearly something was wrong with the book, since the pages weren’t grabbing the reader. I revised and tried again, with the same results. By this time I had a nice, thick file full of form rejections and a few encouraging words.

Then came The Shifter. I knew early on I had something better than I’d ever had before. It just felt different when I was writing it. I started to think I might have an actual shot, and – dare I say it – get a full manuscript request. That was really my goal at this point. I just wanted one more step forward in the process to prove to myself that I was making progress.

I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I’d made on those earlier books. I knew my query had to rock. I knew I had to send it to the right agents who might like my work.

I had no clue how to do any of that.

I figured the best place to start was to make a list of agents to submit to. I used and cross-referenced those names against Preditors & Editors. I cut any who had warnings, and wound up with 25 agents. Then I read agent blogs, especially those agents on my list. I Googled them to see what interviews they’d done or any articles they’d written. I checked out their client lists and read the books that seemed similar to mine. I was able to split my list into three parts based on this research. A) Agents who represented what I’d written, had sold a lot of books in my genre, and liked books like mine. B) Agents who represented what I’d written, had sold some books in my genre, and C) Agents who represented what I’d written and sold at least one book in my genre.

Now it was time to write that query.

I read everything I could find on writing successful queries. The most helpful advice came from Miss Snark and her Crap-O-Meter query contests. Seeing hundreds of real queries and reading her comments on what worked and what didn’t was an eye-opening experience. I started to get a feel for what a good query sounded like. Remarkably like cover copy on a book, but with details instead of being vague. So I went online and read cover copy of books in my genre. I analyzed the ones that grabbed me and made notes. I used the “here’s a person with a problem and here’s what they have to do to solve it” template and wrote my query.

And it was so-so.

I know this because at that time, an agent was doing a “post your query and I’ll give you feedback on it” session on her blog. I jumped at the chance and submitted mine. She had all kinds of issues with it. She couldn’t get behind the premise of the story (buying and selling pain) at all.


So I went back to the drawing board. This time, I focused more on the protagonist and what she needed to do, and less on world building. It felt much more interesting, because it was about a character with a problem, not “this is the book’s plot.”

Right about this time, one of the agents on my list announced she was doing a “Back to School” open query for YA. Writers could bypass the regular submission process if they had a YA book. Well, I had a YA book, I was ready to start submitting, so I sent it in. I figured this was a good time to send in the rest.

Then I saw another post online from another agent who was just starting to take on clients. She was working under a well-known agent on my B-list. I queried her as well, figuring she’d be more open to new writers since she was a new agent. And since she had a great agent mentoring her, I’d get the best of both worlds – experience and the need for new clients.

Both requested pages, then fulls. A third agent also asked for the full shortly thereafter (she was a standard snail mail query). I was ecstatic.

I was also just about to attend the Surrey International Writers Conference. Conveniently, several of my A-list agents were going to be there, so I’d be able to meet them and see what they were like. I got a pitch appointment with the last agent on my A-list and pitched her in person. She also asked for the full.

I was beyond excited at this point, and when I got home from the conference I had an offer of representation in my e-mail. After the screaming and jumping for joy subsided, I contacted the other agents with my fulls and told them I’d gotten an offer. How much time did they need to read my manuscript? Was by X date long enough? They read them and got back to me. Three were interested in representing me, one passed, but wished me luck.

Now I had the tough job of making a choice. All three were fabulous agents, so I really couldn’t have chosen wrong, but I wanted the one that was the best fit for me and my book. I spoke to them, listened to what they thought about the book, and made my decision. (The fabulous Kristin Nelson)

The entire querying to signing process took six weeks. The agent I signed with (the one I pitched) took ten days. This is why they say don’t query until your manuscript is as good as it can be, because you never know how quickly you might need to send it to someone. When it happens, it can happen fast.

The process was easy compared to my earlier submissions, but if I hadn’t gone through that and made my newbie mistakes, I doubt I would have put in the effort or had the skills to write the book and the query that got me my agent. Whenever I’d get rejected, I tried hard not to tell myself I wasn’t good enough. It was, “I’m not good enough yet.” That slight change in thinking made it easier to pick myself up and keep going.

And the only way to get ahead is to keep moving forward. Even if it’s one small step at a time.

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour on Hilary Wagner's blog.


  1. It seems the road to overnight success takes a whole lot longer than overnight :)

  2. Here here! What an inspiring story.

  3. I liked hearing your road to signing. You did a lot of work before sending out the query for Shifter and it paid off.

  4. Thanks for sharing your journey. This was very encouraging.

  5. Ditto what the posters before me said, and here's two and a half cents from me (You know brevity is not my innate strength, but pray I'll be better before I'm 70)

    I always appreciate your honesty, yet you're one of the few writers I know at this stage of your career who at least tries to level the "Semi-annoying" truth with hope, and I applaud that as well as the gumption and example you set in practice and that your kind enough to share with us.

    I think writers in general wouldn't be perceived as "Lazy, Crazed drunks and idiots" if the writers before had ways to band together similar to what we have now.

    Most of my e-pen pals are all over the globe. From China, the U.K, and ever Australia, can you imagine how long it took for long distance mail to get to its appointed destination? It could take weeks or even months, even within the same state, province or country.

    Now letters that would take months to reply and receive take at most a week or two barring any unforeseen incidents, and you can e-mail folks in Tokyo or France and it'll be in their inbox within seconds.

    Maybe I should read up on the history of postal systems around the world, that would be interesting to write about, and if someone's beat me to it, I'd still like to learn about it for my own amusement.

    Take Care Janice,


  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. I'm going to stick a post-it note with the word "yet" on my laptop. Great advice. Christy

  7. Great story! It's good to know putting in the work can pay off so well.

  8. Your story is really inspiring. I'm working on my first novel now and realize it might take a few books before I find an agent and editor. But I'm enjoying the journey in the meantime!

  9. Wen: Oh it sure does, and that's true for every profession!

    Alina: Thanks! I really believe if you work hard and keep improving, eventually you'll make it.

    Holly: Thanks! It was worth all that work ;) And all the years of work before this book.

    Traci: Most welcome. I think a lot of folks think they have to know somebody or be perfect or be X right from the start, but all they need is a great book and perseverance.

    Taurean: Thanks. I try really hard to be candid about how tough this business is, but also show that if you work hard and keep trying, you CAN Make it. There are a lot of ways to get there and all those myths are just myths.

    It's so much easier to network and get feedback these days. It's always been a rough business, but the resources for writers today are fantastic.

    Erica and Christy: Yet is a great word! It gets me through through scenes and books, too!

    Paul: It does indeed. What's that adage? If it were easy, everyone would do it.

    Ghenet: And that's what matters, because after you publish, you have to write more books and you might as well enjoy the process! Things don't change that much from pre- to post- published.

  10. Thanks for sharing. I love to read about other author's keeps me grounded in reality. There aren't many overnight successes in this business and that's fine with me. Now that I know that...LOL I didn't at first.

  11. Janice: Exactly! Though one of the best bits of encouragement came from an interview I read with Jim Butcher; basically the only difference between a wannabe writer and a published writer is that the published writer held out longer. :-)

  12. Dawn: Neither did I. I can so clearly remember sending out those first queries years ago, fully expecting all these manuscript requests. I cringe at the memory! LOL.

    Paul: Love that quote. SO true!