Keep the flame burning: Querying your novel

How long should you query your manuscript?

The decision on how long to query your manuscript can’t be determined by a formula. There’s always the chance that your very next query will knock at the right door at the right time to generate that singular confluence of fortunate events resulting in emails and phone calls and contracts and publication.

But let’s face it, thousands of publishable books never make it to readers. Might their authors have persisted and eventually been published? Undoubtedly. But should they—and more importantly as a querying author, should you?

I’m not a literary agent, but I work every day with people doing their darnedest to get an agent’s attention, so I keep my ears perked for any data that could help. As I write this article in the back half of 2020 under the shade of Covid-19, book sales are up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that agents are cutting record numbers of deals.

How much time and effort should you put into shopping your novel around? Let’s review the considerations.

Go long, or go deep?

Success is less about how long to keep banging away and more about how many and which agents to hit. Think less in terms of the tenacity of a starving mother tigress and more in terms of the surgical precision of choosing a landing spot for your rocket ship on a brave new world.

Don’t waste time on Hail Mary submissions to every agent you can find. Do your research. You need to be pitching agents likely to be interested in your book and in representing you as an author. Do include your dream agents, but don’t overlook the hunger of younger, newer agents who are willing to work hard for the right book and the right author. You may want to pitch small presses as well as literary agents. Make your list as long as you’d like, then tease out a top twenty list of the very best prospects.

Next, settle in with a reliable system for personalizing and sending out multiple queries. You’ll also need a system to track who you’ve pitched and the status of each query.

Don’t query an incomplete novel

Pitching a book proposal with an outline and some sample chapters is the process for nonfiction books. Novelists are expected to present a finished product.

This means you shouldn’t start talking your book up before you’ve fully completed writing it. No queries before you’ve amped it up at the story level and polished the writing to a shine. No sticking your toe in the water while the manuscript is with a professional editor who’s got it torn apart in pieces all over the editorial garage.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Don’t blow it.

Authors come to me all the time with impossible deadlines spilling between their fingers (“I need this edited in, like, three weeks because an agent said they want to see it!”). These authors have often mistaken general feedback from an agent for a specific request. Of course an agent is willing to look at your manuscript; that’s what agents do.

But agents don’t want to see the mess you scraped together on short notice because you spoke too soon. They don’t want to see the early chapters that you pantsed, your unfinished manuscript that peters out somewhere around the midpoint complication, your outline for an unwritten three-book series, or anything that tells them they’re going to have to invest a lot of time and work into you. Send your manuscript when it’s ready to sell itself—not a minute before.

Read more: Should you query an incomplete novel? (Please—no!)

Read more: How many drafts is enough

Read more: Should you have your manuscript professionally editing before sending it to an agent?

Querying the right people

Make sure you’re pitching precisely the people most likely to be interested in championing your book—not the biggest or most famous agents, but the ones looking for books like yours. Don’t forget small publishers with catalogs where your book would fit right in.

How do you know who’s publishing books like yours? Find books like yours, then look to see who published them. GoodReads lists are a brilliant way to identify comps; just don’t go to GoodReads to do the actual searching. Head to Google, and include “GoodReads” (no quotation marks) as one of the search terms. For example, “GoodReads gaslamp fantasy” will turn up links to tags, categories, and book lists with dozens and even hundreds of comparable titles.

If you simply can’t find any books like yours, you may need to consider whether you’ve written something the market isn’t likely to embrace. Now it’s time to decide whether it’s more important to cleave to your original vision for the book, to revise your approach to create a more marketable product, to move on to another project, or to self-publish your original vision.

The six-month query cycle

This is my own querying strategy, culled from what I can see is working for authors with busy lives. If you find different advice from a reputable source, by all means fold that data into your strategy.

When you’re ready to query, pull out the first handful of names. Make sure your query meets and exceeds best practice standards for queries and submissions—your query letter is the key to the kingdom—and fire off those five queries. If you’re going to hear back from these agents, it’ll most likely be within ninety days, hopefully much less. That doesn’t mean you must wait ninety days before launching more queries. Roll out another batch of five every month.

Meanwhile, get back to work on a new project; more on that in a moment.

If you send five queries every month for four months, after half a year (for reply time on the fourth batch), your top twenty list will have generated at least a broad picture of reaction: a chorus of crickets, all form rejections, more encouraging rejections, requests for sample chapters, revise and resubmit requests, and so on up the scale toward a direct hit.

Now it’s time to use that intel to regroup and re-evaluate. If the picture’s clearly not encouraging, you may decide to pour your time into your ongoing work in progress instead. If you have the fuel in your tank, ante up for another round. That will carry you to the end of a year of querying and an even better feel for whether there’s interest for this manuscript.

None of these numbers are set in stone. I suggest this cycle as a reasonable number of queries a busy person can manage each month without subjecting themselves to a barrage of rejections, plus a built-in checkpoint to prevent the process from dragging on without end. Adjust to suit your own sensibilities and energy.

Read more: Formatting your manuscript for editors and agents 

Read more: The secret to nailing your final draft 

Read more: 23 reasons to learn how to write a brilliant synopsis 

Signs you may be closer to a deal

  • This isn’t the first novel you’ve finished writing.
  • You can clearly see how much stronger this manuscript is than previous efforts and why.
  • You’ve worked on this manuscript with the help of a critique partner or editor.
  • You’ve worked your way through a structured revision process such as Janice Hardy’s 31-day revision workshop.
  • You’re well on your way to racking up the time and pages (often referred to as your “10,000 hours”) toward mastering fiction writing techniques.
  • You’ve attended some courses and writing conferences (online counts!) and are starting to get to know a few other authors and learn the business side of writing.
  • You’re reading enough current fiction to understand how your writing stands up among other books being published today in your genre. (If agent reactions are drastically different from what you expected, it’s likely you aren’t reading enough.)
  • You’ve published some short stories.
  • You’re receiving encouraging notes appended to your rejection letters.
  • You’re receiving requests for sample chapters or full manuscripts.
  • You’re receiving requests to revise and resubmit.
  • You’re being asked to show what else you’ve written.

Read more: 10 kinds of books anyone who writes fiction should be reading

In the meantime

Nothing sells a novel like the next novel. Smart literary agents aren’t simply searching for the next bestseller; they’re searching for authors capable of writing bestsellers again and again. If all you have on tap is a freshman effort you slaved over for ten years, that doesn’t bode well to an agent looking for someone who can keep the sales coming.

Sometimes an agent may fall in love with your writing but not love your story. They may like the whole package but they’ve just sold two books just like it and they can’t justify a third. Or they may see blockbuster potential in your work but not want this novel for whatever business reason they have. What else do you have to show them? If the answer’s zip, you’ve lost that opportunity.

One of the most important things you can do to sell a novel is to quit fussing over it and start working on your next book.

  • You need more experience writing novels. Practice really does make perfect, and you undoubtedly now realize how long it takes to write one. Keep writing.
  • You need more manuscripts to offer. An agent may not like the novel you pitched, but they’ll fall in love with the one you wrote year before last. Keep writing.
  • You need to show you’re a bankable asset. Do you have the tenacity to turn out full-length novels again and again? Prove it. Keep writing.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author. 

Ready to get serious about your book? Apply to work with me.

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