Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Query Gambit

By Alex Segura

Over at my Tumblr, someone asked me about querying agents. I was going to respond there, but it struck me as a really nice debut post here at Do Some Damage.

Before I dive in, though, I’d like to thank Steve Weddle for letting me join this group blog. It’s an honor. I hope I don’t screw it up. I should probably introduce myself, too.

My name’s Alex Segura. I’m a crime fiction writer based in NY. My first novel – Silent City – went on sale last year from Codorus Press. It’s set in Miami and is the first in a series featuring washed-up journo Pete Fernandez. That’s enough self-promo, though.

So, right. How do you query your book to agents? Good question - and one that has no single, right answer! At least that I know of.

I've only queried crime fiction, so that's what I'll speak to.

My experience with having an agent is limited. I had one a while back and we parted ways - nothing bad, just wasn't working, it happens - and I currently have one. But my situation - like anyone else's - is unique, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

These are the lessons I've learned:

Check your ego at the door. You will get rejections - plural. You should be ready for that.

It's a numbers game. If you're only sending out a handful of queries, don't be surprised if you hear crickets. Agents are busy and very selective. Make a robust list of target agents, query them and then be responsive if/when you get interest.

Always follow the format the agent requests. Most agents list HOW they want you to send a query to them. Do not deviate from this. Don't have a synopsis and think your query letter serves the same purpose? OK. But you won't get this agent interested because you're not doing what they asked OFF THE BAT.

Query agents that represent authors you like. I'm sure you have authors that write the kind of book you're trying to sell. Find out who reps them - a good trick is to check their book's acknowledgements - and send a query. Hell, even mention that you're a fan of their work with so-and-so. We all love so-and-so.

Don't get too high/don't get too low. You got a response from an agent. Great! Do your best to be responsive and professional. Don't bank everything on this one exchange, though. There are tons of steps in the process - partial manuscript requests, full manuscript requests, initial meeting, etc. Save the big-time celebrating for the moment when they officially say "I want to represent you." Until then, it's all written in sand. Allow yourself to be optimistic, but don't stop querying other agents/moving other pieces until you're locked in.

Stay true to the book you've written. Agents are going to have notes. They're going to make edits and suggestions. It's their job. But don't let the potential awesomeness of having an agent cloud your vision for the book. Do these notes jibe with what YOU, the author want? If so, great. If you're like me, you love feedback and suggestions. I'll do anything to make my book better as long as it doesn't disturb my initial intent for the story. In short - be open to change, but be true to the book you want to write. 

Disclaimer: I am in no way intimating that agents make unwanted/unnecessary changes. Not by a longshot. But you should always keep in mind what your breaking points are as an author. So, if someone asks you to turn your steampunk turtle romance book into a noir thriller set in Denmark featuring zombie rabbits, you may want to politely say “No thank you, that’s not the book I want to write.”

Be patient. This is the toughest, which is why I saved it for last. Sometimes people need weeks, even MONTHS to read your query, manuscript, synopsis, etc. That’s maddening, right? You want an answer RIGHT NOW. But that’s not going to happen – agents get a ton of queries on a given day. If they’ve responded and said they’ll look it over, celebrate (moderately) and wait. Don’t ping them before the window of time they’ve given you to read over your submission. Heck, don’t ping them on the day it’s over. If it’s been a month or a couple weeks since they said you’d hear back, politely check in. If you don’t hear anything then, check in one last time a few weeks later. Still nothing? They’re probably supremely swamped or not interested. Move on to the other queries you’re sending. You’re sending more, right?

Hope this helps!


Kristi said...

Great debut post!
Spot on round up of the query process!
And that "patience" that is cultivated in the query process will serve writers well through the rest of the publishing journey. Everything in publishing takes and agonizingly long time. I sometimes joke that publishing people live in an alternate universe reality of time.
And for some of us, (I can't speak for him but possibly Alex included) who have come from the zippy, nearly instant gratification world of journalism, it's a bruiser to adapt to the molasses slow world of book publishing.

Alex Segura said...

Great point, re: journalism (and PR!). In those worlds, you write something and it's up in a day! Not so with publishing.

Cynthia said...

Thank you!

John McFetridge said...

Welcome aboard.

Dana King said...

You hit the ground running. As someone who recently acquired a new agent, I can say from experience everything here is great advice, especially the staying true part. Remember, it's your name on the cover, and your career that may go into the dumper if he's wrong.

That being said, the agent doesn't make money unless you do. He'll want you to do well, but be sure before signing up you and the agent are on the same page about the vision for your book(s).

Jay Stringer said...

Welcome to the dungeon.