Contemporary and epic fantasy with unforgettable characters, complicated families, and music in the sentences.

I’m Ready to Query! Now What?

That’s the title of the other panel I moderated at Balticon. I overprepare for panel moderation these days. (Probably nobody else remembers the panel I underprepared for some years back, but I’ll never forget it.) People in the audience found my notes useful, so I’m posting a version of them here. They’re slightly modified, informed by how the panel discussion itself went.

Moderating panels like this seems to be my new specialty on the convention circuit. Having lost my agent when he left the publishing industry to become a fine art blacksmith (I am not making this up!), I’ve succeeded at the querying process. But I’ve also found myself back at square one, and needed to keep current in resources and processes. I’m as scrappy and hungry as any author in the audience, but I’ve been around the block enough times, and attended enough panels on queries, pitches, and synopses over the past 15 years to know what questions are essential.

The other people on the panel were Joshua Bilmes, a literary agent, and authors Micaiah Johnson and Gwendolyn Clare. They were all lovely and generous with their experiences…which I did not take a lot of notes on because moderating took up all my attention. If learning how the business side of a writing life works is something you care about, I recommend you seize any opportunity you find to hear Joshua Bilmes speak.

Here’s the official programming description for the panel:

You’ve written a book, done a few rounds of beta readers, revisions, and edits. Now, you wanna try your hand at getting traditionally published. Where do you start? Do you find an agent or send straight to a publisher? How do you find the right one for your work?

The querying process has a lot of parts. There are different ways to break them down and sequence them. I figured having any one of them would make all those parts less overwhelming for people new to querying. I’ve also added a few favorite places for researching what agents and editors are saying yes to.

What Steps Make Up the Querying Process?

The clearest step-by-step breakdown I’ve found is Nathan Bransford’s “How to Write a Query Letter.”

Bransford is a former agent at Curtis Brown and now is a freelance consultant for authors and publishers. The earlier version of this guide to querying that I found on his blog back when he was still agenting was one of the best sources at the time. The current version is even more extensive. He breaks querying into seven steps:

  1. Start with a completely finished and polished manuscript (fiction) or a book proposal and 30-50 sample pages (nonfiction)
  2. Read examples of query letters that worked
  3. Hone your pitch
  4. Research agents so you can personalize your query
  5. List your credentials (if you have them) and other key details
  6. Format your query letter properly
  7. Send it out and wait for a reply

About step one…

That first step is the most important. An author with a successful track record can query with only a partial manuscript, or with only a synopsis. An author without a track record at book length cannot. I knew a writer who queried every publishing imprint in their genre when they had only three finished chapters, claiming the book was complete. Almost everybody they queried sent requests for the full manuscript, and they were caught in a lie by the entire field. Blacklists may not be a real thing, but editors and agents do talk to each other. It’s an avoidable problem.

A more narrative approach to explaining the querying process is Lynn Flewelling’s post at SFWA, “The Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters.” There have been a lot of changes in the industry since the post was written in 2005, but according to Joshua Bilmes, the anatomy of a query letter is pretty much the same as it has been since the last century.

Whom Do I Query, and Where Do I Find Them?

Traditional publishing houses generally don’t consider unangented manuscripts anymore. Some will have an open submission period for unagented writers for one month, maybe once every few years. If traditional publishing is something you’re pursuing, agents are really where to start.

The best place to look is Publishers Marketplace. There are a lot of good places, but there’s no ambiguity about which one is the best. No other site gives you as many ways to verify an agent’s claims to effectiveness.

For $25 per month, subscribers can search on industry news about which agents have sold which books by which authors to which acquiring editors when and for approximately how much. Because I’m looking for an agent, I have spent a lot of time checking the automatically generated and updated list of Top Dealmakers by genre. “Top” in this case is defined by approximate dollar amount. That definition can distort the results in ways that are not ideal for an author’s purposes: an agent who sold only one SFF title seven years ago and then declared that they were no longer looking at SFF may continue haunting the Fantasy Top Dealmakers list for years if that one deal was big enough. Click around to see how many deals those top dealmakers have made in your genre, whether any of them were recent, and whether the editors they sold books to are still in the industry. Look at the descriptions of those books. Read the agents’ profiles to see what they say about what they’re looking for and how they see what they do. You can also start with the names of authors you would use as your comp titles and see who represents them. You can start with names of editors you’d like to see your book land with and then see if there are agents they habitually make deals with. If you only use one online research tool to figure out where to submit, this is the one I recommend.

Micaiah Johnson had two suggestions for taking the sting out of that $25/month subscription: Band together with your critique group to share a subscription, and/or prepare a list of agents you want to look up, authors whose representation arrangements you want to know, and editors whose connections you want to understand, and then subscribe to PM for one month, planning to spend that month studying PM intensively. You can cancel your subscription as soon as you’re done, and you can always resubscribe next year to update your information.

There are two sites that have been developed in response to a hashtag agents and editors use on Twitter: #mswl, short for manuscript wish list.

Manuscript Wish List

Some agents and editors who are actively looking for people to represent and books to acquire put up profiles on this site. In some cases, these are the deepest and most detailed expressions of what they hope to find that you’ll see anywhere online. That said, once a gatekeeper has put up that profile, they may or may not update it when they change agencies or publishing houses, change roles in the industry, or leave the industry altogether. Always check the website of the agency or publishing imprint to make sure they’re still there and the contact info is current.

MS WishList

This site aggregates tweets from agents and editors that have the #mswl hashtag. Yes, you could search around on Twitter, but this is faster. It’s also less likely to distract you from your agent/editor search with all the other things you might be doing on Twitter. Although it has less extensive information than the Manuscript Wish List site, it is self-updating.

One of my favorites is kind of old school, but may be worth your time: Locus Magazine.

If you search under News for each month’s People and Publishing Roundup, you can find announcements of book deals in SFF and horror, and occasionally announcements when an author signs with an agent.  Some deals that you can find at Publishers Marketplace may not appear here, but I see it as a sign that an agent is actively involved in promoting an author to readers as well as editors when they announce a book deal to the genres’ main news source of record.

Whom Should I Avoid Querying?

Some people who claim to be literary agents are scammers targeting writers. Really, the most efficient way to make money off writers is to prey on our unsatisfied ambitions. It’s much less work than actually selling books to trad publishing houses.

It’s in every writer’s interest to keep up with the posts on Writer Beware.

Writer Beware is a project sponsored by SFWA whose mission is “to track, expose, and raise awareness of questionable, illicit, and/or  nonstandard practices in and around the publishing industry.” They investigate both scammers posing as publishing industry insiders and bad practices that real traditional publishing insiders dip their toes into. More than once, Writer Beware has shamed various houses among the Big Five into dropping new boilerplate language they tried to impose on all their new contract that would have exploited writers.

I Got an Offer of Representation! Now What?

That’s a whole multi-step process on its own. Fortunately, there are a lot of good sources our there to help you navigate it. I’m going to point you to Agent Query’s description, because both Micaiah Johnson and Gwendolyn Clare had good things to say about using that site for researching agents.

If there is one step that’s more important than the others, it’s this one: When someone offers you a contract to sign, read it. If there’s anything in the contract that you aren’t sure you understand, ask about it. Ask the other party to the contract, and do your own research to make sure the other party is both correct and being straight-up with you. If you think something’s really fishy, consider contacting the folks at Writer Beware (see above).

Good luck!

(Since I’m talking about a panel at Balticon, I have to note that there was an unresolved incident at the convention in which an author was accused of making problematic remarks about race and mental illness—an accusation that may not have been accurate. In some versions of the story I’m a witness—except that I didn’t witness anything. You may have landed on this page because you did a Google search on Balticon and my name. For people who follow news of the genre community, this unresolved incident is a big deal, with a third party investigation and who knows what else. Nobody knows how or whether the matter will be resolved. I’m not seeking to ignore or distract from that incident. I’m just trying to offer something useful that happened to come from a completely unrelated part of the convention.)

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