Here to relieve some of that endless worrying is a new series of posts called Query Questions. I'll ask the questions which prey on every writer's mind, and hopefully take some of the pain out of querying. These are questions that I've seen tossed around on twitter and writing sites like Agent Query Connect. They are the type of questions that you need answers for the real expert--agents!
If you have your own specific query question, please leave it in the comments and it might show up in future editions of Query Questions as I plan to rotate the questions.
Thank you to Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary Inc. as she shares her answers to common query questions.
Is there a particular time of year that is better to query?
Not Christmas! I come back in January completely bogged down with queries – plus everything else that didn’t get done in December because people were out of the office. I know the slow week between Christmas and New Year’s is when many people finally have the time to hunker down and plan out their querying strategy, but once you’ve done that, it’s good to wait a few weeks to actually hit send. On the other hand, many agents (myself included) have more time to read queries in the summer. But the ultimate answer is: query when you’re ready, and agents will read when they have time.
Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
One typo? No, not at all! We’re all human, with fingers that don’t always fall on the right keys. What causes a problem is obvious carelessness: a lack of attention to basic grammatical construction, the wrong homophone, an error that spellcheck would have caught because what you’ve typed is not a word.
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
I look at sample pages if the query is good enough. A really excellent sample can overcome an indifferent query, but the better the pitch, the less selling the sample pages will have to do. If the query gives the impression that the manuscript is definitely not for me (not a genre I rep, absurd wordcount, writing tics that I know from experience don’t work for me), I’m more likely to skip the sample pages.
Do crazy fonts caused by email gremlins make for an automatic rejection?
Our email program regularly deletes random spaces from within the email, so I pay attention to what is caused by email gremlins and what is within the author’s control. Erratic formatting? Probably just a weird rendering of copy/paste text, and thus, not relevant. Multicolored text? Probably not email gremlins.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
If you have something personalized to say, I do enjoy seeing it! Particularly if it’s something relevant to your book: something I mentioned in an interview, a tweet that made you want to query me. But you don’t have to force it, if there’s nothing. I’d rather see what you have to say about your book than a quote from an interview I did. I know what I’ve said; I want to see what you have to say!
Does it matter whether the word count/genre information is first or last in a query?
I like it last, if only because writers tend to be able to integrate the information more smoothly that way. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter WHERE it is as long as it’s there.
Is there a bias against querying authors who have self-published other books?
Like everything else here, there’s no blanket answer for this. (This whole interview is rather wishy-washy, isn’t it? No easy answers, folks, sorry!) If an author has self-published thoughtfully and can show me decent numbers, then it doesn’t count against them with me. It shows they’re invested in the process and know what they’re getting into. On the other hand, I frequently get queries from people who self-published carelessly, and that can hurt you. The worst is when I get queries from people who self-published through a scammy press like PublishAmerica saying they wish they hadn’t and they’d never do it again. Breaks my heart.
But on the third hand: don’t self-publish a book and then query with it. There’s a misconception out there that self-publishing is a good way to get an agent, and it is most emphatically NOT. Unless you’ve sold tens of thousands of copies.
Do you go through a large group of queries at a time or hold yourself to a few?
Personally, I tend to read a bunch at once. It works best with my schedule. But everyone’s different! Some agents get queries straight to their personal inbox, so it’s easier for them to look at them a few at a time.
How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
I usually request about 10 manuscripts per month. I usually get a few hundred queries direct to me per month; more if I’ve recently done an interview. The agency as a whole receives about a thousand per month.
Have you form rejected great projects you think could be accepted elsewhere or do you try to give some feedback?
I form-reject most queries, even if they sound good for someone else but not right for me. I try to give some feedback (or at least a reason) on all full manuscripts I request.
Many agents say they don’t care if writers are active online. Could an active/known online presence by an author tip the scales in getting a request or offer?
A request? Sure! If the book sounds interesting and the author is well-known, that could tip the scales over to a definite yes. But when it comes to offering, I need to love the book first.
What does ‘just didn’t connect enough’ mean to you?
All manner of things! It’s a catchall phrase, and I urge you not to read anything more into it than what it says: this agent is not enthusiastic enough about this project.
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
I’m going to quote myself here, because I did another interview recently enough that it hasn’t changed: a “fantasy of manners” in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Shades of Milk and Honey, a heroine with a big voice from 1940s England à la Code Name Verity or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or something that makes the very earth feel magical, like The Raven Boys or Chime. Plus, as every agent says: something that surprises me!
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
Well…let’s go with favorite authors instead! I love Robin McKinley, Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce, Jane Austen, and Harry Potter (ok, broke the pattern there). Those are my all-time favorites: smart people who write well. There are many other budding favorites whose careers are developing now (or whom I’m just discovering now), so I hope this list will grow and grow, but that’s quite enough to be going on with now.
I also watch a lot of TV, which you’ll notice if you follow me on Twitter. Some current favorites are Parks & Rec, Hannibal, and Battlestar Galactica, which I’m making my way through for the first time. You’ll notice the same theme: smart stories told well, plus fascinating characters you want to follow. In the end, that’s all I really want.
Bridget Smith is an associate agent and all-around assistant at Dunham Literary, Inc. She represents middle grade, YA, and adult novels, with special interest in fantasy & science fiction, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Her tastes run to literary and character-driven novels.
Previously, she was an intern at Don Congdon Associates, worked at a secondhand book store in Connecticut, and evaluated short story submissions for Tor.com under Liz Gorinsky and Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
She graduated from Brown University in 2010. While there, she studied anthropology and archaeology, worked as a radio DJ, fenced on the varsity team, and helped design an experiment that she later performed in microgravity at NASA. Currently she reads, runs, and watches more television than is probably good for her.
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