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!
A warm welcome to Beth Miller a junior agent with Writer's House! Here's a perfect opportunity to meet a new agent who is actively looking for clients. If you'd rather send an email query than a snail mail to Beth, follow these directions: They can query firstname.lastname@example.org, with the first 10 pages and a synopsis pasted in to an email. No attachments, please!
Is there a better or worse time of year to query?
BM: I would maybe avoid querying just before (or just after) the Christmas-New Year’s break, just because we’re either trying to clear our desks before the holiday, or swamped with emails just after the holiday, but otherwise, not really.
Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
BM: Not really in the manuscript pages—a typo is a typo, but I would definitely proofread the heck out of your query and maybe get someone else to give it a look—it probably won’t shoot down the whole thing, but it is your first chance to impress an agent, and if you have a mistake or two, it may send the impression that you didn’t put the time in to do it right.
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
BM: only if the query speaks to me, generally.
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
BM: I look at them, but I may enlist an intern to help me go through requested pages.
If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
BM: Yes. But if you don’t think the prologue would impress me enough to include it, then maybe it doesn’t belong in your manuscript, so think about that, too!
Some agencies mention querying only one agent at a time and some say query only one agent period. How often do you pass a query along to a fellow agent who might be more interested?
BM: You should definitely query only one agent per agency at a time. Imagine how awkward it would be for multiple agents at the same company to want to represent you. And check the agency’s guidelines—often, a pass from one is not a pass from all, but that may not always be the case. And if I get a query that I think might appeal to a colleague, I will usually forward it to that colleague. But that doesn’t mean that if I pass, you can’t try someone else here.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
BM: I’m not a fan of chit-chat. A query should be one page long, and should include a paragraph or two about the book, including word count and genre, and maybe a comp title and why you’re querying me (ex: you saw an interview, you met me at a conference, you were referred by someone, your work is similar to a project I represent, etc.), and then a brief bio of yourself, including any publishing credentials or relevant info (ex: you have a degree in medieval history and your book is set in that time period). That’s it, really. Even if it’s an email query, paste it into a word doc first to see how long it is. If it’s longer than a page, trim it. Chit chat takes up space in which you should be describing your book.
Most agents have said they don’t care whether the word count/genre sentence comes first or last. But is it a red flag if one component is not included?
BM: It really should be there somewhere, whether it’s the first line or toward the end. We need to know this info.
Writers hear a lot about limiting the number of named characters in a query. Do you feel keeping named characters to a certain number makes for a clearer query?
BM: Definitely keep the named characters to a minimum in the query. Your book description in a query should be similar to the cover/jacket copy of a book. Those are generally 1-2 paragraphs, and focus on the main character/s and major plot arc.
Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
BM: You should take the time to come up with a suitable title and character names. Often, a publisher (or agent) will change a title, but you still want to put in the effort. If I get a query for a manuscript, and it says something about it being untitled, that would make me think twice.
How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
BM: It really varies, but between 25 and 40, I’d say, on an average. And whether I request materials really depends on whether the queries intrigue me—I may ask for materials on ten of them, or none at all.
Many agents say they don't care if writers are active online. Could a twitter account or blog presence by a writer tip the scales in getting a request or offer? And do you require writers you sign to start one?
BM: I don’t necessarily require it, but I do think an online presence can be helpful, and will almost certainly be necessary if you get a publishing contract.
Some writers have asked about including links to their blogs or manuscript-related artwork. I’m sure it’s not appropriate to add those links in a query, but are links in an email signature offensive?
BM: I would maybe not put them in an email signature, and maybe include them in the query if they’re relevant. But keep in mind that sometimes an external link might trigger a spam filter, so your email might get stuck.
If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?
BM: If I’ve requested pages and have turned you down, you can feel free to re-query me if you’ve significantly revised, and I may ask to see it again if I liked the premise and writing before. If I just passed on the query, then it means it didn’t speak to me, and in that case, no, I wouldn’t re-query with that project.
What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
BM: If you have no publishing credentials, you may just include a line or two about yourself, like “I live in a suburb of San Francisco with my husband and kids.” But I wouldn’t strain to come up with something. You can just simply say this is your first novel and leave it at that.
What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?
BM: Exactly that. The query just doesn’t sound like something I’d be interested in. It’s impossible to quantify it; it’s just a matter of taste.
What themes are you sick of seeing?
BM: I’m a little tired of paranormal and dystopian YA, especially as the market is glutted with these and it’s really hard to break in. Paranormal romance is also really hard right now.
Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?
BM: Yes. I will often do revisions with a client before I submit his/her project, especially if he/she is a debut author. I want to make sure that our best efforts go out to the publishers.
What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?
BM: In my first week or two on the job, someone queried some creepy clown story and included an 8x10 glossy color photo of an evil clown. Terrifying. One guy queried saying that it would help him get girls if he got an agent. There are others, but it’s late in the day and I can’t think of them. Listen, don’t be a creeper in your query, and don’t send stuff with it, okay?
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
BM: Movies: The Lord of the Rings, How to Train Your Dragon, Thor, The Avengers, The Last of the Mohicans. Books: Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, The Giver, the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi, Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series, the Harry Potter series, and I could go on and on…
Beth Miller has worked with Robin Rue at Writers House since 2007. As Robin’s assistant, she has the pleasure of working with many talented and bestselling authors in a variety of genres. As a Junior Agent, she is building her list, working primarily with authors of romance, women’s fiction, and young adult.
Beth has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s degree in Literature. In her other life, she was a DNA sequencing technician at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. She much prefers books to E. coli, and enjoys scuba diving and road trips in her spare time. She also has a fascination for all things Scottish (including, but not limited to, men in kilts).