Hello and welcome to my exhaustive (exhausting?) querying guide! If you’re here, that means you’ve written a book and feel good enough about it that you’re ready to try to get an agent. Congratulations. That’s huge. I’m proud of you for the work you’ve put in, for the art you’ve created, and I hope this path leads to dreams coming true, books on shelves, and everything you wanted it to be.
I’ve spent the past several months querying myself (yes, even published authors find themselves back in the querying trenches from time to time), and I’ve learned several things along the way that I wish I’d known when I first queried in 2012 (which resulted in several request for fulls, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere) and the second time in 2014 (which landed me an agent, who I left in spring of 2023).
There is a lot in this guide, because, honestly, querying is a lot. That can make it very, very easy to get overwhelmed. And if you feel overwhelmed, that’s okay. Take a break. Read this guide a section at a time, whatever is easiest for you to get going on querying.
What this guide includes:
A look at the querying process
How to decide who to query
How to actually use Publisher’s Marketplace in a meaningful way
How to keep track of who you’re querying
How to personalize your query letter
How many people to query at a time
How to know when it’s time to query more people
Questions to ask when you get an offer for representation from a literary agent
What this guide doesn’t include:
How to write a query letter
If you’ve made it this far in the process, and you’re getting ready to query, then I’m going to assume you have already written your query letter, and you feel like your book is ready to query. If you haven’t written a query letter, my number one piece of advice is to read as many posts on the Query Shark blog as you can to figure out how to write a query. At some point, I may share my current query letter, but that will be after I sign with a new agent and after said book is sold (or shelved, because sometimes that happens–but I really love this book and think it has strong potential to sell and I want it to sell and please let it sell).
So instead, here is a mock-up query letter for In the Shadow Garden. I’ve included a sample personalized intro and a sample sign-off. If you have writing credits, you could include those at the end in a bio, but when I queried my first agent, I didn’t include a bio because I didn’t have any writing credits at that time!
Hi [AGENT NAME],
I saw on your website that you’re interested in witchy stories and family dramas. I thought my novel might be a fit for your list.
Garden Spells meets Practical Magic in In the Shadow Garden in which three generations of witches who have the ability to heal their neighbors’ pain are coming to a reckoning with a rival family twenty-five years after their town forgot an entire summer. [NOTE: This is the pitch. I include it in the query because I think it gives the agent a quick look at what the stakes are and what to expect right out of the gate.]
There’s something magical about Yarrow, Kentucky. From the Haywood shadow garden, where pain fertilizes the soil to produce fruit that amplifies emotions to Bonner Bourbon, which can take your worst memories like smoke on the wind. Irene Haywood doesn’t trust the Bonners, not since she called off her engagement to the distillery’s heir for being a liar and a cheat. The summer that followed is a blank spot in the minds of the people of Yarrow, Irene included. Twenty-five years later, her tea leaves warn her of love or betrayal. When a Bonner Irene doesn’t remember returns to town, it’s clear the leaves were pointing to him.
Irene’s daughter Addison has troubles of her own. Her empathic magic doesn’t work like the rest of the family’s. But she’s determined to follow the tea leaves wherever they may lead, even if that means making a deal with the Bonner matriarch. As the Haywoods begin to unravel the truth about their shadow garden, their town, and their family, Addison must embrace her own wild magic or risk losing herself and her family to the forgotten sorrows of the past—forever. [NOTE: These two paragraphs are the actual query. They introduce the main character(s), the stakes, and the inciting incident (stranger coming to town / making a deal with the Bonner matriarch)].
In the Shadow Garden is complete at 83,000 words. Per your submission requirements, I've included the first ten pages below my signature. I look forward to hearing from you soon. [Note: This is the closing. It seems obvious, but in case it isn't, here you go! You want to include your word count and a bio if relevant.]
I said I wasn’t going to tell you how to write a query, but I did include some notes above that might help (does that count as telling you how to write a query? I am undecided). A few other things to have ready because agents have different things they want in the query process, especially if they’re using query manager (thank you, I hate it): a synopsis (not a must-have, but there are agents who do require it), a list of books that your book might be shelved next to (these are called comp titles), an idea of who the person who would like your book is (ie: fans of Alice Hoffman), and a completed book. Unless you’re writing non-fiction or you’ve been previously published and had a lot of success, you really need a completed book to query. Agents want something they can sell right away. Will they have edits? Probably. But the less work they have to do to get something into the hands of an editor, the more likely they are to take you on.