18 Etiquette Guidelines for Querying Literary Agents


Querying Literary AgentsThe etiquette for querying literary agents is guided by unspoken rules. Everyone has slightly different ideas of what those rules are, and newbies can be left completely oblivious.

I am a mentee in Pitch Wars again this year, and I have already seen a ton of questions about how to handle querying. As a querying veteran, I was going to post about this in the Pitch Wars mentee Facebook group, but many writers could benefit, so I am posting it here.

I’ll cover some basic guidelines for tricky situations that come up when you’re querying. These guidelines come from talking to other querying writers, and partly from seeing querying from the other side, via my internship with literary agent Carrie Pestritto (though she hasn’t seen this post, so these are my views, not hers!).

General querying etiquette:

  1. Agents talk to each other. And to their clients. This impacts querying etiquette in so many ways. I’ll touch on that throughout this post. Always think about what you want agents to say about you when they’re all hanging out at the same conference—or all DMing each other on Twitter.
  2. In that vein, if you get multiple requests for your full or multiple offers, treat all agents as equals, even if you’re way more excited about one. You never know—that agent who is quieter online might be amazing on the phone. That agent with the smaller sales record might be hungrier to grow your career.
  3. Do NOT mass email one query to a bajillion agents with all of their emails in the “to” field. Agents can then simply reply to each other to talk about how careless you were in doing your research!
  4. Personalize each query. It’s best to include a specific reason why you are querying the agent, but even using the agent’s name shows you have done at least a little research.
  5. If you’re in doubt about which honorific to use because you don’t know the agent’s gender or marital status, just use their full name. “Ms.” is also better than “Mrs.” if in doubt. (I could write a whole other post about how it’s ridiculous that the English language includes a woman’s marital status in the honorific but not the man’s—harumph.)
  6. Some agents prefer a more formal address than others. Start formal and follow their lead. If they write to you and sign an email requesting a full with their first name, write back with their first name. Until then, use their last name or full name. You’re not going to offend someone by being too formal, but you could offend someone by being too familiar.
  7. For the love of all that is holy, do NOT tweet or post publicly about your querying process in any specific manner while you are querying. There are many ways this could go wrong. Agents will look at your Twitter profile. You don’t want other agents to know if they were the first agent you queried or the last. You don’t want other agents to know which agents rejected you. Please don’t @ mention an agent about a query. There are RARE situations when this is okay, like if you’re pretty sure your query went into spam. But if you Twitter pitch an agent with an @ mention, they’ll tell you to submit following their guidelines—and they’ll remember you didn’t research their guidelines before pitching them on Twitter. If you @ mention an agent in a tweet about their rejection, you won’t change their mind, but you will make them feel bad. And they’ll remember your attitude when you go to query them with your next book.
  8. Don’t query multiple agents at the same agency at the same time. That’s a given across most agencies, unless otherwise specified (which sometimes happens during contests). Every agency has different rules about querying multiple agents. Learn which ones let you query one agent only, and learn which ones let you query another agent either after a rejection or a certain period of time.
  9. Nudge after the time specified on the agent’s website. Sometimes, queries get lost in the email wilderness, and agents need a little nudge. Some agents will give you a timeline to wait before nudging. Others don’t specify. Three or four months is probably a safe bet. If an agent says “no response means no” on their website, don’t nudge.
  10. Don’t trash talk any genres or age categories or types of books or individual books in your query. For all you know, the agent could represent a book just like the one you’re trash-talking.
  11. Don’t insult the agent in your query or in a response to a rejection. This seems obvious…but it happens.
  12. In general, don’t respond to rejections. It’s too easy to come across as bitter. For more detailed rejections that include specific feedback, it is appropriate but not required to send a nice thank you. If an agent has put a lot of time into writing you a helpful rejection, definitely send a nice thank you. If you are working on a new project, it is also appropriate to respond to personalized rejections with a note about that project. Tactful, nice responses to rejections can be a good way to build a relationship with an agent that could help you later, with a different project.

Etiquette for after you get an offer:

  1. If you get an offer, let all of the agents who have your full or partial manuscript know and give them time to consider your book. Different people have different views on whether you should nudge agents who only have queries. I think it’s polite (and beneficial to you) to let anyone you’ve queried in the last two months know. That way, they have a chance to fight for you, and they don’t waste their time reading your query and sample if you’re taken. I’ve heard people say they’ve nudged agents they thought they would never hear back from, and gotten requests. That’s a lot of work, but it could mean that amazing agent you had written off could actually be in the running to be your agent!
  2. Give an appropriate amount of time to the other agents. One week is on the short side—agents need time to read your book and think about it deeply. Three weeks is a little long to ask the offering agent to wait, biting his/her nails. Two weeks seems to be about standard, depending on holidays and what is going on in your life.
  3. If an agent pressures you to give them a decision on the phone, say hold your horses! That kind of pressure could be good for the agent, but it is not good for you. You need time to make a decision that’s not emotional, and to consider all of your options.
  4. Let the initial offering agent know when you will make your decision. Tell all of the other agents you need to hear from them a day or two before that. That way, you will have time to make your decision after you have heard from all of the interested agents.
  5. Once an agent has offered on your book, it’s bad form to send out more queries. If an agent offers quickly, that could mean you have limited options to choose from. That’s part of why I suggest querying in batches of ten or so.
  6. Folks say “no agent is better than a bad agent.” If you’re not happy with the offer you get, decline it. If you know right away they’re not the right agent for you, you should decline the offer right away and forgo nudging other agents. Once you’ve nudged agents with an offer on a book, it is acceptable, but iffy, to send out new queries for that book—remember, agents talk.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I may come back and edit this post when I have more ideas!

Comment if you have other advice to share!

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