Guest Post by Agent Beth Miller: On Queries

Today for the first time on my blog, I'm excited to introduce you to a fabulous agent at Writers House, Beth Miller.

Some background on Beth: I have a long-standing fascination with the sea, and went to college with the intention of studying marine biology. About halfway through, I switched to general biology, and graduated with a B.S. in Biology from Southampton College of Long Island University. Not knowing what to do after I graduated, I entered a teaching certification program, where I quickly discovered that I had absolutely no desire to teach. I gave that up and worked in a bookstore for awhile before landing a job at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a DNA Sequencing Technician. That position lasted for 7 years, during which time I went back to school, earning my M.A. in Literature from Queens College, CUNY, in December 2006. I began working as an assistant at a literary agency in February 2007. I absolutely love it here, so much so that the 7 years at the lab are barely even a memory.

Take it away, Beth!
 So you’ve written a novel. Congratulations- it’s a fabulous accomplishment!

Now what?

The Dreaded Query Letter…

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so what should you do (or not do!) to grab the attention (in a good way) of the agent you’re querying?

Do your research!

There are several ways to research the best agents for your book. My favorite: go to the bookstore (also known as the Mother Ship), and flip through the latest novels in your genre. Most of them will have an acknowledgments page, and in many cases, you can find the names of the author’s agent on this page. Then go to the internet. Research that agent/agency. What are they looking for? How do you submit to them?

You can also skip the bookstore and go straight to the internet (which may be a good idea if you’re like me and drop a paycheck in the bookstore every time you walk through the door). Try www.agentquery.com and do a search by genre or keyword. Or try www.absolutewrite.com and visit the forums there. You can find discussions on nearly every agency out there.

Don’t forget the blogs! There are plenty of agents who are blogging these days, and you can learn a lot by seeing what they’re ranting about. Try Janet Reid, who also runs Query Shark, and check out whose blogs she links to. There’s a blog for BookEnds, LLC, The Rejectionist (who doesn’t always rant about publishing stuff, but she’s hilarious anyway), and plenty of others that will be a great help to you.

Ok, so you’ve found some agents to try. Now what do you do?

Snail Mail or Email?

In this wonderful age of the internet, many agents are accepting email queries. But some kick it old school and prefer snail mail. Or maybe you just like to send things through the mail. Either way, there is etiquette to follow!

Your query letter should have a paragraph or two about the story itself, including the genre and word count. If it would appeal to readers of a particular author, include that too. Then there should be a paragraph on you, which includes any publishing credits or relevant information. By “relevant,” I mean that if you’ve written a novel set in Medieval England, and you have a degree in medieval history, that’s relevant. If your novel is about the Amazon River dolphin, and you did your doctoral dissertation on them, this would be relevant (and way cool!). If you’ve written a novel set in Middle-earth, and you are a hobbit, that would be relevant information. It’s not relevant to tell me your grandmother loved it (we know she did) or that you are married with four beautiful children (it’s wonderful, but not relevant to your novel).

Can we talk about word counts? Most adult novels are around 100,000 words. This is about 400 pages-ish. Books for kids vary greatly—some can be that long if they’re for older teens, but many YA novels are probably between 60,000 and 80,000 words. Books for younger readers are usually shorter than that. If you’re writing epic fantasy or a sweeping historical saga, you may be able to go for 125,000-150,000 or so. Any more than that, and you are probably too high. Bear this in mind if your novel is 267,000 words. This is pretty much never okay. There is some leeway with all of these, but not a huge amount.

Snail Mail

The easiest way to discuss query letters is to talk about the “don’ts,” any of which may get your carefully-written and mailed letter tossed aside with a guffaw.

Don’t include glitter, sequins, bread crumbs, or anthrax in your query letter. If I open the envelope and stuff falls out all over me, I will put you in the “reject” pile even before I finish brushing myself off and cursing in Elvish.

Don’t include food. Just as you are unlikely to eat something sent to you by a stranger, we’re even more unlikely to do so. We appreciate the thought behind the brownies, chocolate chip cookies, fudge, and meat pies, but unfortunately, we’re going to toss them unopened. Booze, on the other hand… no, wait, we don’t want booze either. Really.

Don’t include photos of- well, anything. If you’ve written a YA novel, there’s no need to include a head shot. We’re not a modeling agency or a talent scout. You can look like Halle Berry or Christian Bale, but it’s completely irrelevant to your query. Also, it’s great that you have wonderful kids/pets/art collections- we just want to read your query. Obviously, if you’re an illustrator, then yes, please feel free to include an art sample, but otherwise, please enjoy your photos at home.

Don’t forget the SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope)!

For those of you who may not know what this means, it’s an envelope addressed to yourself, with return postage. I didn’t know this many years ago, and people thought I was dumb. If you have included pages, please remember to include the proper size envelope and postage if you want your pages returned. If you don’t include a SASE, and your email address isn’t on your letter, we may not reply.

Email Queries

**Please remember that these are business letters. Remember that you are trying to make a favorable impression and get your pages read, not irritate the agent so that he or she deletes your query unread.**

Don’t put “Hi!” as your subject line. It should say something like “Query” followed by your title. Anything else is inappropriate. This isn’t a letter to a friend, and we’re not fooled by an email that says “Hi!” from someone we don’t know.

Don’t include an attachment in your initial query, unless instructed to do so. Most agents will not open unsolicited attachments. If you’re including pages or a synopsis, paste them into the body of the email. Also, please put your query letter in the body of the email—some people attach the query letter. This is not correct.

Don’t address your email to anything other than the agent’s name you are querying. We know you’re querying other agents, and you would be foolish not to. But at least take the time to address each email to a particular agent, including the “to” field. If I see more than one agent’s name there, or “undisclosed recipients,” I immediately delete it without reading.

Don’t use a query service. You wrote the book. You toiled over it, edited it, tore it apart, edited it, cried over it, and worked on it for weeks/months/years/decades. Why would you want someone else to write your query letter for you? You can easily find resources online that will give you guidelines for query letters. Examples of these are www.agentquery.com & Query Shark, but there are many others. The problem with the query services is that they all seem to follow the same general format, and it is immediately obvious that you used a query service.

Don’t require the recipient’s email to be verified for a reply. If I reply to your email, and I receive a bounce-back that asks me to click a link to verify that I am not a spammer, I will delete your email and not “verify” myself. If you’re worried about receiving spam, set up a dedicated email for querying with a free service like yahoo, gmail, or hotmail. You should do this anyway, so that when I reply to you, I’m replying to beth.miller@yahoo.com or bmiller@gmail.com, not ilikebunnies@yahoo.com. It just looks unprofessional.

Don’t query incessantly. If I rejected your project in June, I will reject it in mid-June, July, and December as well. We keep track of queries. Also, don’t query with a different project every other week. It gets to the point where I will delete your email on sight. And don’t try to be clever and send the same query every day using different email addresses or usernames. You will go to the crazy junk mail file.

Don’t forget to include the title of your project! You wrote it, own it! Be proud of it! And it makes my reply look nicer when I can say “Dear Beth, thank you for your query for I Like Bunnies…” rather than “Dear Beth, thank you for your query.”

Don’t give ultimatums. When you say “If you don’t reply in 10 days, I will come after you with the Sword of Truth I will assume you’re not interested,” I am pretty much guaranteed to delete your email.

Don’t be crazy! We all know that authors are artists, and there’s a little bit of crazy that goes along with that. This is not what I mean. I mean the crazy that has me afraid for my life after reading your query. I have to not only love your work, I have to want to work with you! This includes blogging and other internet-related stuff. If I like your work, I may Google you or go to your enclosed website. If you’re on a tirade about the publishing industry, I will think “hey, this person is crazy to talk about this stuff on her blog, and she may be crazy to work with as well,” and I will probably turn you down.

Ok, you’re sending pages! Is there something you should know about this?

Yes. If you’re including sample pages with your query, start with page 1! It’s the first pages that have to grab the reader’s attention. If the first pages aren’t good, they won’t read pages 110-142, even if you’ve said it’s your best writing! If you send me pages 110-142, I will assume that the first 109 pages are crap.

I’ve got your partial (or full) manuscript under consideration, and you’ve gotten feedback that indicates a re-write is in order. Please email me to withdraw the submission until it’s ready! This is okay! Sending an email with a revised document every other week is NOT okay!

Miscellaneous don’ts:

Please don’t smoke near where you keep your printer paper! Hey, we all have vices- I don’t judge. But you’d be stunned at how paper absorbs cigarette smoke, and when I open that envelope and catch a whiff of stale smoke, it’s likely I will not read your pages.

Please don’t feel the need to reply to a rejection letter or email. We appreciate the sentiment, but it just clogs up our inbox, and it’s really not necessary.

Please don’t ask us to recommend another agent/agency. If we wanted to, we would have done so.

Don’t forget to proofread your work!!

Some thoughts about the Dreaded Synopsis:

Everyone has different ideas about what this should look like, but basically a few pages that give the story arc is about right. Three pages at the most is probably sufficient, unless the agent specifies otherwise. Please don’t summarize every chapter of your novel. Main characters and story arc, including the end of the story. That’s it.

Remember, at the end of the day, we want to find the next Stephenie Meyer/Nora Roberts/James Patterson/J.K. Rowling. We want to read your work, and we want to love it!

I am happy to answer questions if you have them!

Thanks for stopping by, Beth. These are great tips and insights.