Some time ago, I attended a convention panel hosted by several literary agents. The entire panel was an opportunity to ask them questions related to querying an agent, what an agent does for their clients, and their advice on various elements in becoming published. The insights they shared were more useful than a lot of the advice I’ve found online regarding the query process.

Role of an Agent

The agent’s primary role is to make money for their client (and for themselves and the agency). This is one reason agents only choose to represent novels and authors they feel have the best chance at being a success. Agents must know industry trends when they select which novels to represent. Then they will help the author present the novel in its best possible light, sometimes suggesting to make additional edits or changes before submitting the manuscript to publishers. This does not mean an agent takes on the role of editor, but if there are any glaring areas that need to be revised, they may suggest a rewrite.

Once the agent feels the manuscript is in a solid, marketable state, they shop it around to various publishing houses. Having an agent doesn’t guarantee a publishing contract, but it’s in the agent’s best interest to find an interested publisher. They need your novel to sell as much as you do. Once they have secured a contract for their client, then the agent must stay on top of any advances the publisher offers to the author, along with all sales and royalties. It is their job to make sure that both they and the author get paid.

Query Letters

There is a lot of conflicting advice regarding query letters online. However, the Writer’s Digest article on the Top 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter is an excellent place to start.

The given by the literary agents hosting the panel reinforced the Writer’s Digest article, but they gave some additional insights regarding what they are looking for when authors make submissions:

  • Always include a cover letter.
  • Make sure your query letter includes your protagonists, the challenges they face, and the stakes they are up against. Make the agent care about these characters (in 250 words or less).
  • If you receive a rejection, do not re-query unless you have made significant changes to your manuscript.
  • If you do re-query, never mention your past query or rejection.
  • If you are writing a series, only mention it as a “proposed” series, even if you have written the entire series. Only query the first novel.
  • Do not mention self-published works unless you have sold 20,000 copies or more.
  • Include your comparables. Which novels inspired or include similar themes to yours?
  • Do not mention your subplot, except maybe in passing.
  • Always mention your target audience/age. Such as children’s, middle-grade, young adult (YA), new adult (NA), or adult. (Adult does not mean pornography, only the targeted age of the novel).

Some Additional Advice and Insights

Beyond the query letter, the agents also offered points for consideration:

  • Read several current, debut novels in your preferred genre to get a feel for current trends. This doesn’t mean you should write to the trend, just be aware of them.
  • If you write sci-fi/fantasy, self-publishing will only expose you to about 18-20% of your target audience. The same goes for most other genres. Erotica/romance is the only exception.
  • Never, ever sign a contract with an agent or “publisher” that charges for services. Legit publishers offer those for free (editing, formatting, cover design), and most traditional publishers still pay authors an advance.