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Notes from the Query Box

November 12, 2014

In September, I became an Associate Literary Agent at Donaghy Literary Group. I won’t go into my journey of how I got there, but I will say it was a lot of hard work, and a heck of a lot of reading.

When I opened for queries, I thought “who the heck will query me, I’m so new?”. Ha ha! Little did I know I would receive hundreds of queries in my first month, and they keep rolling in. Consider my query statistics (yes, I keep a spreadsheet of queries):

  • Number of queries read in September: 220; Date reached in query box: September 6th
  • Number of queries read in October: 289; Date reached in query box: September 22nd
  • Number of queries read in November (so far): 159; Date reached in query box: October 3rd

These staggering numbers prompted me to close to queries in order to catch up. “But you just opened!” you might say. Yes, I just opened, but I cannot physically read any faster and these numbers do not include the submissions I have piling up as well. Of the 600 plus queries I’ve read, I’ve requested about 70 manuscripts. That’s a little better than 10% of  the queries read. I know what it’s like to query agents, to wait for responses, to hope hope hope. I do my very best to be timely, believe me I do. The query box is never far from my mind.

For the most part, I am extremely impressed with the quality of queries and the accomplishments of the authors seeking representation. But, if you’ve had the pleasure of being in the same room with me while reading queries, you’ve heard my frustrated sighs, my fits of yelling, or the slam of my hand on the desk.

Query Fun

Why? Here are some reasons:

  • Author does not mention name of book, genre, or word count
  • I continually get queries in a genre I do not represent
  • Author fails to mention they are already self-published
  • Query is incomplete or contains attachments
  • Author does not give their name or sign their query (this happens WAY more than it should)

Querying is difficult, I know this, I’ve lived it. However, I saw another agent on Twitter tweet something along the lines of “the better the query the better the pages, the better the book- so seems to be the pattern”. I have found the same thing to be true. Here is how a query should look in my opinion and how most of them do look:

Dear [Agent Name],

My name is [Insert Name] and I have written [Insert Title], which is [genre] and [word count]. Here is a brief summary:

[Insert a back of the book type blurb meant to excite and entice the reader]

Thank you for your consideration, I have included a synopsis and pages below, as per submission guidelines. [Here is also where you can give a brief bio]


[Insert Name]

After your signature is where the synopsis and or/ pages should be.

Things to remember when querying (and why this advice isn’t followed is baffling considering how many agents lament about the exact same issues)

  • Research the agent you are querying and make sure they represent your genre
  • Follow submission guidelines
  • Be polite, be professional
  • Don’t try to jump in line- we get queries in our personal email accounts, don’t do this unless specifically invited to. Queries sent to my personal email are deleted without being read
  • There is no substitute for hard work, there is no shortcut.

One thing I get asked over and over again is how I choose from the query box. In other words, what makes a query stand out? This is a tough thing to put my finger on. The more queries I go through, the more I understand the difference between something I like, and something that makes my heart pound because I love it so much. Often I know I love a story based on the first page. No matter what the state of the query, I do take the time to look at the pages. There are many times I disliked the query (or even hated it, to be honest- but the author DID follow submission guidelines) and I loved the pages. Conversely, there are times I adore the query and dislike the pages. You just never know. The strangest thing about the query box is how eerily similar so many of the stories are. It’s disheartening, actually, as a writer, to see such a thing. It takes a lot to stand out so it is imperative to send a good query without giving the agent extra incentive to reject you.

The main thing is, don’t give up! Just because I (or any other agent) rejected you, often it is not because I didn’t like your query, pages or story. As an author, you want an agent who LOVES your story, not one who likes it. You want an agent who is confident about it, and truly believes they can sell it. Trust me, getting an agent is hard, but then, selling your story is another hurdle all together. Here are some reasons I’ve rejected a submission:

  • It was too similar to something else
  • I liked the story but don’t wish to read it over and over again (and, when I consider representing something, I have to want to read it over and over again)
  • I’m not confident that I can sell it and I want the author to have the very best agent for their story, which sometimes is not me
  • I loved the writing but the story, as a whole, did not feel cohesive

It is vital to remember I am only one reader and someone else may completely disagree and love every single thing about your story– that’s who you want for your agent.

From → Agent Life

  1. Carissa Smith permalink

    Hi Valerie,

    I met you on Saturday at B and N. I was interested in your workshop on query letters and finding the right literary agent. I believe you will get my email from posting this comment please let me know if that is not true. Thank you.

    Carissa Smith
    (C.S. Rinner)

    • Hi Carissa,
      Yes, I remember you and I am so glad you reached out. I will let you know as soon as I have a date set for the workshop.

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