Publishing, now more than ever before, is a choose-your-own adventure. You have options. You can traditionally publish. You can publish with a small press. You can independently publish. Which will you choose?
Who you are and what you feel most comfortable doing should inform your decision. Also the type of story you are telling, specifically its genre and audience, should be considered. But let’s say that you like the idea of working with a traditional publisher and the team they will provide you as opposed to being a free agent in the indie author game. How do you get a six figure book deal with one of those NYC publishers?
To be traditionally published, one must find a literary agent who is willing to represent you and your work to traditional publishing houses. The process of doing this is called querying. The name comes from the many query letters one sends out to literary agents.
A query letter or “query” is a pitch. It’s like writing the back cover blurb of the novel and then including a few more details (word count, genre, audience, comparable titles (“comps:). It’s fun. Query letters follow a format and you can scroll down to see what mine looked like. Many agents also ask for a sample pasted at the bottom of the email. First ten pages or first chapter is standard.
You do not query until you have a complete manuscript. Because the goal is for agents to reply and request the complete (full) manuscript to read. Some agents request a partial manuscript (first 50 pages) and if they enjoy that upgrade to the full.
Querying involves doing some research to finding agents who might like your book. You write an email (or fill out their form) about your book, and send it off to 10, 20, or 30 agents. Then you wait. If an agent likes your pitch and your sample, she/he/they will request your full manuscript or a part of your manuscript. Then you wait some more. If they love it, they will ask to schedule a phone call (where they will verbally offer you representation). If they don’t love it, they often provide some feedback as to why.
Querying is free. It costs no money. Literary agents post their wishlists on their agency websites. Often they tweet about their preferences under the hashtag #MSWL (stands for Manuscript Wishlist). There may still be an #MSWL website one can browse. Acquiring/hungry agents often participate in writing contests and you can see who is searching for new clients by doing some digging this way. You can also flip to the acknowledgement section of a trad author’s book and see who represents them. It is on the author to make sure that agents she/he/they are querying are reputable and legit.
Querying can be a long, slow process. Agents are humans with beating hearts and hungry tummies. Have patience. Turn around times on queries can be six to eight weeks, but some agents never respond. It’s okay. You can write a sequel while you query (I did). You can write a novel in a completely new genre (I did). You can make major life decisions, change careers, move states, hold down a job. It’s all good.
So let’s say you find an agent who is excited and eager to represent you and your story. Congratulations! You and your agent will make an agreement that he/she/they will receive a percentage of the money from your book deal when/if you sell your book to a publisher. YOU DO NOT PAY YOUR AGENT. If an agent is demanding money up front run away.
The journey to trad publish after you land an agent often includes some revisons. Sometimes agents have ideas about how to improve a story—make it more marketable. So you revise. Theyn you go on submission where your Agent shops the manuscript to their connections in the trad publishing world and identifies the places where your novel might find a home.
Sometime a story doesn’t find a home when it goes on submission. Sometimes it does, but it takes time. Sometimes it happens right away.
Querying is free. I one hundred percent recommend giving it a try. Sometimes the feedback you can get from those literary agents who return your fulls is invaluable (and again, free). Sometimes knowing that querying is on your horizon can really motivate you to finish and revise that draft.
Oh, and it isn’t a hard and fast door. I may write a project that I want to query in the future—particularly if it is something Middle Grade or literary. I’m very happy with my decision to indie publish my quirky new adult stories and am enjoying the control I have over the process. You can read more about that here.
Here is an example of the query letters I emailed out for MY COSPLAY ESCAPE. Query letters follow a format that goes a little like: Dear agent. I wrote this. Thought you might be interested because you mentioned you liked this. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland meets The Hunger Games but in SPACE!!! Below is a sample. Thanks! That’s all it is. You embellish it. You find your voice. You have fun.
***AMY’S QUERY LETTER***
Dear Amy Trent,
Noting we have the exact same name and a penchant for quirky rom-coms, I thought I’d send my latest offering your way.
Cosplaying as Catstrike at San Diego Comic-Con wasn’t exactly the escape from reality Sarah had envisioned. In fact, Sarah promised herself she’d never cosplay again, not after her misadventure as Spinneret landed her married, then divorced, then living back home with Mom.
At SDCC Sarah meets Adam West McKinny, a vendor and entrepreneur. He offers her a job at his immersive superhero themed escape room. Yeah, no; let’s keep the past in the past. But Adam may be cute enough to make Sarah give it a shot. She could use the money too.
Trying to create a more mature image, Sarah tries to keep the Catstrike cosplay gig a secret from her super conservative family and Adam (who isn’t conservative but clever as fudge and just as yummy). And there is the fact that Sarah’s lying and skipping work at her real adult job to dress up in tight black vinyl, carry a whip, and okay, maybe flirt with Adam. Mom and the book club ladies would kill her, plus Sarah would lose her real job, and once again have zero funds for going back to school if anyone finds out.
With the extra funds from the cosplay side hustle, Sarah signs up for an Econ 101 class at SDSU, and would you look at that: Adam is her TA. Worlds, alter egos, and fantasies collide in MY COSPLAY ESCAPE. The novel is 75,000 words of contemporary, romantic comedy for a new adult audience. It’s Shannon Hale’s AUSTENLAND meets superhero cosplay. Fans of Rainbow Rowell’s FANGIRL or Jen DeLuca’s WELL MET will enjoy it.
I grew up in San Diego and adore comic-con. I now live in Boulder County Colorado with my hubby and two kiddos. And I must say, Denver’s cosplay scene will do in a pinch.
Thanks for the opportunity! My first 10 pages are below.
–10 page excerpt pasted here–
***END OF QUERY LETTER***
This is not a fantastic query, but it is a serviceable one. There are better, less superficial, reasons for Sarah to be interested in Adam than “he’s cute.” I figured out a tighter way of explaining why Sarah doesn’t want to let the cosplay kitten out of the bag in her real life on my back of the cover blurb. Anyway, even serviceable queries like this one can lead to requests for fulls and partials. Google your way to some better query examples. You got this. Have some fun with it. And most importantly:
Oh, and small presses are queried much like literary agents. You just look for them, research them, and query them directly. Often literary agents will shop a manuscript to a small press if they think it is the right fit. Not all small presses are created equal, and it is up to you to do your homework and make sure that they are reputable.