Querying agents and editors -proposal series #8

Many clients who I’ve helped writing their book proposal end up feeling lost at this point. And so might you! Throughout this book proposal blog series, I’ve helped you write the most essential and sometimes complicated book proposal elements. But what now? How do you find a publisher for your book? Well, the next step is quite essential in that process: querying. In this post, I’ll guide you through that process in three steps. 

1. Make your choice: publisher or agent?

There are two categories of people you can send your book proposal to: literary agents and editors at publishing houses. You can make a mix and send your proposal to people in both categories. However, when they understand what the difference is most people do have a preference for one or the other. So let me explain the decision ahead of you very briefly. 

Note: for academic publishing the use of agents is very uncommon, what follows is mostly relevant for commercial and trade publishing. 

The publisher

The publisher is the company you will sign your book contract with. They are the people who will need to love your proposal and will turn your manuscript into a published work. There are two ways in which you can get the publisher to become familiar with your work: you can contact an editor employed by them directly or hire someone (an agent) to do that for you. 

Some publishers, especially the largest ones, don’t accept what they call “unsolicited submissions”, by which they mean: they don’t want you to contact them directly. Instead, the only people who can send them proposals which they will consider are literary agents or authors they have asked themselves to send a proposal. Still, the majority of publishers do accept unsolicited submissions: just check the website of the publishers you want to sign with to see whether the need for an agent is already decided for you. 

The agent

A literary agent is a third party who takes care of the submission and contract negotiations for you. They have connections with editors at many publishing houses and will be able to advise you on, for example, amending your proposal so it becomes more attractive to the editors they have in mind. Then, they send your proposal to publishing houses that might be looking for a book like yours. When the publishers are interested, they will manage a possible bidding war; and negotiate the terms of your contract for you. In exchange, they charge you a percentage of your proceeds. 

Yes, this means you have to pay yet another person. However, most legitimate agents do not ask for a fee up front. They work on commission, meaning it’s in their best interest to get you the best deal possible. If you don’t want to spend time researching and writing to publishers; or you’re unsure what publisher you want to sign with; if you don’t know what would be important to you in contract negotiations (foreign rights?), an agent might be the best option for you. 

Keep in mind, though, that agents are as popular as publishers. They’re not desperately looking for clients but can pick and choose who they want to work with. So you will need to put in every bit as much work when contacting agents as editors. 

2. Querying

Once you’ve decided between agents and publishers (or maybe you still want to keep both in the mix?), it’s time to start contacting people. What’s important to know here, is that most publishers don’t accept simultaneous submissions. What this means is that you can only have your book proposal under review with one person at a time. Only when the publisher rejects your proposal can you send it to the next. However, what you can do is send out as many letters as you like asking people whether they are interested in seeing your proposal. 

2a Make your wishlist

Before you start querying, you need to do research. Make a list of editors/agents that you would like to work with. What’s more, make sure that they specifically mention an interest in working on a project like yours in their profiles. If you have a book of urban fantasy, but this person prefers non-fiction, you can be pretty sure they won’t be interested. So, do your research and make a list, detailing

  • previous books they’ve worked on;
  • the topics/genres they’re interested in;
  • their submission guidelines.

If you want me to do this for you, you can just fill out the contact form or schedule a free video session in the sidebar (below for smaller screens) so we can discuss the options. 

2b Write a template query letter

Write a query letter that you can adapt to every editor/agent’s requirements. Leave room at the top for their name, and make sure to leave room in the body of the letter for at least one or two sentences about why you want to work with them specifically, and why you think your project will be a great fit for them. (This is where your research in step 2a comes in handy.)

But most of the query letter you can reuse. It will contain the plot/topic of your book, your own qualifications and all other information that needs to be included. These elements will mostly be the same, whoever you write to. So here, I often write one letter that can be adapted after. That way, I don’t have to write a completely new letter for everyone I want to query. 

2c Adapt and send

Personalize each letter as described in steps 2a and 2b, before sending the letters out to the people on your wishlist.

Make sure to follow their guidelines to the letter (pun intended). Some agents/editors want to see your sample chapter along with your letter. Some want to see other parts of your proposal. There are those who want you to send an e-mail but won’t open attachments, others who have a form on their website. Not following submission guidelines is a surefire way to get rejected. So, again, do your research. Make sure you send them what they want, exactly how they want it. 

3. Waiting and persistence

I’m sorry to say this after everything you’ve done so far, but now comes the hard part. It can take months before someone you contacted tells you they’re interested. And if they’re not interested, most of the time they won’t even let you know! And that’s why I recommend you spread your chances by querying as many people as you can rather than sending your proposal out and waiting for a rejection before sending it to the next one. 

Yes, that’s where the persistence comes in. A rejection means that that specific publishing house or agency does not currently want to take on your project, it doesn’t mean that your book won’t find a publisher. The only way you can find a traditional publisher is to keep querying. Don’t give up! If you need some advice about how to deal with rejection, check out this blog post on how to make them less painful. 

Querying: concluding thoughts

If you want to get a book contract, you’ll need to start querying as soon as possible. I know it’s scary to open yourself to rejection like that. You might still want to tweak your proposal, or have more chapters edited. Or you might feel that you’re so busy with something else that you don’t have time to start this process yet. But as I’ve tried to tell you above, the querying process can be very slow. Only the very lucky ones will sign with an agent or publisher within weeks. But mostly, it will take months (or even years?). So don’t wait until you’re ready. You’ll have plenty of time to get ready while you’re awaiting responses. 

If you want to learn more about the elements of a book proposal, have a look at the other posts in this series, in the blocks below. Or, if you want help with your query letter, go to my book proposal page. There, you’ll find the different book proposal services I offer, ranging from final checks to writing the letter for you. 

Talk to you soon!


– Susanne