Writers: Who to Query First, Why and How

Once upon a time, completing your manuscript was the hard part.  Eventually, “The End” is behind you; with the thoughtful critique of your circle of writing partners, it is buffed and shammied to a high sheen, primped to enter a tournament of queries. The ultimate prize: publication.

Literary agent Jennifer Laughran recently spelled out some inarguable facts all those query-bound must heed, on her lovely blog, Jennifer Represents…

Laughran makes it clear from the beginning that you must query with the intent of being published with the help of your ideal agent. Which is to say, not to “test the waters,” or “save your best material for A-list agents,” or simply in an effort to receive feedback. “What if they love the book and say YES?”

Apparently this happens a lot.

Laughran asks, “Are you going to tell them, ‘Oh yeah, no, you aren’t actually my first choice?’” She asserts what should be plain to all writers: Go straight to your dream agent(s) with a great query and an even better manuscript. Don’t fool around.

“Your query is not an experiment. It should be great. Send it when it is great.”
Here’s how Laughran recommends writers do it (excerpts from her post):

1) If you don’t know how to write a great query, learn.

Consider joining a message board like the VerlaKay Blue Board (for kids and YA) or AbsoluteWrite (for YA and adult), and soak up some wisdom there, or have your query critiqued in their forums. Visit the Query Shark
for wise words and examples of what NOT to do.

2) Once your query is all polished and shiny and beautiful,
make a list of agents.

On the list: Agents that you have heard of–agents that rep books that you love–agents who rep your type of book, that you find via a service like AgentQuery or QueryTracker. This will probably be a long list.

3) Look up every single agent in at least three places:

A) Look them up on Preditors and Editors. Cross their names OFF THE LIST if they are noted as a scam or bad agency.
B) Google them and look up their website. Most agencies do have some sort of web presence at this point.
C) If you can afford a $20 month-long subscription to Publishers Marketplace, you can look them up and find out their sales. Note that not all agents list their sales, but lots do, and this should give you a good sense of what kind of books they do.
C2.) If you CAN’T afford that subscription, try googling something like, “<Agent Name> Interview” and see if you can’t find more info about them that way.

4) Weed the list.

Now at this point your “Long List” should be free of all the awful scam artists, people who don’t really rep what you write, people with no sales from shady agencies, etc. (Note: Newer agents, who might not have many sales, but are with great agencies, can be a good opportunity because they are often actively building their lists.) So everyone on the long list is at this point reputable. And you know a bit more about all of them.

Now think about this list. Really think about it. Divide it into “who I would swoon for”; “who I would probably like a lot”; and “who I actually wouldn’t like, now that you mention it.”


If it isn’t an agent you’d want to do business with, don’t query them. Getting rid of any ones you feel negatively about means that now you ONLY have good agents that you’d like to work with on your list.

Do NOT get hung up on the concept of a “dream agent” –you want a good,
reputable, communicative agent who clicks with your work and will be a great rep for it, but you won’t know who that is until they have actually read your work.

6) Create a batch.

You can choose your own way of doing this. Laughran recommends writers choose about 10 agents–a healthy mix of “rock stars” and fairly new up-and-comer agents at established agencies. Make sure you know their submission guidelines, and follow them.

7) Hit them with your awesome, supersonic query…

and see what happens. You are prepared–you’ve done your research– you have the awesome. So if you get nothing but form rejects, there is something wrong with your query or sample pages and it isn’t actually supersonic.

Then you recalibrate–check again for supersonicness–and make another batch, this time another healthy mix of agent types. Nobody on the list you’ve made is bad, everyone is vetted for scamlessness and has the taste to rep the books you write, so it is just a matter of finding the one that clicks with your work.

Jennifer Laughran is a literary agent specializing in children’s and YA fiction. She’s also a part-time children’s bookseller, and often throws fab parties for books and authors. Follow her on Twitter @Literaticat.