When seeking agency representation, how much information should you offer? Should you wade in with one toe, send enough information to tease the agent, or go all in with a proposal accompanied by a complete manuscript?
First, a note: Before deciding on any form of communication, please refer to the agent’s posted guidelines. While my office will respond to a quick question, such as “Do you represent romance novels?” (Yes.), why not make your communications worthy? A quick visit to a website to find the answers to yes/no questions can save many people–including yourself!–needed time during the business day.
Query. A query letter gauges the agent’s interest in reviewing the writer’s work.
- Advantages: Query letters take less time to compose and send than proposals. Because notes are short, you may receive a response sooner than sending a complete package. Also, consider that some agents don’t open unsolicited attachments. So in choosing to query, I recommend presenting the letter in the body of an email.
- Disadvantages: A well-crafted query letter offers loads of detail in few words. The author has less time to convince the agent to review more materials than if the materials are attached. When querying, bring your best qualifications and talents to the forefront. Make the agent keep reading, so they’ll ask for the proposal.
Proposal. While an author can present a proposal at any stage of their career, I don’t recommend that a new author submit a proposal to an agent until the manuscript is complete. Most new authors are unfamiliar with how their personal book writing process works. Good ideas often fail when the author tries to commit them to a book. Plus, few, if any, significant publishers offer contracts to debut authors without seeing a complete manuscript.
- Advantages: A proposal offers enough information about the author and the project for the agent to discern that the project is marketable. The proposal review process provides the experienced author time to gauge interest while continuing to work on the complete manuscript.
- Disadvantages: An agent may need the manuscript more quickly than the author can complete the book. While an agent and author together can address this rare dilemma, creating a sudden need to finish a book swiftly can be stressful.
Proposal and Complete. This is the most extensive package an author should submit to an agent and will contain every possible bit of information, along with the entire manuscript, that the agent will need to decide about offering representation.
- Advantages. Once an agent and author agree to work together, the author is ahead of the curve and can spend time writing subsequent books while the agent works to market the project. When the contract arrives, the author can look forward to the publisher’s editing process instead of needing to write the book. The availability of a complete book at contract time means the publisher can release the first book sooner, rather than later.
- Disadvantages. The author has to spend a tremendous amount of time writing a book, delaying the possibility of receiving an offer of representation. Even worse, because the agent has a great deal of material to review, responses take longer than anyone likes.
As with most decisions in life, the answer here is nuanced. These are simply ideas to help authors who are wondering about their planned approach. If you’ve begun the process of seeking representation and have deviated from the above suggestions, don’t worry. The best agents are skilled at discerning marketable authors and will work with you to formulate the best strategy for your career.
Thanks for your post. It covers questions commonly asked by most new writers.
If I want to be outstanding,
way past Tom and Dick and Mary,
it is thus my understanding
that I need more than a query.
The agent’s eye must be bedazzled,
for the slush pile grows and grows.
One might think she’s getting frazzled;
surely I would, Heaven knows!
So perhaps a change of pace
that initiative entails,
arriving gaily at her place
courtesy the US mails,
a proposal that my tale doth tell
‘long with chocolate and Chanel.
I have found I can get an agent to “work” for me before agreeing to contract. If they ask for a query, synopsis and 3 chapters, I send a query. If the query is good enough, they will ask for the syn and chapters. (Agents need to make money and tend forgive an oversight.) I then send the synopsis. If they are still interested they will request chapters. In this devious way I can determine where I fall down along the way, whether my problem is my query, my synopsis, or the actual mss. If I sent in all three at the start, per their request and am rejected, how would I know where my problem lies?
My experience is that different agents have different requirements. And almost no one asks for a full/complete up front.
So it seems one answer to your question is to submit to multiple agents. Then you get the data on what’s successful and how many pages it included, etc.
Otherwise, as Steve Laube has said, how do they know if your writing is any good if you don’t include a sample?
I think if you don’t follow agent guidelines—while some may be willing to overlook it—it’s more likely to get your rejected as a matter of course.
P.S. if what you’re looking for is feedback (e.g. on the query/opening pages), conferences often offer that. Including from many of the agents you may be interested in querying. In my experience, if they like your work, they’ll often ask for it, which is a nice way to get a free “second chance” because if they don’t, you haven’t technically been rejected (and can still polish and submit if you want to).
The point I’m anxious to make is that agents (not opportunistic ones, anyway) will pass on a good query. Just because a writer is “careless” regarding requirements will not cancel you if the query is engaging. No decent/hungry agent will pass on good writing if it may promise a signed contract and they can look at the omission as an oversight. There is such a thing as realistic professional priorities/allowances. I landed Al Zuckerman of Writer’s House in this way and other very strong agents, being published now 5 times. It does work.
. . . will not pass, I meant!
I disagree. Being intentionally unprofessional is borderline rude.
If you “forget” something now how would this writer treat our editors and publishers?
Elliott is right. Follow the guidelines of each agent. It is noticed and appreciated.
If one were to apply for a job at Microsoft or Honeywell and try this tactic, the application would be dismissed no matter how qualified one might be.
Sounds like you have control and power issues. Failure to follow basic directions intentionally being unprofessional will keep you deservedly unemployed and unpublished.
Find not her career field to work out your personal issues.
Auto correct after I pushed post. No edit button
Find another career field to work out your personal issues.
I love that you always offer valuable information in your blogs.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thank you for all of this info, Tamela! I always finish the book first (I mostly write fiction) and lean toward a proposal. Of course I follow guidelines if the agent asks for something different, but I actually like writing proposals (they give me a nice break if I’m stuck with my story) and so I always send one if allowed.