Querying agents and publishers: a glossary


Ah, it’s the second of January. Back to work for many of us, agents and publishers included. If you’ve been waiting till January to begin querying your manuscript and you haven’t yet entered the agent or publisher query trenches, you may not be familiar with the terms used to describe the things a writer might be asked to provide.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the ones I’ve encountered:

MS. Manuscript. Yours. 🙂

Query. This is a short letter (no more than one page in Word, single spaced), that contains two to three paragraphs about your story, as well as the title, genre and word count rounded to the nearest thousand.

The story paragraphs should read like a blurb on the back of a book; they should showcase your MS’s voice and tell the reader who the main character is, their age if the MS is kidlit, and the main conflict or challenge they face. I use this structure: when the main character does X, she must face Y. Avoid rhetorical questions.

The goal is to hook the agent or publisher, making them want to read more. The paragraphs shouldn’t provide an outline of the story—that’s what the synopsis is for. But make sure you write them in the third person, even if your story is in the first person; I’ve seen a lot of agents talk on Twitter about not liking first person queries from the main character’s point of view. Save your first person for the other paragraphs of the query, but make it from your own perspective, not your character’s.

If you have them, your query should also have a paragraph detailing any previous publishing credits or relevant experience that you may have—if you’re writing crime fiction, say, then a background in policing or criminology might be helpful; and a book about an athlete struggling to perform may be helped by sporting credentials. Some agents say that if you don’t have any publishing credits, you can also talk here about your passion for the genre, why you’ve written that particular story—that sort of thing.

If you have a platform—a fabulously successful blog like Chuck Wendig, for example, or if you’re really JK Rowling writing under a pseudonym—mention that too.

Don’t include how long it took you to write the novel. If the timeframe is too short it flags a lack of editing; if it’s too long the book looks overcooked. Either way, they don’t need to know.

You can see Jay Kristoff’s successful query letter here (it’s an excellent example of the writer’s voice). And for a great guide to writing the story paragraphs, check out this blog.

Pages. Some agents or publishers ask for the first few pages of your MS with the initial query, or after receiving the query and liking it. The magic number is usually five or ten pages. I always assume they mean double spaced unless they say otherwise. Almost every agent and publisher I’ve submitted my MSs to asked for these to be pasted into the body of the email, under the text of the query letter (this is a basic protection against computer viruses, not because they’re too lazy to double click an attachment).

If your MS has a prologue, seriously consider sending the first few pages of your first chapter, not of the prologue itself. Many agents don’t like prologues on general principle, and they are rarely a good example of the main story’s voice.

Above all, always, always, always follow the guidelines on the website above any other advice, including mine! 😉

Synopsis. This is a document that outlines the story. Most agents and publishers give you one to two pages (here I assume single spaced unless they say otherwise), but I’ve seen some ask for three paragraphs, say, or 300 words. It’s a good idea to prepare a longer version and a shorter one so you’re ready for either.

Partial. This is a certain number of chapters or pages (50 pages, double spaced, seems to be common, as does the first three chapters)—it’s what an agent or publisher usually asks for if they’ve read your pages, query and/or synopsis and want to see more. At this point they usually want them in an attachment.

Full.  Unsurprisingly, this is when the agent or publisher asks to see the full MS. If you get to this stage, high five! Even if they don’t offer to represent or publish you in the end, you’ve still got game. Double spaced is definitely the go here, unless they say otherwise.

R&R. This is a “revise and resubmit”—the phrase they use to describe the fact they like it, but have ideas for changes to the MS they’d like to see before they offer to represent or publish you. You don’t have to do the changes, obviously, but if you don’t then your MS is still looking for a home. It’s your call.

Summary:

My biggest tip for dealing with agents and publishers is BE PROFESSIONAL. It may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many stories I’ve heard of unedited submissions, incomprehensible queries, angry tirades, people not following the submission guidelines… When a publishing professional is choosing whether to sign your book, they are also choosing whether to sign you, and the sad truth of the matter is there are so many writers out there that they don’t have to sign the difficult ones. Don’t be a difficult one.

And happy hunting!

Cassandra Page got an awful lot of practice at writing query letters before finally landing a deal. She’s actually a little embarrassed by how many queries she sent.

Cassandra Page

13 Comments

  1. A nice summary. I knew all this before, but it’s handy to see it in list format on one page.

    “Some agents say that if you don’t have any publishing credits, you can also talk here about your passion for the genre, why you’ve written that particular story—that sort of thing.” I hear contradictory things about this; some agents say it’s worst to do this, as it just sounds amateurish.

    Also – don’t know which is right – I’ve been told (though I’m not sure from which source) that synopses tend to be double-spaced. The discrepancy here is a little worrying (I’m currently trying to shorten mine from three/two-and-a-half pages double-spaced).

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    1. I can imagine as far as saying why you wrote that particular book goes, it would depend on what your reasons were. If you wrote a story about a girl with a disability because you have a child with one and you feel strongly that there’s a need in the market for that sort of fiction, that might be a plus. But if it’s “I wrote this because I really love hot vampires”, then maybe leave that out. :p It’s a good point though.

      I hadn’t seen anyone say synopses were double spaced. Now you’ve got me worried I’ve been doing it wrong all this time! Aaah!

      Seriously, this is why the overarching advice is ALWAYS FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES ON THE WEBSITE! 😉 If they don’t say how they want their synopsis formatted, and you send it single spaced, then so long as you’ve still presented it in a professional fashion I doubt many agents or editors would worry about it.

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      1. Haha, yeah. I tend to leave out stuff about me. I don’t think even taking a module of Forensic Psychology for my Psych degree would be worth mentioning in a mystery novel (as it is, that’s not the novel I will be querying, but still…).

        No, I’m pretty sure you’re the one who’s doing it correctly! I must have read something somewhere, though, since I remember consciously changing from single to double. Do you think there’s a general optimum ‘short’ wordcount for synopses, instead of 1 – 2 pages?

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  2. Thanks Cassandra, this is my goal early this year. To hit the submission trail. I have my hankies, my beer’n’pretzels all prepared for those unavoidable rejections 🙂

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