Query Rules–Law or Grace?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Last week a number of you asked questions about submission etiquette. We always give a stock answer when writers ask us about how to contact an agent for possible representation. We tell them to check the agency website. Nearly all agents tell you exactly how to submit and what they’d like to see.

Today I’d like to go into this a little deeper. dreamstime_xs_29140329

For all Books & Such agents, our queries all go to a central address. When I receive a query at my working email or *gasp* on Twitter or Facebook, I send a simple form letter that says:

Please see our guidelines before querying: http://www.booksandsuch.com/submissions/

 Queries go to: [email protected]

 Thanks,

Wendy Lawton

I”ll never forget the reply to that form letter I received from a frustrated writer. He wrote: “Is something wrong with your finger? Just forward the query to the correct address instead of telling me I sent it to the wrong address. Mine is one of the greatest stories EVER told. I dont have time to waste.”

Hmmm.

Let me tell you about submission guidelines. We have them for a number of reasons:

  1. They guide a writer into the system so his query gets logged properly and read promptly.
  2. They tell us whether the writer can follow instructions. The reply I received above is a case in point. Chances are that that writer and his sense of entitlement would not make the ideal client. We look for a client who will work hard and follow direction just as that client needs an agent who will work hard and give direction.
  3. It clues the writer in to our preferences, giving the writer willing to do the research an advantage over the scatter-shot query.

That said, I’ll let you in on a secret. We try to practice grace over law. If a great writer does it all wrong and we love the writing, all is forgiven. It helps when a writer follows our guidelines but we are not sticklers. We’re not looking for submission perfection, we’re looking for great writers and excellent manuscripts. Here are a few things you should know:

  1. We do not set up the guidelines to trip anyone up. There are no gleeful chortles over each submission faux pas.
  2. We do not keep score or keep records of the writers who did it wrong.
  3. We do not hold mistakes against anyone.
  4. The submission process is meant to serve the writer and the agent, not the other way around.
  5. If you’ve submitted once and did not hear back– which is the response when we are passing on a query– you are welcome to submit your next project.
  6. We ask that you only submit to one agent at our agency at a time, but since we all have different tastes, please feel free to query another agent in the agency if the first one is not interested.

The truth is, we are looking for writers and books we love. We ask you to submit because we want to see what you have. It may not be right for us at the time but the next one may very well be the perfect match.

Do you have any questions about the submission process? I’ll be glad to tackle them.

TWEETABLES:

Do literary agents make the query system complicated on purpose? Click to Tweet

When it comes to querying a literary agent, must a writer stick slavishly to the rules? Click to Tweet

The submission process is meant to serve the writer and the agent, not the other way around. Click to Tweet

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59 Comments

  • Wendy, thank you for this. Two questions I have …

    Do B&S Agents tackle tween/young teen projects? I saw Rachel and Rachelle work with teen. But I think my work is young teen/and including younger tween. However, my 15 year old is enjoying my work, but she doesn’t like Hunger Games! Grin. My girls tend to like sweeter, gentler.

    Lastly, do you like a work to be complete before submitting?

    Thank you again.

  • This is a wonderful message, and I thank you for posting it. When unimpeded, grace flows both ways, and I hope that grace comes to you in the form of great submissions, both poised and awkward.

    I wonder if sometimes the most awkward appeals can touch us the most deeply?

    Not for their neediness – but because they illuminate a hitherto unrecognized hole in our own hearts?

  • Jeanne T says:

    I was surprised that someone would be so brazen as to make the demands he did. It’s a great example of what not to do. :)

    Thanks for sharing the reasons behind the why’s in querying. It helps to understand this. :)

    I don’t have a question at the moment, but I’m going to be reading other comments and see if any come to mind.

  • Norma Horton says:

    I don’t know about everyone else, but I thought the query process was a beneficial learning curve. Of course, anything I practice thirty or so times teaches me something…

    Seriously, I netted four interested agents and three offers of representation from the thirty queries — which were done “to the letter of the law” for each agency. (That’s the other thing: what one wants is usually different to some degree from what everyone else wants, so these are truly thirty individual packages.) But I figured a good part of this was paying my dues, so I slogged through.

    The query process also created the mindset of being a professional author. And because of the different configurations of the queries, they began to provide a sense of agency differences and the agency landscape as a whole. All in the, the process was a good one for me.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      it’s good to hear the author benefits that come from the process.

      I wish it were different and we could respond more naturally but because of the limited hours in a day, we’re stuck with the query system as it is.

  • Lori says:

    Wendy, I hope Gunther is doing better.

    I looked at Books & Such’s Submissions page and it says to send a query to “representation @ booksandsuch.com”. Does that mean I need to say in the query which agent I want to potentially represent me? Could I just send the query without determining who I want to represent me? Is one way better than the other?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      We had to say goodbye to our dog, Gunther, yesterday afternoon. Thanks for asking. It turned out to be a fast growing brain tumor instead of just a stroke.

      You can do either. Some writers put in the subject line “Query for [agent's name] and others send it without specifying. Sometimes Michelle will send a query to several of us, asking if we are interested. Sometimes a query sent to me is right in the sweet spot for one of my colleagues and I’ll forward it one to that person.

      As an agency we are very collaborative. We meet (face-to-face, online) every week and talk over potential client acquisitions.

      • Wendy, I am so sorry to read of the loss of your dog. My wife and I have a sanctuary for unwanted dogs, and every one of our residents is unique…when we lose one, the loss is bitter indeed, and undiluted.

        Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

        (I always take comfort in the fact that we’re enjoined to speak the Gospel to “all creatures”…I hope you can, too.)

      • Wendy, I too am so sorry about your dog. They are family. It hurts.

      • Sorry to see about the death of your dog.
        I love how B&S agents make communication a top priority. It obviously helps makes your business even more vital.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        I am sorry about your dog. Having lost dogs and other pets before, I cannot bear to hear it. My condolences. I pray the Lord will comfort your family at this time. That’s all I can think to say right now.

      • Lori says:

        Wendy,

        I am sorry to hear about the loss of your dog. They are family. My Blithe, who I lost in September, was my furry daughter.

      • Wanda Rosseland says:

        So very sorry, Wendy. Our animal friends are very precious to us, especially dogs. A “Woof! Woof!” for you from Gunther.
        Much love,
        Wanda

  • I’m insulted by that person for you!!!

    That being said, I love that you sprinkle your communications with grace. I know the competition is fierce, but it is nice to know that the people on the other end are kind and really looking for a great author and great work. :)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I just had to laugh. I had already seen the query and pictured this writer sitting in his dorm room with Mummy and Daddy’s unlimited checkbook close at hand. I’m guessing he’d grown up hearing how amazing he was and couldn’t even fathom how someone could not be bowled over by his brilliance. This came a long time ago and I’m guessing by now he’s grown up some.

      Those of us on the receiving end of queries and proposals are always looking for what we think is the perfect book/author combination. Our success as agents depends on our being able to spot it. So we have a lot at stake as well.

  • Joab says:

    “We try to practice grace over law”. These are words to live by, really, and after lurking here for about a month, I feel that it aptly sums up the attitude of this agency: graceful.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I LOVE your query process. And if I’m not mistaken, tomorrow will be the anniversary of the happy conclusion to my following your query guidelines. Proof that it works!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Has it already been a year? You have been a case in point– a query that made an agent salivate. And I love your story of representation because I was spot on. I don’t know how long it was between signing you and inking a three book deal but it worked like clockwork.

      Oh that it could always be like that. :-)

  • I appreciate that you are open to another submission if the first isn’t right for whatever reason. I’m sure many of us who read this blog can sigh with relief at that news. Thank you for this encouragement, Wendy, and thanks for replying to all the comments. So much wisdom today!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Actually one of the things that makes us crazy is when we’ve passed on a particular project from a writer that didn’t work for us and then we see that writer has signed with another agent for a different book we would have loved.

      We realize it is our fault for not having the time to reply that we want to see anything else or that we love the writing and the author just not that project. (But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.)

      So yes, just because we pass on one book at one particular time, it doesn’t mean we are passing on any future project or on that author.

      I wonder if writers understand that the query system is as frustrating for agents as it is for writers? How I wish I could give constructive feedback and answer each query properly but because of the sheer number of queries, it would be impossible. It’s one of the reasons we blog and try to give general feedback here.

  • I do have another take on queries.

    The first query I ever sent out was to Rachelle, at her previous agency.

    She passed, but took the time to write a few lines that were complimentary of my writing style, and of the story’s premise.

    That made a huge difference for me, and has given me hope, even now, when I’m sometimes frustrated enough to consider giving up.

    It was the only query I ever sent that drew a personal comment, and I’m so fortunate it came when it did.

  • Wendy:

    Would you say a member of this blog community has a better chance of receiving a response (even if it’s a pass) to a query than does whose name is unknown to B&S agents?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Actually the answer is yes. Anytime we recognize someone, either from this list or because we follow them on Facebook or have met them at a writer’s conference, we already have a connection. So much is based on relationship.

      We always ask that writers point to those connections as well. You might say, I met you at such-and-such conference or I follow the blog or I’m friends with [client's name]. It helps us remember where we got to know you.

      We always take a much closer look because it indicates due diligence– a writer who has put the time in to get to know the industry and to find out about our agency.

      The queries that get short shrift are the ones like one I received today. Copied to a whole list of agents and agencies (not even blind copied, we could see all the addresses) sent to the wrong email box– it’s the old scatter gun approach. Efficient, yes. Effective, no.

  • Susan Roach says:

    Wendy,

    I so appreciate you being willing to answer all these questions for us. The part of your query process that is most intimidating to me is the vision for marketing my book. Are you looking for specific social media numbers there, and if so, what’s a sufficient number? Or, are you looking more for marketing ideas – such as speaking engagements, features in local papers, etc.? How important is the marketing vision to the overall query?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      The real author marketing strategy comes in the proposal not the query. In the query you can touch on it if it’s a big part of who you are. Something like “The author posts regularly on his popular blog and is active on Facebook and Twitter.”

      As for a sufficient number (for the proposal, not the query)– that’s constantly changing. Some of the publishers are beginning to mention huge numbers. Others realize it’s not how many visitors or friends you have, it’s the level of involvement.

  • Mart Ramirez says:

    Oh, wow what a message to send! Big red flag. Wow.

  • Jan Thompson says:

    Wendy – Great post! I’m not sure why people can be so rude sometimes.

    Every time I hear an author telling people how wonderful his/her book is (“best ever” and all that), as an avid reader who has read many, many published books, I can only roll my eyes and say that 99% of the time I’ve already seen and read the same old plots. Gimme something fresh to read, something new!

    So I can’t imagine what agents have to go through when unpublished manuscripts show up on their desks with over-inflated egos attached to them. BTW “the greatest story every told” has been done – in the Bible.

    I’m a stickler for rules and guidelines, so if the time comes for me to query, I just can’t imagine not reading all the rules before I submit anything. Common sense, no?

    Wendy, I sympathize with you. Sending you virtual chocolates!

    Again, my condolences re: your dog. So sorry to hear that. Sad day indeed. May the Lord comfort in ways only He can.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Thanks, Jan.

      The nice thing for rule-followers is that you are giving the agent all the information he needs to make a decision. He can’t help but be grateful and recognize the effort.

  • Andrea says:

    Hi, I found your blog from Twitter and am so glad that you posted. I’ve been thinking about query letters myself lately. I’ve been working on a story that I love and want to share, but the query that comes to mind isn’t really standard. Does it bother you if you get a query that is different, ie. told from the character’s perspective etc. as long as it follows your guidelines?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Most agents do not want to see a “clever” query. The query is business correspondence and should reflect that. We read the query letters carefully and try to get a sense of the book, the author and the possibilities– all from a one-page query.

      When your book is done and you are ready to find an agent, write the story as back-cover-like copy– something that will grab an agent’s attention but is not quirky.

  • Karen says:

    Wendy,
    What timing on today’s post! I just “invested” $200 in a query course, and I have to say that reading your comments section pretty much sums up what I blew the equivalent of a great pair of shoes on.

    A collective thank you to all the agents who blog at Books and Such for the impact you are having on debut novelists like me.

    Now for a question: I currently have two agents reading a full that they requested. I am encouraged, since I only sent out a handful of queries to begin with. I still have a list of agents that I would like to query, but I am hesitant to do so for two reasons:
    1. I’ve heard it’s not worth sending queries between now and January.
    2. I don’t know if that would be rude to the two who are taking their time to read through my manuscript. (Although there was no request for exclusive)

    What are your thoughts?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      1. It is different with every agent. Some agencies close down over the holidays but that gives their agents time to catch up on queries, proposals and manuscripts. Other agencies don’t even look at email during the holidays. But if it sits in an inbox it will be there waiting come the first week of January, or if you wait to send it in January it will go into the queue. No one flushes emails at the end of the year and starts over, happily enough.

      2. Asking to read a whole manuscript is a big commitment for a time-challenged agent so it is nice to let them know you’ve had more than one request. It will also light a fire under them and speed them up. :-) And no, it is not rude to contact a number of agents at a time. Everything moves so slowly it makes sense to do some things concurrently. Since you’ve had some serious interest you know you are on the right track. Now is the time to get something out to your top choice agents.

  • Certainly, I want to give a potential agent the impression that I can read as well as I write.

    Wendy, I think our beloved pets will greet us at Heaven’s gate–a tail-wagging “welcome home!”

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s it in a nutshell, Shirlee.

      And about our dogs. . . all I know is that our Lord has a tender heart and I trust him to sort things out. I loved Randy Alcorn’s book, HEAVEN. The best there is on the subject, IMO. (If I remember correctly, I believe Randy makes a case for our pets in heaven.)

  • Thank you for this helpful post, it clarified a couple of questions I was mulling.

  • Wendy – so sorry to hear about Gunther. I have a question about queries. The instructions state that a writer should indicate that their query has only been sent to one agent. However, since projects that are passed on do not receive rejection notices, how long would be appropriate to wait to submit to another agent?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I believe the time frame is thirty days. The letter you receive back from us upon querying will give you the exact number of days.

  • Elaine Manders says:

    Wendy,

    Thank you for affirming what I’ve always believed, that agents are as eager to find a great manuscript as we writers want to write it. I think all my questions have been answered.

    Great Post.

  • Karen says:

    Wendy – as a follow up to my earlier question, once an agent is in process of reading a full, should I sent an email to the other agents I have queried but not yet heard from, or is that being pushy?
    Not that I am getting ahead of myself here, but I would hate to move forward with one agent before knowing if one of the others I submitted to may be a better fit for me and my project.

  • Annie says:

    Thanks for this helpful post Wendy. I am working on a devotional and a memoir. How many pages should I have for each before sending in a query?

  • David Clark says:

    “Grace Over Law” describes the manuscript I’m peddling. Mind if I steal it for a title? ;-)

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