Forget the Query Stage

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Last week, at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference, I was blown away by the number of fine writers with high concept books I found among first time attendees. It’s almost like they were secretly laboring in a yurt somewhere and made their debut with a ready-for-prime-time winner. I’m delighted to announce that I will be signing a nice handful of writers. Exciting! I often talk about skipping the query stage but in this case these writers skipped a number of steps.

Let me remind you again about how to take those shortcuts to getting an agent. I wrote this a while ago but it’s as true now as ever.

We get queries by the bucket load as you can imagine. Most writers don’t make it past the query stage simply because of the sheer volume of fine queries. But you can forget the query stage. Let me give you four tips that will allow you to go directly to submit your full proposal and completely forget the query stage.dreamstime_xs_51055868

  • Meet an agent or an editor at a writing conference. When you sit down with an agent or editor at a writer’s conference, that IS the query. If he or she says, “That sounds interesting. Sent it to me,” you are in. You can forget the query. You only need send the proposal and sample chapters or full manuscript. Whatever they request.
  • Meet the agent or editor at an event. Or at Starbucks. True story: I stopped at a Starbucks about a hundred miles from my home on a Friday afternoon on my way out of town. A tall, poised woman greeted me by name. She said, “My name is Yolando and I met you briefly at Mount Hermon.” Turns out she was also about a hundred miles from her home enroute to somewhere else. While waiting for our Frappuccinos, she told me about her project. Intrigued, I asked her to send it. Yes, there are those serendipitous connections.
  • Come via a referral from an existing client or author. This one is a little more tricky since you can’t just go up to one of our clients and say, “Will you refer me to your agent?” The offer has to come from the agented writer and they need to have read your work and be ready to be an enthusiastic supporter of you as a writer. I can’t tell you how many times we agents hear, “Michael Hyatt recommended you.” We know that means that the writer got our name off the list of agent names Michael Hyatt keeps on his website. A true recommendation from Michael Hyatt would be an entirely different animal. Be aware that when you say one of our clients referred you, the first thing we’ll do is pick up the phone and ask that client why he felt we were perfect for each other. More than once I’ve heard, “I didn’t refer her. she just asked me who my agent was.” Bad form.
  • Enter a contest. Contests are often judged by editors or agents. That’s how I came to represent Lori Benton. She was in a stack of contest finalists. If an agent sees stunning work, he’ll jump on it. One of the best ways to forget the query.

These shortcuts don’t work

  • Cold calling the agent or editor on the phone. Seriously. You’d laugh if you heard the breathlessly intense phone calls we get. A writer is judged by his writing. There is no way to transmit that over the phone lines.
  • Sending the unrequested proposal or full manuscript to the agent’s or editor’s email. All that says is that the sender feels somehow entitled to ignore the process. Even if the writing were stellar it’s not worth our time to represent an “entitled” writer. They never do well in publishing.
  • Mentioning a client’s name or the name of a well-known author, implying it is a referral. We check. We ask for more information. It won’t work.
  • Having your secretary or publicist call of send the proposal on your behalf. These earn an eye roll. Cold calling is bad enough but having a minion cold call? What kind of impression do you think that makes.

Have you found a way into the process that works? Have you ever been able to forget the query and get right to the manuscript? How important do you think getting to know the agent is?


37 Responses

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  1. Interesting…and immensely discouraging. Even if health permitted, there’s no way I could justify attending a conference or event, and while I do know some authors, these are friends, and the rules of friendship preclude asking for favour.
    * Which leaves contests, but there’s an entry fee for most…and even $40-50 makes a difference here.
    * Thank God for self-publishing. It isn’t much, but Kindle’s free, and when it’s all you’ve realistically got, it’s pretty important.

    • I agree with you, Andrew. Asking my author friends for that sort of favor doesn’t sit right with me personally. I’ll ask them to pray or critique my work, but asking them just doesn’t feel right. Though there are times I am definitely jealous and wish I could in good conscious ask those favors. But God has our journeys laid out, even if they are not what we expected or even necessarily wanted.
      I’m continuing to pray for you, Andrew. Self-publishing is just as important of a venue for reaching others as traditional publishing. God will make sure your books get into the right hands.

    • David Todd says:

      Yes, thank God for self-publishing.
      And God bless you, Andrew, and meet all your needs.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Kindle is better than free. It’s a way to get the message of the power of forgiveness and love to transform lives to a reader anywhere in the world. Who knows how God will use that?

    • Susan Sage says:

      I understand the financial and health constraints, Andrew. I am thankful that you haven’t allowed issues to stop putting out what God has given you to say. I just went on Amazon Kindle and found your books…didn’t know they were there. I do now and will be downloading them. Thanks for mentioning it. I look forward to the blessing God has in store for me as I read what He placed on your heart. God bless.

  2. I never found an agent despite writers conferences and queries, but my mentor, with several dozen books published, told his university press about me, and RECLAIMING JOY, my memoir on grief, is being published as a trade book in September. I was lucky.

  3. Thank you for this post, Wendy. I am very new to this whole process, with this being the first year I’ve entered contests and plan to pitch at conferences. Unless God tells me to do otherwise, I have no intention of cold querying. I want to meet agents face to face if at all possible to get a feel for them. In my mind, when you sign with an agent, you aren’t signing with a robot, you are signing with someone whom you are going to form a relationship with. You need to be able to see not only if you will be a good fit for them, but also if they will be a good fit for you. I mean, would you marry a man while on a blind date? You can learn a lot about an agent via their posts and talking to others who have worked with the agent you are interested in, but unless you can personally talk with them, there is no guarantee you would mesh. I know who I dream of representing me, but even if I cold query managed to “land me” a contract with that person, I would want to have a conversation with them–almost like an interview–to see if my dreams match reality. So my longwinded answer boiled down? I think getting to know the agent is crucial. As far as your other questions, I have no experience yet with those. Maybe in a year or two I can answer those more fully. Thank you again, Wendy. Your posts always inform and give me something to think about. God bless, and have a wonderful week. (And congrats to your new clients!)

    • Crystal, having the opportunity to meet with an agent is such a great thing. I hope you’ll be able to do that. I’m pretty sure, if you look on this site, you can find other great posts about agent-writer interactions as each determines if the other is a good fit for them.

      • Good idea. I’m slowly gathering those types of resources as I pray about next steps. Putting the “final” edits on my WIP (because do we really ever feel like it is done?) and working on planning out my next project. I have about 6 months to prepare for ACFW so I am taking baby steps to prepare and talking to those who have walked this road before me. Great advice. I will seek out those posts.

    • The best way to meet agents and publishers is by attending writers conferences. And you’ll learn how to be a better writer by attending those, too.

  4. I’m glad you found so many stellar writers at Mt Hermon, Wendy! It seems like, as with many other aspects of this business, building relationship is key for the agent-writer acquisition/working together process.
    *I shouldn’t be surprised that some writers knowingly or unknowingly try to circumvent the process. One thing I have learned is that it’s important to follow protocol when there’s one in place. This tends to get a person much further than doing things as Frank Sinatra did: “My way.”

  5. David Todd says:

    “Have you found a way into the process that works?”
    “How important do you think getting to know the agent is?”
    I’m sure it’s important, but it is not sufficient. For three years I was part of an agent’s on-line community, faithfully reading and commenting on her blog, event sharing a couple of e-mails back and forth. But when I finally had something to query her with, no response. That was a lot of effort to be greeted with silence.
    I’m glad the conference process worked for some, that they’re likely to receive representation, which significantly enhances their chances at trade publication. I went that route. Something above $7,000 spent going to conferences, which did nothing but see me $7,000 poorer. Never again. It is probably telling me my writing isn’t good enough for trade publishing. So be it.
    Thank God for self-publishing. At least it provides a platform for creative endeavors that may not be quite good enough.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      David, the message may not be that your writing isn’t good enough. It could only mean your platform is too underdeveloped or too small. It could also mean your topic is too niche to draw 5k buyers in the first 6 months. Indie publishing is an excellent option for small-niche authors, provided you can find a way to market in that niche.

    • It’s a shame you feel you wasted so much money going to conferences, David. I feel every conference I’ve attended has been worth the money, even without getting an agent by going. The workshops on writing, the speakers, the marketing lessons, and especially the connections with other writers and at least getting to meet agents and editors. The encouragement and the reminder that I am not alone in this writing business has been invaluable. Someday, when the timing is right, God will connect me with the right agent, whether it’s through a conference or from a recommendation. At least I’ve gotten to know other authors who I feel I can contact to ask if they would read and consider recommending my work to their agent. But I only feel comfortable asking because I’ve gotten to know them through conferences.

  6. Mount Hermon is the most amazing writers conference. I can’t believe I had the opportunity to go. And a week later, I’m still grieving the people and place. 🙂

  7. I agree with Shelli, Mt Hermon is such a special place, and I dearly miss being there with so many wonderful members of the writing community. The importance of conference connections (whether with agents, editors, or other writers) can’t be emphasized enough. Even those times when no one seems interested in what you hoped to pitch, there is so much takeaway still to be had. I am ever so grateful for that.

  8. Wanda Rosseland says:

    Love, love that you found those wonderful writers at Mount Hermon, Wendy.
    May God bless their work and yours as you choose new ones to agent and they send their books out to editors.

    I’ll never forget the fear and nervousness I felt as I hurried under the Redwoods to meet you there, and how you immediately made me feel like one of your family. Thank you for giving me the honor of being one of your “writers” and getting my book published. You are a gift from God!

  9. I wonder, Wendy, how much prayer was invested in each of those high-concept writers. Is prayer the power behind those ready-for-prime-time appointments?
    *(Note to self: invest in ready-for-prime-time, high-concept prayer).

  10. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Seems all the informal teaching agents are doing on blogs such as this one is paying off. Such good news.

  11. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Since it’s difficult for me physically and time-wise to get to conferences (though I’d love to), I put my extra “vacation” money toward selecting on-line classes to up-grade my writing skills. Have already done so with great results. (Re: your very own Rachelle Gardner) I was pleased with the opportunity to learn more about the writing profession in general as well as improving my skills. Saved me a lot of time by actually working with a knowledgeable business professional. Thanks for your post, Wendy–and the great Books & Such agents.

  12. Susan Sage says:

    Wendy, I think it’s great that you found so many stellar writers soon to be authors. I’m sure that’s very exciting for you as an agent and guarantee it is for them.
    I don’t attend conferences in order to get something published…if that happens, that would be great but I go to learn and grow as a writer, to make connections with other writing peeps, and to be newly inspired.
    God definitely has His hand on Mount Hermon. It’s where I met you and began learning the publishing world lingo. I look forward to seeing what new books come from these writers you found this year. I pray God blesses them and us, as the readers.

  13. S Dean says:

    Attending conferences is completely un-doable for me.

    I don’t have the spare time or money, and no childcare (my youngest is special needs).

    The whole system is incredibly discouraging, especially as the pool of agents who will look at adult sff (as opposed to YA everything else) is getting ever smaller these days.