Agent Janet Reid recently posted a rant about one of the frequent flash points in the “This process is too freaking hard” camp of agent-seekers: the personalized query. Essentially, Janet believes personalized queries are pointless.
In one sense I do agree with Janet.
Is a personalized query, by itself, proof that the author has written a good book? No.
Does it matter that an author is a good querier if the book is otherwise fantastic? No.
In an ideal world, would authors need to personalize their queries in order to find an agent? No.
Do we live in an ideal world? No.
Agents are positively besieged with queries at all times. I still receive queries to this day and I haven’t been an agent for six years. It’s a relentless deluge.
And that slush pile should really be called a sludge pile (bonus: this article examines the origins and possible connotations of “slush pile”). At least 50% of the queries I received as an agent were so far away from anything approaching publishable material I constantly wondered if I was being punk’d by an evil competitor.
When you’re dealing with that kind of volume (I answered between 50-100 every weekday), anything that makes a decision easier is a godsend. And one of the absolute best shorthands that I was dealing with a professional author going the extra mile was when a query was personalized.
It didn’t mean I liked being kissed up to.
It didn’t mean I tossed out every query that wasn’t personalized.
It just was a tipoff that I should pay closer attention to the query. If someone took the time to personalize a query they also were more likely to be the type of professional, hardworking author I wanted to work with. I’m absolutely positive this extra attention tipped me over to requesting manuscripts a non-trivial amount of the time.
Contra Janet, finding an agent is not like hiring a plumber. You, the author, are not choosing someone to work with out of the Yellow Pages (ha! Remember those? I just lost everyone under 25).
A more appropriate metaphor, I think, is that finding an agent is like finding a potential investor in your business. And if you want someone to invest in your book startup, are you going approach that venture capitalist casually? Or are you going to research them, make sure they’re a good potential fit, and dress snappily when you pitch your business plan?
Does researching an investor and putting on a suit make you a suckup? No, it’s just the professional thing to do. And just like an investor, most agents will appreciate it if you’ve done your homework.
The ultimate proof I believe in this? When I queried agents for Jacob Wonderbar I always personalized. I didn’t know Catherine Drayton prior to querying her, but I did know she represented The Book Thief and mentioned it in the query letter.
If you are going to personalize, here are some tips:
- Include the personalization at the start of the query, not the end, for maximum “hey, tipoff, I’m a professional” effect.
- Don’t fake it (yes, some people try to do this).
- Don’t overdo it. You don’t need to write a page-long ode, just a wink and a nod is okay.
- Be professional, not overly familiar. You may feel like you know someone from their blog or social media account, but if you don’t actually know them, you don’t know them.
- Build off this basic formula: “I chose to query you because [you represent X books, I saw your write X article] and [how this resonated you].” How I did this for my Jacob Wonderbar query:
As a young literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. I have long admired Inkwell, as well as your strong track record. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, if you searched for a book that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike THE BOOK THIEF (which I absolutely loved), you might just have JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, a middle-grade-and-up science fiction novel that I just completed. Still fun! But no one dies – Mr. Death would be lonely.
Authors/agents, what do you think? Do you think it helps or is it more trouble than it’s worth?
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Art: Image from The Ladies’ Home Journal, 1889
Jennifer Wills says
Agree, agree, agree! As a newer agent, I'm especially fond of personalized queries. It shows that an author has taken the time to consider whether or not I might be a good fit for them.
There are some great advantages to working with me – I'm just starting to build my list but I have five years' experience with top literary agencies. My list isn't already filled with huge bestsellers, so I have more time to devote to new clients. I'm highly motivated to sell all of my projects because I don't have a full list to fall back on. I have less baggage and am more willing to consider new authors.
But I understand authors can be apprehensive about signing with a newer agent. And, really, no agent wants to take the time to read a submission, love it, and then lose the author to someone else. So if an author can show me that they're familiar with my background and they're interested in working with me, that's half the battle.
Wendy Hollands says
Ah, this is interesting. As an Australian living and writing about Europe, I would *love* to be represented by Catherine Drayton, but presumed that being on the other side of the world would make that less likely. Just how important is agent proximity to writer then (and does audience influence this)?
Jonathan Thomas Stratman says
Thanks for the experienced personal perspective. You strike what seems a reasonable balance. Thanks.
Nathan Bransford says
Here's a post on that: https://nbrans.wpengine.com/2007/12/literary-agents-and-writers-overseas.html
Wendy Hollands says
Thanks very much, Nathan. I'll reconsider my options. Regarding the original question, I always personalise a query letter. I can't imagine not!
Rachel Capps says
Seems logical. I follow Janet so would have followed her recommendation but for your post. Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting an argument against and thank you Jennifer for posting your perspective!
JOHN T. SHEA says
I love the excerpt from your 'Jacob Wonderbar' query. Listing books one's novel is NOT like is refreshingly original!
It's good that both you and Jennifer Wills remind us that writers have more choice in the matter than they may assume, and that agents do compete with each other at times.
I would personalize a query if at all possible. And reading one or more books by authors repped by the agent in question could be a useful exercise if one really wants a particular agent.
Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale says
I'll personalise a query if I believe it will serve me well. For me, personalisation is tapping into that little extra to lift me above the others. But that little extra has to be there. I don't want to reach for straw men just so I can personalise.
I research the agents I query because I know how I want my career path to go and I want an agent who'll be more likely to support that. (Don't want an agent who loves my Romance novels but turns her nose up at my Fantasy.)
If something in my research pops out (i.e. someone's MSWL is begging for a myth retelling), that's worth personalising for.
P.S.: Jennifer, I'm perfectly okay with new agents. After all, I'm in this for the long haul and have another fifty years to go on my career.