Before I get to this field guide to the rare and colorful species Literarius Agentia, known popularly as “literary agents,” allow me first to address some of the yelps that tend to arise whenever I start spelling out some of the customs and norms of the publishing industry.
- No one is going to reject you solely because of a mild faux pas.
Don’t let these guides to etiquette result in crippling paranoia. Try to get things right, do your best to know what’s customary, but don’t sweat it too much. If you’re generally ethical, well-intentioned, and diligent, you’ll be fine.
These aren’t hard and fast rules, just what is customary from one veteran’s perspective.
- It increases your odds to know the customs of the business and act professionally.
Think of a literary agent like a venture capitalist and you’re pitching a business plan. You’re asking someone to invest their time and money in your book in the hopes that it’s an eventual success. (Remember: the agent doesn’t get paid until you get paid).
Would you honestly go into a pitch meeting with a V.C. with no idea whatsoever how those normally work and a shoddy business plan? (Well. Maybe you would. But don’t.)
All about literary agent etiquette
In this post I’ll cover:
- Following submission guidelines
- Querying multiple agents at the same agency
- When to tell an agent about different nubby situations
- When to call agents or drop in
- What to do if an agent asks for an “exclusive”
- What to do if an agent wants to work with you on an edit without offering representation
- When to follow up with agents
- When you can re-query an agent
- How to handle an offer of representation
I also offer online classes with exclusive resources on finding and working with literary agents that you can take at your leisure. They will help you every step of the way!
Follow submission guidelines
No matter what you see in this post or elsewhere around the Internet, an agent’s submission guidelines trump everything.
As you’re researching literary agents, make a note of how they want to be queried and then…just do that.
Seriously. Follow them.
And as you’re corresponding with agents and other publishing professionals: practice good email etiquette.
For more general advice on how to submit to agents, check out:
- How to write a query letter
- How to personalize a query letter
- The best strategy for sending query letters
Can you query multiple agents at the same agency?
Unless otherwise specified in the submission guidelines, it’s fine to query different agents at the same agency, provided they represent your genre.
However, in order to avoid conflicts, I’d highly recommend only querying one agent at a particular agency at a given time, and waiting a bit after receiving a rejection before trying another agent. Sometimes agents share assistants who do the first pass reading queries, and it’s best if they’re not seeing the query again first thing after they just sent a rejection.
When to tell a literary agent about…
When you’re writing a query letter, it can be tricky to know when the appropriate time might be to discuss manuscripts in the drawer, other offers, your absolutely true alien encounters.
Here’s a rough guide:
- You had a previous agent – I’d mention this in the query — it shows that someone had invested in your work, even if it didn’t work out for whatever reason.
- You’re writing under a pen name – Query as your real name, but feel free to mention the pen name if you want to.
- Editor(s) at a publisher are considering your manuscript – Mention this in the query.
- You received a manuscript request from another agent – No need to mention this to the other agents.
- You are previously published or self-published – Mention this in the query.
- Your age – If you’re under 18, mention this in the query. Otherwise no need to mention.
- Your other book projects – Wait until you receive an offer of representation, then discuss how the agent would like to approach those.
While we’re at it, here’s a list of things you don’t need to include in a query.
A good rule of thumb for anything I didn’t cover above: If the information is relevant to the particular project you’re querying about, mention it in the query. If it’s a general question about your career, wait until the agent is interested.
When should you cold call a literary agent or swing by to drop off an unsolicited submission?
What to do if an agent asks you for an “exclusive”
Check out this post for how to handle literary agent “exclusives:”
What to do if an agent wants to work with you on an edit without offering representation
Check out this post for more information about how to navigate the process if an agent wants to work with you on an edit:
When to follow up with literary agents
Check out this guide to agent follow-ups:
Can you re-query a literary agent?
There are times when it’s fine to re-query an agent, other times when it could annoy them. Opinions vary greatly on this, but here are my recommendations:
If the agent passed on your query: Do not re-query with the same project, even if you end up revising your query and/or manuscript. The agent has made their decision.
If the agent passed on your partial or full: If the agent specifically asked for revisions they are expecting they will hear from you again. If they didn’t specifically ask for revisions, most agents will be open to hearing from you again about the same project if they provided specific advice and you took said advice. Whether they will ask to see the revised manuscript again is decided on a case by case basis.
Querying an agent who previously passed on your work with a NEW project: If the agent previously passed your query for a previous project, especially if it was a form rejection, I wouldn’t mention the previous query. If the agent requested a partial or full but ultimately passed, definitely mention this to them when you query for your new project.
But whatever you do, wait a month or two after receiving a rejection from an agent before querying them with a new project. There’s really nothing worse than passing on a project and then getting an immediate e-mail back about a different one. If they just passed on one work, are they really going to be predisposed to saying yes to the one that comes five minutes later?
Don’t ask an agent who passed on your work you for referrals: And whatever you do, do not e-mail an agent back and ask them to refer you to someone else or ask for query tips. If your query wasn’t quite right for them but they can think of someone else, they’re going to refer your query anyway. And no agent I know has time for personalized query tips.
How to handle an offer of representation
Check out this guide to handling an offer of representation:
Did I miss anything? Disagree with a custom? Let me know in the comments.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
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Art: Gesellschaftsszene by Hieronymus Francken the Younger