Be Fruitful and Multiply

I just got back from a wonderful SCBWI-Illinois writing retreat/workshop near Lake Bloomington (I hadn’t seen that much corn since Iowa!), and I’ve had multiplicity on my mind ever since (no, not that multiplicity). Over the course of multiple days and multiple workshops, I got asked multiple questions (sense a theme here?) about best practices for queries, and I thought I’d share some of my multiple thoughts here.

  • Multiple Queries – When I first started working in publishing, we used to request that queries be made to us at an exclusive basis, as that mirrored the types of submissions that we were usually sending publishers. Now, however,  nearly all of my submissions to editors are done on a non-exclusive basis, and I expect authors and illustrators querying me to do the same. Unless you have a personal connection w/ an agent or editor (and have their direct contact info) and they’ve specifically requested an exclusive, I think you’ll be best served by querying multiple agents at the same time. I will sometimes see unsolicited exclusive submissions made to me by authors, and while I’m always appreciative to be at the top of someone’s dream list, you don’t want to be beholden to one agent getting back to you before you continue your search for representation. If you do feel compelled to submit on an exclusive basis, I would strongly recommend adding a deadline (e.g. 4 weeks from submission) so that you can move on in good faith if an agent or editor is slow in responding.
  • Multiple Approaches to Querying – I’m a big believer in using as much empirical information as you can (and it’s a challenge in an inherently subjective industry like publishing), and I first heard about this technique from Shaun David Hutchinson (author of the incredible WE ARE THE ANTS). If you’re unsure which hook/pitch is better for your work (e.g. should I highlight the thrilling narrative arc, or the emotional core of my story),  you can try using  different query approaches to the same manuscript, and see which one gets a bigger response from agents. I would try sampling 5 – 10 different agents with each query (e.g. 7 agents get Query A; 8 agents get Query B) and see if one does significantly better.
  • Multiple Offers of Representation – This is one of those good problems to have, but if you find yourself in a position when you have a pending offer of representation with queries still active and out with agents, I am grateful when authors check in and let me know right away. This can save me the frustrating experience of falling in love with a manuscript (or asking colleagues to take time out of their day for a second read), only to find out that the author has already accepted representation elsewhere. I should point out that if an author already has an offer on the table, I have to be completely enamored with the project; I know it’s going to be an uphill battle to convince an author to sign with me instead, and I have to be sure that I’m fully committed to the author and the work. (And if you’re thinking about being cheeky and pretending that you have an offer in order to generate interest in your work, it will often backfire – we tend to have a good eye for spotting this behavior, and a long memory for authors that continue to pitch projects after claiming they had serious interest elsewhere).
  • Multiple Paths to Publication – Lastly, I think it’s important to remember that there’s no one single definitive method towards finding an agent or editor. Unlike some other professions, this isn’t a field where results are guaranteed by following certain steps, and that can be a frustrating experience (and that’s probably an understatement). On the other hand, it does mean that when one route appears to be closed, there’s still plenty of other options available to authors towards reaching their goals. It only takes one YES to wipe out every NO that you’ve accumulated along your way.

7 thoughts on “Be Fruitful and Multiply

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  1. Thank you, Sean, for these querying tips. A route may close, but check out those other highways 🙂 I’m keeping your post to help me travel my writing journey.

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