Stop obsessing about these things while querying.
Sorry, but querying 200 random agents won't improve your odds.
If you’ve been in my world for any amount of time now, you know I don’t have a shiny unicorn “I have an agent!” story. I was in and out of the query trenches with 6 books and an ex-agent from 2017 to 2022, the most exhausting—but also illuminating—years of my writer life. And as of July 2022, I am officially out of the trenches, hopefully for the rest of my life. My agent and I are the most wonderful fit, and I haven’t ever felt this excited about my future in the dumpster fire industry of publishing.
And with all that good, bad, and ugly querying experience comes a decent amount of awareness about what authors can focus on more to improve their chances, and what they can focus on less. I did a very brief Instagram post about this recently, and now I’m going to talk more about each point here.
Please remember that these tips come from my experience and mine only, and not all of them might resonate with you. And that’s okay! You are free to tell me what worked for you and what didn’t. Comment below if you’re on the Substack website or app, and hit ‘reply’ if I’m in your inbox.
So, without further ado… let’s get to it.
What querying authors don’t need to be obsessed with:
Note: These things, while definitely helpful, aren’t as important as they’re made out to be, and there are other things you could instead be spending your time on, which I’ll get to soon.
1) Comp titles
I said it, and I don’t take it back! Yes, comp titles—which are basically works that your book can be compared to—are important for sure, especially once you and your agent go on submission to publishers, and once your book needs to be pitched to readers by your publisher. But I’ve seen querying authors get frustrated and sad and demotivated when they can’t find the right books to comp to after hours, days, and weeks of heavy research.
I have three things to say to that:
You can comp your story to TV shows, movies, characters, or even music. It doesn’t just have to be books!
You don’t have to read your comp titles from start to finish, nor do you have to like them as a reader.
The wrong comp titles can make things harder for you, so this is a line you must tread cautiously.
When I was querying my desi matchmaker romcom, I pitched it as “a contemporary take on Jane Austen's EMMA with vibes of SET IT UP and HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU.” The last two, if you notice, are movies (though one is adapted from a book). These comps are… nothing special. I didn’t overthink them. I don’t even think those comps were the reason I got a good number of requests and, ultimately, two offers. I’d attribute that to my querying strategy and polished manuscript.
If I had comped my romcom to something more popular or recent just for the sake of it, hoping it would catch an agent’s eye, I might have gotten more requests, but it could have misled agents. They would have been disappointed when my book didn’t match up to their expectations.
So don’t obsess about your comps that much. Yes, they can help, but you don’t have to spend time, money, or energy trying to find something awesome to comp to. If it feels right, comp it. If it doesn’t, let it be.
2) The number of requests you get
I am probably an example of how more requests DO NOT mean more offers of representation. 54 agents asked for my full manuscript, and I ended up with 2 offers. Of course, I still feel so lucky and proud of myself! My agent is a rockstar, and I will eternally cherish her. But that huge number does mean 52 other agents read my full and didn’t love it enough to champion it. Which, let me tell you, was a serious hit to my self-esteem. Over and over and over again.
Conversely, I have multiple friends who only got ONE full request that turned into an offer. So a higher number of full or partial requests, although a good sign that your query is working, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get more offers.
My advice will always be to focus more on the things you can control (which I’ll get to in a bit) instead of arbitrary numbers like your request rate, which are super low across the board in 2022, anyway.
3) Finding more and more agents to query
I’ve seen this advice floating around on Twitter a lot: “Don’t stop querying your book until you’ve got 100+ rejections.” Which is… not my favorite bit of querying advice, because most genres don’t have 100 good agents to query. I know adult romance doesn’t, unless you query US and UK agencies, which is what I did. Adult sci-fi is another genre with a fairly small agent pool.
Some authors are so eager to find representation that they query ANY agent that pops up without vetting them or their agency. This is really dangerous! I know so many authors who’ve been burned by schmagents (shady agents who were a bad fit) and have subsequently lost the will to try again because of how traumatic their first agent experience was.
I get how tempting it is to query 150+ agents because surely one of them will love your book? But remember that querying is not just about finding an agent who loves your current book. It’s about finding an agent who loves your book and wants to champion all your writing, including this current book, for years to come. Remember those 52 full rejections I received? At least half of them loved my book so, so much. The rejections were so kind and complimentary and referenced scenes or moments from the book that they adored. One agent even said they got goosebumps at the confession of love scene at the end! But, despite all that, they just didn’t think they could champion it or my writing long-term (which is understandable!).
Try to focus on finding ONE agent who will be your champion for as long as you keep writing. One offer from the right agent is worth much more than ten offers from schmagents, or even good agents who will dump you a year later after your book doesn’t sell fast enough because they were just in it for the “quick 6-figure sale.”
Which brings me to…
What querying authors need to focus on more:
Note: These are things I strongly believe will impact your querying journey positively, but try them for yourself and decide if they’re for you. I’m not an expert by any means—just someone with a ton of awareness and experience!
1) Clear stakes in your query letter
As the founder of Write With Swati, my coaching and editorial biz, I probably critique 5 or more query letters a month. And a good percentage of them, unfortunately, end the blurb/back cover copy portion of their query with a question. “Will Ted find the mother of his future kids and the love he’s always wanted?” “Will Ross get to the airport in time and confess his feelings to Rachel?” “Will Annalise Keating’s students actually get away with murder?”
The answer is yes. You know it. The author knows it. The agent definitely knows it.
Instead, try showing what’s at stake for your characters. How will Ted/Ross/the law students’ lives be impacted if they can’t achieve that goal? What are the tough choices they have to make? Your query blurb should always show your main character’s G-M-C: their Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. This is the best way to deliver your stakes in an impactful way.
2) Querying the strongest draft of your manuscript
It’s all well and good to get your query critiqued multiple times, as well as your opening chapters. That’s what compels an agent to request your manuscript, after all.
But your full manuscript needs to be just as strong, if not stronger, than your first 3 chapters and query letter. I’m not saying you have to hire a professional editor like me—you can, if you want to and are able to; it certainly helps!—but you need to at least get a few people to read and critique your book from the perspective of someone who know the genre well, editorially. This could mean finding a critique partner who’s a fellow author, or a free/paid beta reader who has worked on tons of books in your genre.
My rule of thumb for deciding if you’re querying the strongest draft of your book (that you can write without the support of an agent) is this: if your book were to be published right now, would you be happy with it? Or would you think, “I wish I could have fixed X or Y or Z?” (If you struggle with perfectionism syndrome, this might not be the best way for you to determine the ready-ness of your draft. Try to ask your critique partners, beta readers, or editor for their thoughts!)
3) Having a querying strategy
Thankfully, most authors out there do have a solid querying strategy: personalizing your queries and batching them based on agent response times, sales numbers, request rates, and MSWLs. In case you don’t have a querying strategy, or you’re going, “Huh??” right now, then check out this handy Twitter thread for tips on how to batch your queries.
It’s important to be strategic in anything you do in life, business, work, or writing—as well as trusting your gut when it’s telling you something. However, there’s a difference between your gut telling you to query this agent right now before they close to queries, and your gut telling you to send 50 queries in three days. If it’s the latter, don’t listen to your gut. It’s wrong.
Yes, querying is really hard right now and responses come in slowly—and if they come in at all, they’re often form rejections. But no matter what, figuring out what strategy works best for you and your mental health is really important.
If you’re in the trenches, how has your querying experience been so far? Hit ‘reply’ or comment below—I’d love to know! And if you need support with your query package, full manuscript, or brainstorming a querying strategy, here’s more info.
I’ll see you next Friday.
Love hard & dream big,