Query Etiquette: Lessons I’ve Learned From Literary Agents

Written by Sheritha Singh | November 30, 2016

Sixteen years ago I received a request for a full manuscript from UK literary agent Laetitia Rutherford. The manuscript was my first serious complete work of literary fiction and I was blinded by excitement. Ms. Rutherford was kind enough to send me line edits on the entire manuscript. She even called me from the UK to discuss ways in which I could improve the manuscript. I sent out the full as requested and waited. A week later I emailed her asking her if she’d managed to read my second draft. And when she didn’t reply I sent out more and more emails. Most agents post their general response times on their websites – something I didn’t check. If I had, I would have only nudged the agent after the time specified on the website.

I was guilty of one of the biggest mistakes many writers commit when querying their work with literary agents or editors – forgetting that literary agents, like many other professionals, are busy people. They also have clients far more important than the newbie, querying writer. In fact I was lucky to have even received a response from the agent. As writers we focus our time and efforts on drafting the perfect query letter that showcases our work and professionalism. The professional relationship continues long after the agent requests a partial or full manuscript or chooses to represent the author.

Jessica Faust of Bookends Literary Agency posted on her blog an incident of one writer threatening to send his manuscript to another agent if she didn’t respond within a given time period – she gladly allowed him to do so.

Threatening an agent or editor in the hopes of garnering a quicker response doesn’t work. I learned that the hard way – when Ms. Rutherford politely informed me that she also had other clients to promote, clients who had far more publishing experience than I did. She also sent me a form rejection.

Since then I have researched the common pet peeves that agents have. I am an avid follower of literary agents’ blogs and a fan of their pages. While agents and indie publishing house editors encourage writers to promote their work on social media platforms, there are a few things they prefer remain private. Rejections are one example. Posting about your rejection from an industry professional on social media is a definite no. Mentioning the agent or editor in your post or trashing them will only harm your writing career. Some agents do request links to social media sites and also go through your posts. The only exception to mentioning an agent or editor on social media is during a live Question and Answer session or a pitch war – in which case they may reply with a request for a partial and submission guidelines. Stalking an agent is also on the list of definite no’s.

Sending back a rude response to an agent or editor who rejected your work will only damage your reputation. A general rule in the querying world is to not respond at all to rejections. Industry professionals know each other and often talk to each other at conferences or events and, share their experiences with writers and querying writers. They also talk to their clients – the publishers. Publishers and editors do not want to work with someone who is difficult. If advice on improving the manuscript accompanied the rejection – appreciate it and use it. Remember many agents and editors have been in the publishing business for years and they have a pretty good idea of what sells and what doesn’t.

Agents and editors are people with different tastes and expectations, which is reflected in their requests. One may request a partial manuscript in the font courier new, while another may request you only pay attention to line spacing. A few may even request a hard copy. Each individual request must be respected. It’s no use complaining to an agent or editor that another agent or editor had no problem with your formatting. Instead writers should be prepared for requests that may require a full bio, links to websites or social media platforms or, a detailed resume.

Another rule when querying your manuscript is to only query one manuscript at a time. If you are querying multiple agents or publishers, you will have to let each one know – especially the agent or editor that requests your manuscript. It is also polite to let other agents or editors know if you have received an offer of representation or publication. Remember the publishing world is a thriving industry that requires professional and hardworking writers who are willing to learn and grow.