Publishing · Writing

A Prayer for the Querying Novelist

“My life is a reading list.” ~ John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meaning


That was the one and only sentence in a recent manuscript for a nonfiction book proposal Bradford Lit received.  The rest of the “proposal” was included in an attachment.  Suspicious and wary of a sudden virus, I opened it only to read three pages about the author’s life, not about her work.

I could not believe it.  It boggled my mind that someone could completely disregard the submission guidelines listed on our website and assume that their query would be received favorably.  Over the past month, I’ve read multiple submissions that make the same mistake.

I can’t handle it anymore.  I must vent my frustration.

I know, I know.  This is yet another blog post to add to the plethora of blog posts out on the Internet about the importance of following agency rules when querying.  I’ve read countless such articles in my lifetime.

“Follow agency guidelines,” agents write.  “If you don’t follow the rules, I won’t read your submission.”

Harsh, I used to think as I diligently triple-checked my submissions to make sure I only included five pages or ten pages or the first three chapters or that either had to be single-spaced or double-spaced, depending on the agent.

Submissions are a hassle.  I understand.  Some agencies have online forms they’d rather you fill out, others prefer only submissions sent in email attachments, most don’t want any attachments at all, some want a 2 page synopsis, others want a paragraph.  As a querying writer, it can be dizzying keeping track of all the different guidelines expected.  But I always adhered religiously to the guidelines, terrified my query would be deleted before it was even read because the subject line of my email was all caps when it should not have been.

Now, the role has flipped and I am the one receiving these queries.  I now understand completely.

To fellow writers, let me offer you both an encouragement and a warning:

First, don’t beat yourself up agonizing over every nuance of your query.  Of course, follow the guidelines the agent has set (it shows that you do your research), but it doesn’t have to be perfect.  There’s a reason those guidelines are there—most agencies have special filters set up to weed out spam from the submissions—but if you send twenty-one pages instead of twenty, or if you send something single-spaced instead of double-spaced, chances are that we’ll still read it. Relax and take a breath.  Yes, your query is very important because it’s the first impression we get of you and your work, but it’s not the format of your submission that impresses us but the story itself.

BUT if I’m an agent looking for fantasy and contemporary YA, DO NOT send me your adult thriller or your memoir.  It astounds me how many writers gloss over the agent’s preference and submit whatever new thing they’ve written.  I can guarantee you, they don’t want what you’re offering.

Bradford Lit currently employs five agents.  On average, each of them receives between three hundred and five hundred queries PER MONTH.  They’re reading dozens of submissions a day and that’s only if they’re lucky enough to be on top of their submissions.  (I currently have 520 unread submissions for Laura that I still need to sort through.)

If you submit something that the agent isn’t even looking for (she asked for humor and women’s fiction and you sent your humorous MG manuscript), your manuscript will be passed before your query letter’s even been fully read.  In the thousands of stories that have to be read in the desperate search for good clients with a compelling story, if you don’t fit with the agent’s list, you will be passed no matter how great your manuscript is.

If a certain agent’s preferences are confusing (and some of them are!), check out Publisher’s Marketplace where you can see what that agent’s been selling.  Do your research.  Check out their #mswl tweets or their blogs.

No matter what subject your book covers, if it’s written well you can probably find an agent for it.  But save yourself (and us) the frustration.

If you’d like to read more on why agents are so persnickety, check out one of Bradford Lit’s own, Natalie Lakosil, and her take on this frustrating process.


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