I’m officially back in the query trenches! I’ve got a brand-spanking-new YA fantasy ready to go, and I’d dearly like to get a literary agent for it.

It’s harrowing! It’s nerve-wracking! I’m anxious!

And, well, that’s a lot of emotional energy. I just sent out my first batch, and… hey, it looks like most could respond any time between now and August. And since that’s a long time to be anxious, it’s time to distract myself!

…By writing a post about querying. This might not be the best plan. But screw it, let’s talk about how I find agents to query.

Step #1: QueryTracker is life.

QueryTracker logo.I’ve looked for agents a ton of ways–I’ve used Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and their website, gone to a ton of websites, searched through forums… But my absolute favorite tool, and the one I use almost exclusively these days, is the QueryTracker website.

It’s glorious. With a free account, you can find agents, track who you’ve applied to, and get basic statistics. (With a paid account, you can track multiple books and get access to the really awesome statistics–like the absolutely glorious data tracker.)

And it’s simple to find agents:

  1. Go to Agents > Search for Agents.
  2. In the right column, under “Advanced Search Features,” find the “Select A Genre” drop-down menu.
  3. Select your genre.
  4. Click “Hide agents who are closed to queries.” (This will be above the Advanced Search area.)

That’s it! A list of agents in your genre will appear on the page.

Step #2: Sorting through the QueryTracker results.

Now, don’t get too excited: you can’t query all of these people.

What are we looking at, and why can’t we query all these people?

You now have a list of agents who might represent your genre. Might. Maybe. But even if they’re all viable agents in your genre, you can only query a subset of them.

First off, an agency may have multiple agents in your genre. This is tricky! Some agencies let you query all their agents (as long as you let each agent reject you before going to the next) and some have a strict policy of “A no from one of us is a no from all of us.” So you’re going to have to choose one person per agency, at least to start–and possibly one person per agency, period.

And that’s assuming that you could query any of the people in that agency. You see, even though QueryTracker gave you a shiny list of potential agents, they still might not be appropriate for your book. An agent might represent fantasy, but they might only be looking for urban fantasy. And if an agent represents multiple age ranges, they might not represent your genre at all–I’ve seen a few agents that are listed under young adult and fantasy, but who only want contemporary young adult and adult fantasy.

So how do you deal with all this?

Research every agency.

Let’s say that you’re looking for YA and your QueryTracker search results include a boatload of agents from Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You now know you have to start with one of them. But who?

  1. In QueryTracker, click on any agent’s name from that agency. It doesn’t matter who.
  2. You’ll end up on that agent’s page. In the far left column you’ll find that agent’s email (if known), the agency’s website link, and some other information.
  3. Click on the agency’s link.
  4. Now you should be at the agency’s website. Every agency website will include a page about the agents and a page about their submission process. Start by finding their list of agents. (For the above-mentioned Andrea Brown Literary Agency, that page is here.)
  5. Read every agent’s bio. What are they interested in? Do any of them actually seem appropriate for your book? Out of all of these agents, who seems like the best fit for you?
    1. Optional: This is also a good time to check out #MSWL, a promising agent’s Twitter account, or your good ol’ friend Google. These might help you learn whether your story is a good fit for them.
  6. Write down the agents who seem most appropriate. But do you have to choose one or can you query one, wait for a rejection, and query the other? Let’s find out!
  7. Read the agency’s submission guidelines. You’ll have to dig for that page, too, but you can usually just look for a “Submissions” button. Here’s Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s submission guidelines.
  8. Now you have decided which agent to query first. You also know how to query them! Return to QueryTracker.
  9. Go back to Agents > Search for Agents. Find the agent you decided on.
  10. To the left of their name (and left of the “Query Status” column), there will be a single, unmarked checkbox. Check that!
  11. This will add this agent to your “My Query List,” which you can view by clicking “Queries” in the top navigation.

Phew! Now you have this agent on your to-query list.

Now do that again. And again. And again.

Step #3: Keep track of your submission guidelines.

Before you actually query someone, it can be helpful to know what to prepare. Submission guidelines are tricky. What do they want? A query? A query and 5 pages? A query and 10 pages? A query, a 2-page synopsis, and the first chapter? A query, a 1-page synopsis, a biography, and… OK, you get the point. It varies.

And if you want to make querying as easy as possible, you probably want to know who wants what ahead of time. There are a few ways to do this.

Option #1: Use QueryTracker

QueryTracker has a few tools to help you track your data.

  1. Go to “Queries” In the top navigation.
  2. You should see a list of all the agents you want to query. (If you don’t, click on the “Advanced Search” tab in the right column and click “Outstanding Queries.”)
  3. You can see who you queried, when you queried, how many days your query has been out, and a ton of other things. For now, find the “Query Details” column.
  4. The second icon in that column (which will be grayed out) is “Add a Note for this Query.” Click on that.

This creates a private note that only you can see. You can track your submission guidelines there (or anything else you want to.)

Option #2: Keep that information on a file on your computer.

I know this is a little low-tech, but I track all my agent research on QueryTracker AND in an Excel file on my computer.

I love my Excel tracker. I write down the agent’s name, what materials they want, and any special notes about what they’re looking for. And since this is Excel, I can see all this information in columns, side-by-side, at a glance.

This is especially fun for keeping track of stuff like “What version of my query I used” and “When the agent should respond by (if ever.)” You can track that stuff in QueryTracker, but only in your private notes. And the stuff in your private notes aren’t visible on your My Queries page, or sortable, and you can’t see them at all unless you open them one at a time. So I use Excel so I can see those extra details without digging.

Step #4: Get your materials ready.

So what do these agents want? You have to make a query letter. But what else? Do you need a synopsis? Do you need a bio? Do you need an ultra-polished, Standard Manuscript Format-formatted version of 5 pages? 10?

Get all that stuff ready.

Step #5: Enjoy querying!

And now you’re good to go. Look at your list, decide who to query in what order (or, hey, go into QueryTracker and assign each agent a Query Priority. It’s under the “Query Details” tab!)

Go back to the submission guidelines for that agent’s agency. Do everything they ask. Send the right materials to the right agent.

Then wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I like to use QueryTracker (or my friendly local Excel file) to track the agency’s estimated response times. Did they say that they respond in 6 weeks, and no response = no? Or  was it “We’ll respond to everything within 3 months”? Write that down.

Then you, too, can settle in for the long haul. And you, too, can write random blog posts to keep your mind–unsuccessfully–off the realization that you’ll be waiting a long time.

So, yes. I guess I’m saying that I’ll probably post a lot more about querying these next few months. You might as well prepare yourself.

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Within the writing world, you sometimes run into people who are obsessed with finding The Best Idea Ever. These are the folks who write posts like:

  • I’m terrified to talk about my story because someone will steal my idea!
  • I have an idea for a story that’s so good that it’s guaranteed to get me an agent!
  • I keep abandoning stories because I want to find The One Idea that is guaranteed to be a success!
  • And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “I’m an idea person, but I hate writing, so I think someone should write my idea for me and split the profit 50/50!”

These people believe the idea is all that matters–that their idea will get them published or that their idea is worth something. Sometimes you even encounter writers who are afraid to write at all until they hit on the best idea.

And all these people are getting hung up on the wrong thing. A good idea won’t get you published.

First thing’s first: having a good idea for a story DOES matter.

Ideas aren’t completely worthless. It is good to start with an idea that’s unique or underrepresented in some way. A fantasy that involves a dumb barbarian, an archer elf, and a drunk dwarf on a quest to destroy the Lord of Darkness is probably extremely cliche. Everyone on earth has already seen Harry Potter, and there are now two decades of “So-and-so is a [fantasy creature], in [fantasy creature] school!” stories. Overdone ideas are hard sells.

Does that mean they can’t sell? No, of course not. That’s the whole point of this post!

And if you have a unique, interesting twist for a story, then awesome! That’s a great starting point, and it may very well help you sell your story.

So that’s good! But it’s not enough. That one beautiful idea won’t get you published. And even if your idea is kind of overdone? That doesn’t mean you won’t be.

You see, I have an absolutely shocking truth to share with you.

What actually gets you published is the quality of your writing.

Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t warn you! You should have been sitting. I’m sure you’re all beside yourselves with shock now. It’s all right. Take a moment. Relax. Let that settle in.

Yes, unsurprisingly, the thing that agents actually care about is the quality of your writing. And “writing,” in this case, refers to the five zillion skills any talented writer has to juggle. Grammar? Absolutely. Excellent word choice? Yes! But also pacing, plotting, characterization, and an understanding of the genre they’re writing in. And more! Writing is complicated!

And let me tell you: good writing can make anything good.

I’m sure you can think of books that are popular, that have a lot of readers, and that have an extremely common story at its core. Heck, just look at the entire trend of fairy tale retellings: yes, they’re generally a mixup of Common Fairy Tale + Interesting Twist, but part of the challenge of that genre is taking a familiar story, with familiar themes, and making it new.

A really good author can take an idea that you’ve seen a million times and make it genuinely engaging. Their characters are just that dynamic, or their worldbuilding that gripping, or their tension that absolutely page-turning. If you reduced their story to a one-sentence summary, it might not sound like a completely groundbreaking concept–but it’s still good.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: a bad writer can ruin a good idea.

So you have a really awesome concept. That’s great! But maybe your characters are flat. Maybe your pacing is terrible, and you spend thousands and thousands of words on scenes where no one learns anything and nothing happens. Maybe you struggle with words, and your story is riddled with grammatical errors and strange word choices.

No one–no agent, no publisher, and no reader–is going to say “Well, the underlying concept is cool, so I’m going to read this absolute mess of a book anyway!” It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to find an agent, a publisher, or if you just want to self-publish. A good idea is not going to give you a golden ticket to success if you don’t have the writing skills to back it up.

For that matter, two people can start from the same idea and write totally different books.

And if you’re one of those souls who worries that someone’s going to steal your ideas, stop. Just stop. It’s fine. Idea theft generally isn’t a thing, but even if it were, it doesn’t matter.

A villain could steal your complete and final draft and do harm to you, sure. (That also doesn’t really happen, but whatever.) But no one can really steal an idea.

And that’s because of what I said above–an idea fits in a few paragraphs. A story may be 100,000 words. Can you just imagine how many decisions someone has to make to write 100,000 words? You have to write dozens and dozens of scenes. What happens? In what order? How are those events described? What details are included? Which aren’t? What characters are in those scenes? How is the world set up? How is the tension described?

I mean, just look at writing prompts! Do you think everyone who uses the same writing prompt ends up with the same idea? I attended a writing group just this weekend where everyone wrote about “Two people meet for breakfast.” We ended up with a paranormal fantasy, a thriller about someone getting kidnapped, and a romance about two old flames. Do you genuinely, sincerely think that two people can write two stories that even vaguely resemble each other unless they’re working from a full-novel outline and the same batch of character/worldbuilding notes?

And no, of course they can’t.

In the end, good ideas are nice. But it’s only your writing that matters.

That’s basically it.

Your agents, publishers, and readers are not going to settle down with their Kindle and read your ideas. They’re reading a novel. And in the end, that matters: your writing. Your skill. Your craft.

So don’t let yourself get hung up on ideas. They’re the sprinkles on top of the cake–but they don’t do you a ton of good if you don’t know how to bake one.

A Justice Unending email ad.

You can use someone else’s mailing list to send book deals directly to someone’s inbox! But does it work?

So, let’s be honest. I don’t know anything about marketing a book.

This is decidedly Not a Very Good Thing, because I happen to have a book published by a small press. But–and this is the part where I admit my very embarrassing life lessons to the internet, where it will be engraved in stone and never forgotten, ever–I didn’t really know what to expect. I threw poor Justice Unending to the winds, figuring I’d figure out what was working as I went, based on whether I was selling books or not.

Consequently, I’ve been learning as I go. If I sell anything, I did something right. If I didn’t, then I did something wrong. This is an advertising trial by fire, and I’ve done a lot of not selling books as I’ve figured myself out.

So here are my lessons. I had (and have!) no idea what I’m doing. But if I can figure it out, you can figure it out. Let’s do this thing!

This week, I’m going to talk about my experience with mailing lists.

What are they?

There are a lot of book-related mailing lists. People sign up to get ads for books they want to read. You, the author, pay for the right to send an ad to the thousands of people on these lists.

These are usually discount lists, so they only promote books that are on sale, under a certain price, or free. People don’t sign up for these just so they can be advertised to, after all–they want a deal!

What did I use?

I bought ads in two services:

*Note, GenreCrave seems to do its genre-based mailing list work through BookRebel now. I know nothing about this because that was not the case when I used them back in November 2016.

What did I get?

I got:

  • A brief, one-paragraph pitch
  • A picture of the cover
  • A link to a sales page (normally the Amazon page)
  • One promotion to the mailing list
  • (GenreCrave only) Posting on the website under the genre-specific list

For GenreCrave, I chose the very small (and very cheap) Steampunk & Dystopian list. For Bargain Booksey, I chose the much larger Fantasy & Paranormal list.

How easy was it?

These are super easy.

  • Do a little research. There are a lot of these out there. You want one that reaches a lot of people for a reasonable price.
  • Then just choose a day and pay them.
  • You’ll probably need to write a summary and send them links and a cover image.

That’s it. No learning required. No work needed on your end. Just throw money at a list and they will mail it out for you.

How well did they work?

This is mildly complicated:

  • They were good for getting purchases on a single, specific date.
  • They were not good for getting a lot of purchases.
  • They were not good for getting ongoing purchases.

So, here’s what I noticed: on the days my ads ran, I did get a few purchases. However, I got very few purchases. While you can’t tell where your Amazon purchases came from and I actually don’t have 100% of my sales data for the Bargain Booksey sales period yet, I’m going to guess that both of these got me only between 1-3 sales.

In terms of sales, that’s not great. Neither of these recouped their costs.

However, that’s not necessarily bad, because those sales all happened on a 1-2 day period. And that might have a rather specific use.

So what do I think?

One or two sales isn’t very good. And while there are always variables (did I write terrible promo text? Did I choose a bad day?), I can’t imagine that a one-day, one-time email will ever result in ongoing sales.

But I do think mailings lists have a use. Just a very specific one.

Your Amazon sales rank–and thus your position in Amazon bestseller lists–is a very fluid number. Selling just one copy can rocket up your sales rank. That rank will go down  every day you don’t sell a copy, and it’ll shoot up every time you sell another one.

So you don’t need to sell a large volume of books for your Amazon sales rank to go up. You could hit the top of some genre bestseller lists with a relatively small number of sales–they just have to happen close together.

And mailing lists are good for this.

So, based on what I saw:

  • It’s not a very good technique if it’s all you do. A mailing list, by itself, will not result in enough sales to mean anything.
  • But it is helpful as part of a marketing campaign that focuses on a specific date.
  • And it could be helpful if you want to get a high rank on an Amazon bestseller list.

So a good one, chosen on a specific date, might be a great choice for, say, your launch date! Or your relaunch date! Or a sale when you’re doing a lot of other ads!

But if you’re brand new at marketing and really want to get your book out in front of eyeballs, or you’re starting from scratch–like I was!–I wouldn’t suggest doing these and nothing else.

I didn’t make my money back on either of these ads. I didn’t even come close! And they didn’t seem to give me any ongoing benefit–I didn’t gain followers, see traffic on my websites, gain book reviews, or see an increase in shelved books on Goodreads. I saw literally 1-3 sales around the date I placed my ads, and then nothing.

So if you’re trying to use your marketing dollars carefully, I probably wouldn’t start with these–or at least use them without a specific goal in mind.

Got a science fiction/fantasy novel that’s more or less ready to pitch? Hodderscape, the SFF branch of the publisher Hodder & Stoughton, is accepting unagented submissions between August 3 and 16:

Open Submissions: The Guidelines! | Hodderscape

They even mention in the comments that it doesn’t have to be finished. (Although goodness gracious, that sounds like a terrifying and intimidating idea.) They don’t even require a query, just some basic information, a 2-page synopsis and the first 3 chapters (or 15,000 words, whichever you prefer).

And, better yet, it appears to pass the Absolute Write test of “Hey, is this a good opportunity?”

I’ve been a huge fan of Writer Beware for years and years. So here’s their 2014 year in review!

Writer Beware®: The Blog: 2014 in Review: The Best of Writer Beware

I’ll have a more substantial post for next week!

Guys. I am so excited for Pitch Wars. So. Excited. I can barely stand it!

Photo that reads 'Pitch Wars 2014! Submissions August 18, Agent Round November 4-5. www.brenda-drake.com, @brendadrake/#PitchWars.

Hotlinked from the Pitch Wars blog.

Pitch Wars is one of those legendary events. I’ve never participated before, but I’ve watched people get super-duper excited about it. And now it’s here again, and at the very best of times!

Pitch Wars is an event for authors with 100% completed, ready-to-pitch manuscripts. On August 18 (just a week from now!), you send your query and first chapter to your top 4 mentors. If you get chosen, they’ll spend the next two months editing your query and manuscript in preparation for the November agent round. The agents then review the newly-edited queries and manuscripts. You can read more about it on the Pitch Wars blog.

So now–right now!–people who want to participate have to make sure their query letter and first chapter are ready to go. They also have to review the list of mentors and find the four best suited to their work.

There are resources galore. All the mentors seem to be on Twitter, where they’re answering everyone’s questions. There are video interviews with the mentors, too! (Check out the MG and the first and second YA/NA ones!)

And the timing is so perfect.

My YA fantasy, Justice Unending has had a complicated life. It was written, polished, and pitched. That didn’t pan out. After a great deal of reflection, I did some major restructuring, changed 1/4 of the story and one character, and went on a beta crusade. After being encouraged by a lot of praise and some relatively minor recommendations, I used AW’s mighty Share Your Work board to craft a much better query letter. And now, after all that work, I finished my last copyedits… last week.

My original plan was to pitch it next month. Obviously, Pitch Wars is moving the timeline up a little.

And I am totally ready for this. Here’s hoping for the best!

Oh man, this is both fascinating and terrifying. I read the whole darn thing:

IamA riches-to-rags thriller author whose first two novels got $500,000 in contracts in 2009 and sold so poorly all my publishers dropped me. Since then, I’ve written four e-books in my garage that have sold a combined 263 copies on Kindle. AMA! : IAmA.