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This column excerpted from my book, the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (Writer’s Digest Books), the biggest database anywhere if you’re seeking a literary agent.

One of the most common questions I get at writers conferences is this: Can I query multiple literary agents at once? My answer is that not only yes you can, but you’re encouraged to. After all, though an agent will usually reply quickly (bless you, e-mail), they may take three whole months to get back to you, only to send you a form rejection. You can’t wait around for agents one by one like that.

So if you’re contacting various agents at the same time (“simultaneous submissions”), how many agents should you query? Would it be wise to just mail out your query to all 50 agents who rep science fiction, trying to personalize your letter wherever possible? I wouldn’t, if I were you. I would submit to 6-8 at a time, including those you’ve met at a writers conference or retreat.

(By the way, when you’re ready to submit, check out these lists of numerous agent interviews: fantasy agents, science fiction agents, general fiction agents, horror agentsnonfiction agents, middle grade fiction agents, and young adult fiction agents.)

But why 6-8? Isn’t that a strange arbitrary number?

I say 6-8 because I want you to protect yourself. My question to you is this: What if you submit your query to all 50 agents on your master list, but — heaven forbid — your query letter sucks? Every agent will turn you down and you’ll have hit a brick wall at the beginning of your journey. Instead, submit to a limited number of agents and gauge a response. If you submit to 7 agents and get 7 rejections with no reps asking to see more work, then guess what? Your query sucks. So edit your query letter. Overhaul it. Give it to friends, beta readers, and/or a professional book editor for a look. Protect yourself.

Taking this approach one step further, let’s say you send your polished query to 7 new literary agents, and get 4 responses asking for more work. Congratulations — your query letter is doing its job. But let’s say that none of those 4 agents who see a partial ask to read your full manuscript. Guess what that means? Your first few chapters aren’t up to snuff. Revise them. Overhaul them. Give the chapters to friends for a blunt critique.

The message is this: If you’re not progressing as you hope, try to identify where you’re going wrong so you can improve on it as quickly as possible. Protect yourself. Give yourself the best chance of success in finding a literary agent.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s kizette

About Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. Connect with Chuck on Twitter or at his website.