Why You Should Only Query 6-8 Agents at a Time

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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

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    This is perfect timing — I’m working on a draft right now that I hope to query by the beginning of the new year. And I so appreciate this sound advice to give myself the best shot at success. Thank you so much! (p.s. the Guide to Literary Agents is on my list at Amazon, can’t wait!)

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  2. Chro says

    Limiting yourself to only half a dozen agents also allows you more time to research each agent, figure out why you want them to represent you, and present that in your query in order to personalize it towards them.

    If you’re sending out 50 queries at once, it’s probably an ordeal just to put their last name at the top instead of ‘Dear Agent’!

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  3. says

    Just curious (and another reason not to query one-at-a-time). What’s your take on the growing number of agents who say if they don’t respond, take it as a rejection?

    Terry

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  4. says

    Interesting article! My only question — you mention limiting your number of agents queried in case your query letter sucks, so you can tweak/adjust. Generally, I’ve seen authors query their “A” list of agents, agents they dream of, then move down to their “B” list, etc. The problem there seems to be that you’d be polishing your query for agents you’re less thrilled about. What would you suggest there?

    Thanks, again, for the post. Your guide to literary agents blog is awesome! :)

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    • says

      What I’ve heard in relation to the A list vs. B list idea is that for each round of 6-8 queries, put in a mix. 3 As, 3 Bs.

      Also, that at the end of the day, you shouldn’t query *anyone* that you wouldn’t be happy to work with.

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  5. Karen Fabre says

    I finally have some clear, logical, and dependable advise on the subject. Thanks very much and I’ll get busy and lengthen my list.

    I have another question though. I hope it is acceptable to ask it here If I’m submitting a children’s book and perhaps will write an adult novel later, would it be best to send the manuscript which is already written only to children’s agents and worry about the adult project later? I’ve only submitted it to children’s agents so far. But once I develop a relationship to one agent. I’m reluctant to go through the whole process again. Or should I go ahead and send it to people who accept both. I asked around at the NOHSCBWI conference this weekend and got the impression that it’s highly subjective and editors probably don’t care that much. What’s your opinion?

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  6. says

    @Terry It’s unfortunate, because as writers, we like closure, even if it’s a no. But if agents need to adopt this practice to be more efficient, then there’s not much we can do about it.

    @Karen You can certainly look for agents (and there are many) who handle both adult fiction and kids fiction. If you do snag an agent of any kind, just be upfront about what you want to write in the future. When I was upfront with my agent about how, along with adult nonfiction, I wanted to write both kids stuff and screenplays. She said “I don’t rep either one of those, so when the time comes, I will give you some referrals as to other agents to contact.”

    @Cathy There is no good answer here. Neither situation is desirable, so you just have to do what you will and take your chances. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

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  7. says

    Seems like a good idea and common sense to me! If something doesn’t work with X number of agents, it probably needs changing, and after, it’s possible it’ll work with the next X agents. I’ll probably try 5 at a time, just because I really don’t want to shoot myself in the foot.

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  8. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Your advice makes sense, a sorta scientific method for querying agents. In science class I learned to create a hypothesis and use the scientific method (experiments, data gathering etc.) to see if the hypothesis held up. Sometimes you find the experiments back up the hypothesis and sometimes you learn things from the experiments that make you go back and redefine the hypothesis. In this case the hypothesis would be the query and partial. Sending it to agents would be the experiment. A lot can be learned. Thank you.

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  9. Allison says

    This strategy is great, and it also reminds me of the query process Erin Morgenstern talked about in her WU interview. Sensical and useful–thanks for the advice!

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  10. says

    I unwittingly followed exactly this advice about a month ago, sending my query letter to eight agents, and then sat back to enjoy the wait. So far I’ve recieved three rejections, and I’m still waiting on the others. Something that’s occured to me since, however, is whether or not the traditional agent/publisher approach is still valid. This whole ordeal of trying to find a conventional agent and publisher seems less and less worth my time. Chapters is in Chapter 11, Barnes and Noble lives on thanks to digital sales, and Amazon saw the trend long before it hit and now they’re selling more Kindle books than physical ones. My question is, in such a rapidly evolving market, does it still make sense for a writer to go knocking on agents’ and publishers’ doors?

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  11. says

    I’d never considered the partial-only requests. While I’d figured on a faulty query leading to rejections, it’s just as important to have a buffer in which to tinker with your manuscript in case it’s rebuffed. Thanks!

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  12. says

    Great advice…I love reading your posts because you get right to the point…and I appreciate that you speak to the inner angst and questions that most of us have. :) Thank you!

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