Molly Lyons of the Joelle Delbourgo Literary Agency on the questions agents wish you’d ask yourself before you send a query or a manuscript:
As an agent, I see proposals and manuscripts at all stages. Some of them are just a glimmer of an idea hidden inside a lot of text; some are polished to a gleam, ready to be sent out to publishers. Often it’s difficult to see the potential in the projects I’m sent because their authors haven’t asked themselves a few crucial questions.
So before you press the “send” button (or address that SASE), take a few minutes to answer the following. It may help your query shine – and get you an agent. Or it may convince you that there’s a better way for you to go.
- What’s my end goal? Securing a publishing contract with a big publisher is only one way to get your story out into the world. If your aim is to, say, record your family history for future generations, self-publishing may make the most sense – and you don’t even need an agent for that. If you already know your core audience is a narrow interest group that congregates on a few websites, then it may make more sense to find a digital way to distribute your work. Again, no agent needed.
- Who is my audience? Sometimes this is easy to answer — men with heart disease, for example. At other times, it’s trickier to know where your manuscript fits in. But if you can’t figure it out, it’s going to be that much harder to attract an agent. Spend some time researching those books and how to reach those readers before you send out your query.
- How can I reach my readers? Finishing a manuscript or a proposal is an accomplishment in itself, but unfortunately, it’s only part of your job as an author. You’ll also need to know how to effectively market and publicize the work once it’s on the shelves. This ability, known as your “platform,” is the first thing publishers measure after the book’s description. No one expects a first-time author to have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, for example (though it can’t hurt!). But make some efforts to reach out to potential readers before you send a query to an agent. A potential client who is at the very least aware of the need, and ready to take on the challenge, of building a platform will get a second look.
- Has my manuscript been read by sharp critics? Query letters that tell me the novel was written in three months, or that I’m the first to read it, make me wary from the start. Sure, the proposal or manuscript may have been proofread by a friend or spouse, but has someone objective looked at it with a critical eye? Your work is personal, but it has to stand up to challenges at every stage. A trusted, critical reader can help point out weaknesses so you can submit the most polished manuscript possible.
- Have I done my homework? I get endless queries for horror, thriller and romance novels despite the fact that our website shows I don’t represent horror, thriller or romance novels. I know it’s tempting —especially in the age of email queries — to say, “Why not? You never know, maybe this thriller will be the one for her,” but in the end, it just will mean one more rejection for me to write and for you to get — and no one likes rejection. Each agency has different guidelines, and most agents have websites or carefully fill out their profiles in agency listings. You should always check them out to see how they like to receive queries. When I find a query that is well written, thoughtful and thorough, it’s like finding a piece of buried treasure in my inbox.
Molly Lyons began her career as a magazine editor and writer, which informs her approach to agenting — from developing manuscripts and proposals to positioning clients in the marketplace and helping shape their careers. Molly is interested in strong voices, stories that tell universal truths in highly personal ways, and entertaining books that offer solid information.