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10 Tips to Query Literary Agents—Successfully!

Once you write a book proposal, it’s time to query literary agents, the folks who will pitch—and sell—your book to publishers.

Here are 10 tips to help you get to “yes” from those agents you query:

  1. Have the book proposal finished and ready to go. There’s nothing worse for killing momentum than getting a big yes, only to have to scramble for days to get the proposal in shape. Even worse is sending a proposal with typos or that isn’t completely polished. You want to make your best case. You usually only have one chance with each literary agent. Have a book proposal coach or editor edit your proposal before sending out queries.
  2. Do your research. Query only agents who are a good match and looking for books in your genre and subject. Resources include PubMatch and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents.
  3. In your query, address why you chose that particular agent. Perhaps it’s because of one or more books they represented (excellent research!) or the type of books they represent overall.
  4. Only send the proposal once requested. If you meet at a conference and they invite you to send a proposal, great. If a friend introduces you and the literary agent requests your proposal, also great. Otherwise, you’ll need to start with a query letter and no book proposal.
  5. Put “Requested Proposal for x” in your subject line. That way, you will avoid the dreaded slush pile. You can include the name of the conference where you met if you met in person.
  6. The literary agent panel at Harvard Medical School’s CME publishing course

    Make sure they receive your proposal (once they’ve invited it). If you don’t get a confirmation of receipt from the agent, feel free to follow up in a couple of weeks to say you are making sure they received the proposal. Often, they missed it and your follow up can bring your proposal to the front of the queue.

  7. Let the agent know whether you are sending the proposal to other agents and how many, when you send the proposal to them. I tend to limit it to somewhere between 2 and 4, usually on the lower end. Sometimes I give an agent an exclusive for the first few weeks, if that agent seems a particularly strong match for the book and author. You don’t want to waste a busy agent’s time with a proposal so many agents are reading. And you should do your homework ahead to know who your top choices are. In addition, if you only query two at a time, you may get valuable feedback from an agent who passed on the proposal. You can use their concerns and feedback to improve the proposal for the next round of queries.
  8. If you hear from an agent and are interested in hearing from others you queried, let the other agents know that you have received an offer of representation from another agent and would like to know if they are interested. Often agents will move quickly to complete their reading and get back to you with a yay or nay.
  9. Have your list of questions to ask a literary agent at the ready. Ask these questions to help ensure the best match for your book, your needs and your style.
  10. Look for an agent who is passionate about your book. Their passion will rub off on publishers and can even generate a more significant advance, in addition to a book deal.  A big name agent may delegate your book to an assistant. And there are plenty of smaller agents who get excellent, six figure book deals for their clients. In my experience, it’s their passion and commitment to a project that predicts success. When an agent wrote me a note and called me the next day to tell me why she would be the best agent to represent a particular book and then offered to meet the authors in New York City in the coming week, I knew she was more passionate than anyone else and would sell that book well. Indeed these first time authors with a modest platform got a six figure book deal!


Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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