"How do I query an agent?" is a common question I hear from prospective authors. It is one of the easiest to find the answer to and, to the frustration of many agents, something most authors completely ignore.
A query is simply a request to a prospective agent to consider you and your work for representation. It universally entails a single-paged letter and often includes a proposal for your work. Beyond that, the specific agent or agency you are sending your request to often, but not always, has additional information they would like you to submit as well. For an example of this, you can review our Submissions page.
How you craft a query letter is pretty straightforward and a simple Google search of "how to query an agent" will lead you to a multitude of examples. Some of the best, in our opinion, are here, here and here.
Your proposal, likewise, will follow an almost universally agreed upon format. The reason for this is that the majority of publishers your potential agent will work with all require the same information for purposes of considering a project for their publishing program. Hence, regardless of your agent, they will be required to submit the same basic information for the publishers to consider your work, and will require the same from you. Again, this has been covered in a multitude of places, both for free (here, here and here), as well as through highly valuable and worthwhile paid guides (here and here).
The absolute quickest and surest way to entice an agent to reject your query is to ignore the basic guidelines of a good query and proposal, or to ignore the agent or agency's specific guidelines as laid out on their website. A recent query to our agency involved a hard-copy mailing (even though our submission guidelines clearly indicate that only submissions through our email process will be considered) of a completed manuscript (even though our submission guidelines clearly indicate what to provide, and a completed manuscript is not on the list). The author did include a query letter, wherein they stated that "submitting a small segment of [the manuscript] via e-mail would not provide a proper exposition of its thematic presentation."
Here's the deal: All agents face an almost insurmountable "slush pile" of unsolicited author queries. We are all in this business because we love books, we love authors, and we love finding fantastic new ones. But we simply cannot read a complete manuscript from every author who might submit one, even if we wanted to. What's more, we can't simply submit a completed manuscript to potential publishers for acquisition. The proposal process is so well defined because it is used by everybody, agents and publishers alike. If you as a potential author cannot adequately describe your manuscript in a proposal, we can't represent it or sell it.
So if you want to be taken seriously at the query stage, follow the agent or agency's submission guidelines. Otherwise, you have an almost 100% chance of being completely ignored.
Have a question for our Ask An Agent series? You can submit it here.