(This column excerpted from Chuck’s latest book, GET A LITERARY AGENT, which was released in January 2015 and is available anywhere books are sold. Comment on this within 2 weeks for your chance to win a copy of the book. A winner will be chosen at random.)
I’m a big student of query letters. I collect successful ones to share with aspiring writers. I compose roundup blog posts full of query letter tips. And I’ve probably edited more than a thousand of them over the years at writers’ conferences and on my own. All in all, I’m a big fan of a great query, and I know that an amazing letter is your first key tool to getting agents interested in representing you.
But that said, I also know full well that writing a fantastic letter is extremely difficult, and some writers just have trouble with this step of the submission process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer say, “Writing a query seems harder than writing the book itself!”
So, for a moment, let’s just say: Forget the query letter. Forget it. Just throw it out the window—and let me tell you about 4 side doors to getting an agent.
While submitting cold query letters through an agency slush pile is the most frequent way writers find their agents (and therefore should be taken seriously and not ignored), it is by no means the sole way to get your work in front of agents. There are four other acceptable routes you can use. In fact, a certain percentage of agents in publishing actually close themselves off to cold queries altogether and only accept solicited submissions through such “side door” methods listed below.
1. Contests. Agents—especially new/newer ones who are actively building their lists—judge online contests. Oftentimes writing-oriented websites will host writing competitions—such as for the first page of a manuscript, or the first 1,000 words, etc. The agent judge reviews the entries and sees your writing during the contest. If she likes what she sees, she will contact you and request more material.
Don’t believe me? Take Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency. She judged a previous installment of the “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest on my Guide to Literary Agents Blog. The DLA Contest is a free, recurring contest where people submit the first page of their unpublished novel. Tamar’s top three winners won an agent critique from her. Tamar was so impressed by one winner that she asked to see the full novel. Soon after, Tamar offered representation to the writer and sold the writer’s novels in a two-book deal. Still skeptical? The exact same thing happened a few months ago when agent Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary judged a more recent installment of the DLA Contest on my blog. She signed one of the three winners as a client.
So whenever you see an agent-judged contest—especially if it’s free—jump in and see what happens! You could win a critique and even find your agent match. Following agents on Twitter is a great way to stay abreast of these opportunities.
2. Critiques that come as part of some kind of class/instruction. Agents sometimes do critiques as part of a conference or class or online instructional session. A critique is a straightforward way to get your writing in front of an agent’s eyes. At minimum, you’ll get helpful feedback, but if she likes what she sees, you may just find your agent match.
(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)
For example, Writer’s Digest runs instructional webinars each week, usually with a literary agent instructor. Typically each attendee gets a critique from the agent to help make their work better. As with agent-judged contests, if the agent really likes what she sees, she’ll request more. Agent Barbara Poelle of Irene Goodman Literary, for instance, found clients from the first two webinars she did.
(I know that my examples here have to do with WD, but, obviously, know that while WD has contests and classes and such, we are by no means the only fish in the water. Agents are teaching lots of classes and judging lots of contests that have nothing to do with us, so take advantage of any & all of them!)
3. Referrals. When you query an agent, normally your unsolicited e-mail lands coldly in their inbox (the slush pile). It’s reviewed quickly as the agent tries to assess whether your writing or the story seems good enough for them to invest more time. In other words, submitting to a slush pile means your query/work will only get a quick look. Getting a referral usually changes all that.
A referral is when an agented writer passes your work to their agent with a stamp of approval. Referrals are often read very soon after they arrive—pushed close to the top of the agent’s to-do list. After all, if one of the agent’s trusted authors is giving this new writer’s work a thumbs-up, the agent will take a longer look at the writing, going beyond what they would do for an average submission.
So put yourself in a position where you can hope for referrals. The best way to do this is join one or more writing critique groups. You’ll need other writers in these groups to see your work and hopefully take a deep liking to it. In order for them to agree to critique your work, you’ll need to reciprocate and offer them editing feedback on their own writing. The hope is that some of these critique group writers either 1) already have a literary agent, or 2) will sign with one in the future. Then any of these writers who have representation and like your work will be ideal people to offer to refer your work. (And keep in mind that even if the referrals don’t pan out, joining a critique group is an excellent step for any aspiring writer.)
4. Meeting agents at writers’ conferences. Every year, there are anywhere between 125 and 200 writers’ conferences in the United States and Canada. Plenty of these have literary agents in attendance, and those agents are present specifically to meet with writers one-on-one and hear pitches. Many times, the agents aren’t even making any money to attend events—so the key upside of their attending is to find that diamond in the rough who’s got an amazing book up his sleeve.
To prove my point, I’ll tell you this: I was once moderating a panel of about 10 agents at a conference, and I asked how many had found clients at a conference—and all 10 said they had. And if that wasn’t enough proof, know that I myself found my own literary agent at a conference after schmoozing with her. It’s all proof that conferences simply work. (By the way, if you want to attend a writing event but don’t know where to start, see a large list of writing conferences on my website here.)
I’ll close by kind of repeating what I said above: If you seriously want to find an agent, compose a great query—because a quality letter is one of your biggest and best tools. In other words: By no means should you ignore the query process because you find it difficult. But a bigger point to make here is that you should not ignore any opportunity to get yourself and/or your work in front of an agent. So consider these 4 side door options and pursue any that seem like a good fit for you!
Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books 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 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.
Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Such hopeful information. I met my current editor at a writers' conference and another writer in my critique group met her agent by referral. Such pleasant alternatives to the Slush Pile, especially in a midwestern January.
Great post! I think any of these might be more effective than a traditional query letter, since there's more personal interaction involved, and that's always more meaningful. Thanks for sharing!
I'd add one more, Chuck. Volunteer. I picked up an editor at the airport, and drove her to a local writer's group meeting. She agreed to read my partial, and wanted to buy it. She introduced me to my agent.
You never know what is going to do the trick, but putting yourself out there ups your odds. And volunteering makes you feel good, regardless.
Best of luck to all those seeking representation!
I agree with the volunteering, Laura. I've met the very best people simply by volunteering my time.
Chuck: I know your audience is mainly North-American (hello!) but do you know if the situation is similar to what you describe here in Western Europe?
Thanks for sharing. This can be so daunting so your tenure and experience go a long way!
Helpful information. Thanks for this post.
Thank you for the information! It's encouraging to see the other ways to find agents.
Thanks for the info. Will have to put these suggestions into practice!
Glad to be back at WITS and happy it is for this great post. Chuck, I love when you do a guest blog here and this is no exception. For one who is still "seeking" having a side door is a great option. Thanks 🙂
YAY!! Florence is back. 🙂
We missed you, Florence!
Thanks for the helpful info, Chuck!
Fantastic advice. Thanks so much!
I've done most of those things and been quasi-lucky. Thanks for the push to continue the process. So, tell me. Who's got the best book on query letters?
Thanks especially for the info about referrals. I have a blurb and a Forward from a best selling author, but her agent doesn't work with the genre of my book at this time. Is it best to preface the query to other agents with the documents that were written for me? Thanks again for your helpful articles.
I always love reading Writers in the Storm, Chuck's posts put icing on an already wonderful cake! Keep up the great work, it is much appreciated.
Great post! Thanks for the ideas on how to find an agent. Congrats on your books and thanks for the giveaway.
Thank you Chuck. These things are all so key to remember and participate in. Better to keep busy in the middle of the ring than to linger in the corner feeling discouraged. Looking forward to your new book.
Good information. I'm in the process of revising an unpublished novel I finished in November 2014. Sending out query letters for agents sounds a lot like sending out resumes for jobs. You send them out, the HR manager looks at it for 5-10 seconds, then either contacts you or rejects you. I need to either learn to work on my letter or self-publish.
That's pretty close, jm. The importance of getting your query perfect cannot be over stressed!
Thank you. This is so true. I attended my first writer's conference in Atlanta, Georgia, last year, and was amazed at the feedback I received, and your class was excellent. It was worth the long flight.
Great Article. Thanks for sharing.
Great post, I agree. I am fortunate that I submitted to independent publishers and got back fantastic suggestions how to make my book better. Am in the middle of submission, after many rewrites and learned so much along the way to publishing my first book. Love WITS and all the information. Keep up the good work.
This information is so valuable! This is my first day at Writers in the Storm. I have found so much encouragement here. I have quickly subscribed. Thank you!
Thank you for the encouragement. It makes me not feel so desperate about my query letter!
Thank you for sharing and inspiring me to keep at trying to find an agent. I was happy to learn a query letter isn't the one and only door! If that door is jammed I feel encouraged to try door #2 contests, door #3 seminars/conferences, door #4 classes, or door #5 referrals! Greta point....if you want in you will find a way be it one of the doors or maybe even though a window!
An inspiring article, Chuck, thanks for sharing your ideas.
I'm hoping to win but I'm buying this book anyway! If I get lucky I'll pass it on to a friend. Thanks for the great information.
This was so helpful. I am trying to decide whether I am ready to attend the SF Writers conference with 30,000 words of a YA novel. I still don't know but it's useful to know it could be productive to do so.
Brilliant advice for a novice thank you very much for sharing the information and I will buy your book when I can
Hi Chuck. Your book sounds very helpful, I assume it will be there same here in Australia or in the UK? My memoir is initially staged in the UK but ends up in Australia, however I think UK would be the best spot to launch it. It's pretty much a good news story of life in an orphanage? Is anyone really interested in that as opposed to an 'orphan life horror' story? I'll certainly give it a try though. Hope to win your book for the hints on finding an agent.
This book sounds so amazing! I'm commenting here hoping I get a copy of the book, but also because I'm really appreciative of all the great advice and the sense of community and solace I get here as a writer.
Hello, Chuck, thank you for pointing out alternatives to sending out a letter to a stranger and hoping it doesn't get deleted instantaneously!
Thanks for the great information and the opportunity to win a book!
I got a literary agent after winning a national contest. So yes, your tip on contests is right on target!
I always find your posts to be filled with fantastic ideas, not to mention the encouraging words. I'll admit I fall into the category of those finding that writing the query letter the hardest step. The one message that rings through loud and clear from this post is to never give up. Someday it will happen, even if it is through a side door.
Thanks for the great insider tips, Chuck. It's reassuring to know that there's more than one way to capture an agent's notice!
Thanks for the great information, Chuck. I haven't entered a contest in a while, but maybe it's time to think about going that route again, especially if a contest is going to be judged by an agent. Cheers!
Chuck, solid and deep advice, as usual. It is encouraging to consider alternates to what so often seems the little death of the query letter. Useful site here too!
Very useful information and look forward to reading more about this in your book.
Thanks Chuck, great advice. You are one busy writer! I will have to find your latest book and see what other tidbits you share. Hope you do another one day conference in Arizona.
Hi Chuck! All great tips and I agree much more satisfying in a way than the query letter. My favorite is conferences and being involved in the agent/editor aspect of volunteering. I've met and interacted with so many agents and editors that way and while I haven't found THE agent/editor, I've made a lot of great connections. Thanks!
More great advice from a most trusted writing guide. Thanks for spreading so much encouragement. BTW I'd love to win your book! Here's hoping!
This is great! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you! Once again information that is practical and useful.
Your information is always so helpful. It's great to know that there are people out there like you who will help answer questions and now you've answered so many with your new book. Congratulations.
When you meet agents at a conference, you learn they want to discover and help promising writers--not intimidate them. This makes sitting down and writing that query a lot easier.
Thanks for all of the helpful information! I'm just getting started, so it's nice to prepare myself for the road ahead!
I'm thrilled to read about these other options, and I've seen first hand how helpful it is to take one of the WD classes. The one-on-one advice and insights have been invaluable to me about query letters as a result of completing my magazine article class. I would love to have a copy of your new book, so pick me, pick me! (If not, I'll spring for a copy myself, but it never hurts to ask!)
"and some writers just have trouble with this step of the submission process," you note. Er -- this would be me. I keep plugging away at perfecting mine, but in the meantime, these are good suggestions. and thanks to Laura Drake for adding volunteering to the list. All helpful.
Very worthwhile post to read. I've previously composed a manual 'letter suite' for a credit-related position I held, which was a great success, and yet; sit me down to write a query letter, and I'm stumped. I guess it's a little subjective and depnds on your past experience, and confidence-felt.
This is a very hopeful post. And I am one of those writers who trips over the query ritual. However it still bears repeating that every approach to an agent must be targeted. You won't advance your cause by pitching your romance novel to someone who only handles literary works, or action/adventure. However, making a good impression might lead to referrals and an eventual sale.
Am I the only one who sat at their desk staring at the blinking cursor so long that that it started to pound into my retinas? Am I the only one who started a sentence but deleted it more times than the sky has stars? Am I the only one who started to doubt their writing ability because I couldn't think of something witty or uniquely intelligent to say on a blog post where other writers could see?
Or probably not, seeing as we writers are all at least a touch neurotic 🙂
But I wanted to comment for the contest, but also to say that I love this post so much I'll be adding it to my favorites. Thank you so much for your tips Chuck!
I was very nervous the first time I pitched an agent, but by the third time I wasn't so nervous. Pitching is an excellent way to explain your story and the agent can see your passion. 10 minutes though goes by quickly so maybe double up on the pitch time. I did take a webinar with a critique for my query and the agent said that if she represented the genre of my story she would request to see it. You just have to remember that it's kind of the luck of the draw on how an agent feels when your query hits their inbox.
Chuck: I agree, too. I always read when I see your name. Great tips to absorb and save. That I learned is that you have to target your market, especially with word count. My too long novel has a great plot, but too long. After I finish the current WIP, it's on my bucket list. Thank you.
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Thanks Chuck for this great advice. Being new to the Literary Agent world I need all the advice I can get and this is great quality. So pleased I took the time to read it.
[…] a literary agent but don’t want to go the traditional ‘query letter’ route, try this post on 4 different ways to do so from Writers In the […]
Hi Chuck. Thanks so much for this article and all that you do. I look forward to trying your suggestions.
Good column, but most of these things cost money. Queries, at least, are still free.
In other words, reach out, try different approaches, and one will be a winner. Thanks for the good ideas.
[…] 4 Ways Besides Query Letters […]
Fabulous information, and certainly the contests is one I haven't thought about seriously. Thanks for the repost.