Ask The Agent: A Review of When to Query Agents

Navigating the rough terrain of today’s publishing industry shouldn’t be a solo event. This week in Ask the Agent, I’ll explore and dissect one of the biggest of the industry’s mysteries, straight from the shoulder.


This week I was asked several times, "When should I query agents with my manuscript?" "Does my manuscript have to be complete when I query or are a few sample chapters fine?"

Next ASK THE AGENT I am going to spend some time talking about nonfiction proposals. Nonfiction is one of the only instances that you can query an incomplete manuscript. So if you write nonfiction, stay tuned to the next ASK THE AGENT. 

Because I've been asked the "manuscript completion" question so often I thought I'd do a "best of" my posts on this subject. With special guests!

One of the questions I was asked this week comes from Justin

I'm responding to your article "Ask The Agent" with a question I've puzzled about for a long [time]. When in [the] life of your manuscript should you contact a literary agent or publisher? Should you wait until you have a completed manuscript or send in a few sample chapters first to test the waters?

The following answer comes from an earlier ASK THE AGENT:

You should never approach an agent until your manuscript is complete and as polished as you can possibly make it. It’s a very rare occasion when an agent signs an unfinished manuscript.

The most common occurrence of this is if your manuscript is nonfiction. Then you are able to pitch on proposal and sample chapters.

However, I get the feeling your manuscript is fiction so we’ll work on that assumption. You should never start a manuscript with the thought that you want it to fit in a certain market. You’ll end up writing something that’s not truly you. You always want to write what you know, write where your passion and skill lies and then find the agent who shares that passion and sees a market for your project. You can’t force success.

If you are really having trouble and do not know how to proceed with your manuscript, I suggest first and foremost, get a critique partner AND join a critique group. They will help you immeasurably. If you feel like that isn’t cutting it, you can always hire a freelance editor or literary coach. They’ll work with you to perfect your manuscript and then you’ll pitch it to agents.

If you are interested in writing but would rather have agents and editors tell you what to write, you should think about write-for-hire work.

Pro tip: Take advantage of the writing community around you. Writing is such a solitary career, we often forget to reach out for help. Never be afraid to join writing groups, go to conferences, do workshops, or have critique partners. Often times, your peers will be your best guidance.

One of the other questions I received this week comes from Aaron

"What do I do after I complete my manuscript? Do I send it to agents and they edit it before it goes to publishers?

To answer this one, I'm bringing back a guest post from agents Molly Hawn and Gordon Warnock. It's important that you hear this reiterated from other successful agents:

The lovely Molly Hawn of The Bent Agency says:

Not only does your manuscript need to be finished, it needs to be revised, critiqued, revised, mulled over, and absolutely one hundred percent DONE before you even think about querying. If you’re still tinkering with that one awkward sentence, or you’re dithering about a plot point, or you haven’t definitely decided what to name your character’s dog – you’re not done. Your manuscript needs to be the very best book it can be before it's ready to face the world.

If you’re not part of a writing group, seek out other writers in your genre to be your critique partners. There are plenty of Internet venues for aspiring writers – a few of my clients swear by AbsoluteWrite.com, for example, while others are active SCBWI members. Don’t rely on your friends and family for opinions; they’re never totally honest, and only rarely do they have any expertise (or even interest) in the genre or age group for which you’re writing. An agent should never be the first person to read your manuscript… and trust me, we can usually tell when we are.

Once you’ve digested feedback from your critique partners and finished your final round of edits to your manuscript, put it away. If you can let it sit undisturbed for a few days and then say truthfully that you don’t feel there’s anything more you can do to refine it, then go ahead: start sending queries to the agents you’ve carefully researched. But if you begin querying any sooner, you're doing your work a disservice.

The dashing Gordon Warnock of Foreword Literary adds to that:

On that rare occasion in which the stars have aligned and pigs have taken flight, I've requested [a manuscript] the minute a query has come in. If you send me something incomplete, I'll assume that you can't follow directions. If you take time after I request to complete the manuscript before you send it, I'll assume that you don't work in a timely manner. And if you send in an early draft, I'll assume that you're a bad writer.

Pro tip:  I’m very certain that all literary agents would have to agree.

Thank you for all the wonderful questions this week. "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor


Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 21 of Ask the Agent. Issue 21 answers will be posted Monday, April 15th.

Bree Ogden

Column by Bree Ogden

Bree Ogden is a literary agent at Red Sofa Literary and a comics/TV columnist and reviewer at Bloody Disgusting.

When she's not agenting, compulsively watching horror films, reading comics, hiding out at her local science center, or killing off her bee colonies, she serves as the managing editor of the macabre children's magazine Underneath the Juniper Tree, which she co-founded in 2011 with artist Rebekah Joy Plett.

Bree teaches query craft and graphic novel scripting at LitReactor as well as serves as the Assistant Class Director. Unless you are an exciting new piece of taxidermy, she'll probably never let you in her room. You can find her at agentbree.wordpress.com.

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Comments

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks April 1, 2013 - 6:58pm

I'm not sure if Aaron meant it the way I read it, but it sounds to me like a question I still haven't had answered: what, besides sending out your manuscript, do agents do? I've heard from some people saying that they edit or suggest revisions, and of course, the revise and resubmit exists. Others, though, say that literally all that their agent does is send their manuscript to publishers.

Can anyone help me out here?

coastalcruiser@hottrainingmaterials.com's picture
coastalcruiser@... January 30, 2017 - 1:53am

@Courtney, I don't have an answer to your question because I actually have the same question. I am 80% complete with a non-fiction work and trying to understand what an agent would bring to the table as opposed to direct submission.

Given that the helpful columns on this website seem to instruct that a manuscript MUST be complete before you do a query, I am doubling down on the question.

Let's try and answer this question ourselves, shall we?

1) If an agent wants a complete manuscript AND they will then suggest revisions, then that could be of value. (but that is not why I've been reading. But, it may be a secret to make people query with complete work).

2) An agent should know what publishers will want to publish your work. That may help, but doesn't all one have to do is scan titles in the genre you are writing about and see who published those works?

3) If a publisher is overwhelmed with submissions, a well reputed agent known to the publisher will likely have submissions in their name placed at the top of the heap. That of course may LIMIT the number of houses that may be open to publishing your manuscript, but still, this seems like maybe the best reason to hire an agent.

4) An agent will get you more money. I don't know, will they?