Agents and Queries
It's not absolutely necessary to have an agent to get a book deal - a few sf&f houses still accept unagented submissions, and even for the houses that don't, you can always dodge the agent requirement if you meet an editor at a conference and they request your work. But here's what a good agent will do for you that makes them worth their weight in gold:
- Agents can submit to multiple publishing houses at once. More, it's perfectly okay for them to hound an editor for a response, whereas it's NEVER okay for a writer to do the same. (Double standard, I know!) If you submit without an agent, you're probably looking at a year or more wait to get an answer from ONE house. With an agent, response time is on the order of weeks, not years - and if multiple houses are interested, the agent can run an auction for your book.
- Once you get an offer, the agent will negotiate for you, both for size of advance and for rights retained. Go check out Tobias Buckell's Author Advance Survey to see some hard numbers on agented vs. unagented deals.
- Once you have a deal, you get to keep your relationship with the editor all sunshine and roses, while the agent plays the "bad guy" if necessary, hounding the publisher for payments, tax info, etc. More, the agent will go to bat for you if you hate something about your cover, or some emergency comes up that prevents you from meeting a deadline, or (worst of all!) your contract gets canceled (see here for a story of why a good agent is priceless).
But getting an agent can be a tough process. When I was starting the query process, I found reading real examples of query letters incredibly helpful - so in that spirit, here's the query letter I used in my agent-hunting days. You'll note it's far from perfect. But I had about a 35% request rate (anything above 30% is pretty good, especially for a novel in a "non-hot" genre, which epic fantasy was at the time). Which goes to show, agents can and do look beyond flaws - if something piques their interest, they'll ask for a couple chapters - and if you can hook them in those chapters, they'll ask for the full manuscript - and then you pray to get that wonderful email or phone call telling you they loved it and want to represent you!
Query Letter for The Whitefire Crossing
Dear AGENT NAME,
I am seeking representation for my fantasy novel THE WHITEFIRE CROSSING, complete at 125,000 words. (Note: I usually put something here about why I chose that specific agent to query - either their excellent sales record, or a client's book that I loved, etc.)
Dev thinks his life is finally going well. After growing up as one of the city of Ninavel's infamous Tainted children, he survived the loss of his psychic power at puberty and forged a new life for himself as a mountain guide. The thrill of climbing almost fills the void left by his vanished Taint, and he makes good money working smuggling jobs on the side. Everything's going great, until his long-time lover betrays him and leaves him shocked, angry, and completely broke. The timing couldn't be worse, since Dev is in desperate need of money to fulfill the dying request of the guide who was his mentor: save his Tainted daughter from the mind-burned slavery that awaits her when her Taint fails.
When one of Dev's contacts offers him a high paying but risky job to sneak a soft-spoken young man across the spell protected border of a neighboring country, the lure of the money overcomes the warnings of his instincts. But not long into their crossing of the Whitefire Mountains, Dev discovers his seemingly harmless client is a mage trained in the darkest of magics, on the run from one of the most powerful and vicious men in Ninavel. Trapped in a deadly game of intrigue between warring mages, Dev will need every scrap of cunning to survive. And if he wants to keep his promise to his mentor, he'll have to abandon both the profession that he loves and the scruples his mentor worked so hard to teach him.
Although THE WHITEFIRE CROSSING is my first novel, I have over ten years of experience with technical writing in my job in the aerospace industry. In addition, my many years of mountaineering, rock climbing, and backpacking in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada have helped me bring Dev and his beloved Whitefire Mountains to life.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration.