By now you should have a pretty good handle on your list of agents. You know who you can potentially query and who's worth your time. Now it's time to get down to the nitty gritty stuff, i.e. submission guidelines and personalizing queries.
Hopefully most of your agents have web sites. It's likely some of them don't. For those that do, I'd highly recommend reading everything, but particularly their submission guidelines, what they are and aren't looking for, and their FAQ if they have them. If they don't have a web site, I'm assuming you've located their submission guidelines via your market book, an online database, or Publisher's Marketplace. All respectable agents have submission guidelines. If you haven't found them - there's probably a reason for that. Keep researching.
Think of submission guidelines as one of your (many) keys to success. They're important. If you can't follow submission guidelines, you're inviting agents to assume any number of things about you. Examples include but are not limited to: You did not do your research, you don't know how the business works, you can't follow simple instructions, you're not from this planet, you think you are beyond respectful compliance, you want to waste their time, you do not respect them, you're sub-intelligent, etc.
So, if they're asking for query only, seriously, only send a query. If they want a query and the first three chapters, don't send more than that. Even if things start to get really good in chapter four. If they want a proposal. Well, that's what you send. Whatever it is - do it. It's not a matter of bowing down to agents because they're almighty beings that rule the literary earth. It's a matter of respect. They're telling you want they want in order to assess what you're trying to sell. It's a simple as that. Would you walk into a job interview with your resume, all of your references in person, and an autobiography to boot? No. At least I hope not. Don't lessen your chance for an offer by disagreeing with an agent's submission guidelines. If you really don't agree - maybe you shouldn't be querying that agent at all. Remember, you want the best agent for you and your work. It's not just about getting your book published. It's a long-term relationship that will only work well with communication, respect, and partnership.
There are always exceptions, right? If you've had a direct request from an agent to do so, feel free to disregard their guidelines. Perhaps you met the agent at a conference and they requested that you send them a full rather than their stated five pages (or whatever). If that's the case, them by golly, send them the full, but you should remind them of the conference in your query letter so they know who you are and why you're possibly straying from their usual guidelines.
The most basic personalization you can and should do is to address the agent properly by last name.
Dear Mr. Bransford:
Dear Ms. Reamer:
A comma does nicely as well. It takes very little time and it's a truly simple courtesy used it nearly all business correspondence.
Other personalizations can include: Mentioning you met them at a conference, mentioning you read their blog, mentioning something they said in an interview or market guide, mentioning a book they represent that you liked or that's similar to yours, etc. Just don't go overboard. There's almost an art to this - do your research.
Agents Who Blog:
If the agent has a blog, you've got veritable a gold mine at your disposal. Take the time to read it. And don't just read the three most recent posts. DIG. Look in the archives. Try to find posts where they've specified preferences, pet-peeves, detailed what they like in a query letter, etc. If you've already been reading their blog regularly, all the better. And even if the agent rarely talks about the business and what they're looking for, you're still getting an invaluable look at their character. Is this someone you'd want to work with? Finding a good match personality-wise is just as important as anything else.
Books They Rep:
Another great way to get a feel for what an agent represents and to personalize your query is to read books they already rep. This can obviously become very time consuming, especially if it just means adding one personalized sentence to your query. However, it may set you apart, if you do it well, so you may want to consider reading something that each of your top agents represent, particularly if it's similar to yours.
- You can find an agent's gender on LitMatch.
- You can occasionally find font/type preferences on AgentQuery.
- QueryTracker is a fabulous tool for research and, well, tracking queries, or course.
- Never ever query multiple agents in one e-mail.
- Never use a general salutation such as "Dear Agent."
- Don't knock yourself down by saying things like "If you have time," or "I know you're busy," etc.
- Do not use fancy paper.
- Do NOT send THINGS to agents. Even if they have a professed love of Godiva chocolates. Resist. You can send them Godiva when they're officially your agent, they've sold your book, and they're not concerned that you're psycho.
- Have a list of questions ready or know what you're going to say if/when you get "the call." Seriously, use this opportunity to find out everything you couldn't during your research.
- Prioritize your list and query small batches at a time. You can learn a lot from rejection, but that's a post for another day.
And finally, don't just take my word for all this. What did I say about not trusting any single source of information? Gosh, get out there and research researching! Google "researching literary agents," "literary agent scams," "personalizing queries," and so on and so forth.
Best to everyone preparing to query. If there is something else you'd like me to cover or expand on, let me know in the comments! I'll do a more thorough post on personalizing queries one of these days.