First, lemme say: querying is hard and it sucks.
Next, let’s all agree that querying NOW is much harder than in years past. The landscape has changed.
And finally, before we get into it, lemme tell you: I queried too early. Every mentee I’ve had has queried too early. Writers tend to come in two varieties: those who are always editing & never ready to query, and those who are practically writing their query letters before they hit save on their last revision.
Like many things, there’s no right answer, and definitely no easy answer.
IS IT TIME TO QUERY?
First, this is assuming you want to go with traditional publishing. As in an agent and then on to a publisher. I would suggest pretty much this same approach if you want to skip the agent and go with a small press. The same things apply. Self publishing is a completely different business with its own concerns.
Whether you’ve never queried this book before or you have and have just completed a revision. Pause before querying. Ask yourself: Is it ready? Am I ready?
Let’s tackle the easy one first: are you ready… Because querying means waiting. You may hear back on a query within days (I’ve had rejections within an hour… ouch) or it may take weeks… or months… or you may never hear back—some agents take a no-response-means-no approach… which, let’s be real, sucks. But believe me, you’re gonna wait.
Querying likely means lots of rejection. It’s a rare writer who says they sent out a few queries and got requests from all of them. And they all made an offer of representation. The reality is, writers wrack up dozens of rejections. Often hundreds over the years. Especially since querying in the digital age is fast and easy.
Are you ready to wait? Are you ready to hear no—probably over and over again.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR BOOK?
That’s tougher to answer. Partly because it’s so subjective. But I can point to a few signs you might be ready:
- You have done revisions after honest feedback from crit partners and/or beta readers (who are not immediate family or friends who give nothing but praise).
- You have thoroughly proofread your book after those revisions. Ideally, you’ve had someone else thoroughly proofread your book. (No, I don’t mean you paid an editor. I just mean you’ve taken multiple steps to ensure you don’t have typos.)
- You’ve researched your genre and your book is at least CLOSE to the average word count for debut authors in that genre.
- You can clearly summarize your story, including main character and primary conflict, in one sentence. Bonus points if that sentence is also catchy.
- You can clearly summarize your story, including all twists, surprises, and the ending, in a one-page, single-spaced synopsis. Whether it’s pretty or not at this point is irrelevant. Can you do it?
- That one-page synopsis shows a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and hits all the expected beats for your genre.
- You have a solid query letter that clearly shows your main character and highlights the primary stakes.
- Someone not super familiar with the story has read the synopsis and query and that person says they make sense.
If yes to all of the above, my opinion only here, you’re likely ready to query. But why are those important?
No person is an island. And we are terrible critics of our own work. We either see it as far worse than it is, or we miss the glaring errors and problems because we see what we want to convey as opposed to what’s on the page. Honest feedback is the best way to combat that.
Ditto proofreading. When you read your own work, you see what you intended. Often missing things that are important. Writing for publication is a business—proofread.
On the business end of things? Word count ranges exist for many reasons, but a big one is budget. The cost of printing a book vs how much people will be willing to pay for said book. Digital publishing has expanded that range a bit, but… a publisher is still spending the time, effort, and cost of editing and formatting. And that cost goes up right along with the word count.
Being able to summarize your story in a single sentence isn’t just good marketing. It shows you have a solid handle on your story. It shows that your story can be pitched quickly and clearly. That means readers can take one look at that logline and want to read your story. (I’m being positive here!)
That synopsis? I could have substituted beat sheet for that. You’re showing your plot and character arcs. If you can’t do that in one page, it’s possible your story is too long. Maybe it needs to be split into two or maybe it needs a lot of cutting. It’s also possible the story needs a bit more refining—is the conflict strong enough, do the characters have clear motivations that make sense for the story, etc.
You don’t have to be good at writing a synopsis to see these parts. Like a beat sheet, at this point, it’s just a tool to help you see your story’s flow and where there may be weak points. And if you’re really struggling? Yeah, do a beat sheet to really shine a spotlight on the story flow.
Ditto the query. You’re showing that your story has a compelling character and intriguing stakes. For the record, those stakes need to be spelled out—no “or bad things will happen” type stuff.
Now it’s time to query, right?
I said it earlier, many writers sit on work that is so well polished it’s nearly perfect, and they don’t query. While others query far too soon, sending their MS out into the world before the proverbial ink was even dry. (Been there and done that, I don’t recommend it.)
There is no solid answer. And it’s why I won’t give feedback like: this is ready to query. Or even, I don’t think this is ready to query. Subjectivity is a thing.
But OK… you’ve done the work. You and your MS are ready to query!