Literary Agents: The Right Way to Nag

Jody Rein Nagging

You’ve sent off your query to an literary agent and heard…nothing.

Or (heaven be praised) you heard something!  The agent requested a sample from your book or your proposal, you  sent it exactly as required…and no response.

What do you do?

An Unsolicited Query: Should You Ask Again?

With just a couple exceptions, if you have sent a query to an agent and heard nothing, do nothing. There are lots of agents in the publishing sea. Try someone else. Don’t worry that your email has been lost; it probably hasn’t. A “no response” is a “no.”

Exception 1: You have a personal connection to the agent. You’re a friend of her friend, or an editor has recommended you contact her. If there’s a real connection there and you haven’t heard back, it is possible the note has gotten lost.

Exception 2:  You really did experience a technical snafu, and you’re not sure if your email went out.

Exception 3: If you really really want to work with a particular agent, and another agent has expressed strong interest. (Note: if another agent has actually offered representation, I wouldn’t recommend reaching out to someone who hasn’t even answered your query. That seems pretty unfair to the agent who offered.)

Big Boo-Boo in Your Query?

Mortification! You just realized you put the wrong agent’s name in your letter! Or gotten your facts wrong. Or forgot to include your best sales point. Can you send out a correction?

Nope. Alas. The correction will not be welcome.*

*Unless it’s really funny.

The Right Words: Unsolicited Query Re-Send

If you’re in one of the exceptional situations listed above, here’s how you might preface your second attempt:

“Dear Mr. Literary Agent:

Please forgive this second query! Our mutual friend xxx suggested I write. Generally I understand that “no response” means “no,” but given our personal connection I thought it was possible my first query didn’t reach you.”

or “Dear Mr. Literary Agent:

Please forgive me if you’ve seen this query before! Generally I understand that “no response” means “no,” but I’ve just learned my dog ate 75 of my outgoing emails the day I sent yours. I suspect my first attempt may not have reached your desk.”

or “Dear Mr. Literary Agent:

Please forgive me for writing again. Several agents have responded positively to my query for xxx, and asked to review my work. I had so hoped that you would be interested; I heard you speak at the xxxx and was very impressed. Generally I understand that “no response” means “no,” but I thought under the circumstances it was worth one more try.

The Literary Agent asks for Sample Writing–Then Silence

I hate to admit it–I do this. I don’t mean to. What happens: I ask to review material, and it’s not quite right. I feel the author deserves a thoughtful response. Thoughtful responses take time. Time I don’t have. I put the material into the “give thoughtful response” pile. Time passes. And passes.

Would a note from the author sway me to a “yes?” Probably not. But I welcome the nudge.

What (and When) to Say

  • If you have given the agent an exclusive look, don’t wait more than 30 days unless you have explicitly agreed to a longer time frame. It’s fair for an agent to ask for an exclusive look. But not to hold up your career. If the agent doesn’t respond within the agreed-upon time frame, nag away. If you like the agent, give her a chance to explain before moving on. Example:

Dear Ms. Agent,

Just wanted to follow up on your request to read XXX. We agreed on a 30-day period of exclusivity, which began DATE. Have you decided if you are interested in pursuing? I would appreciate your letting me know either way as soon as possible, as a few other agents have requested the material.

I very much hope to work with you, so I will delay sending the material out to others until DATE. After that, you will no longer have my work exclusively, but I would welcome your response any time.

In any case, thanks so much for your time and consideration.

  • If you have not given the agent an exclusive look, 30 days is still a reasonable time frame.

Dear Ms. Agent,

Just wanted to follow up on your request to read XXX, which I sent to your offices DATE.

Would you be able to give me a sense of when you might be able to review it?

As you know, this submission is not exclusive, but I’m keen to work with you and look forward to your response.

In any case, thanks so much for your time and consideration. I’m thrilled that you’re reviewing my work.

  • If you still don’t get a response, it’s probably worth just one more try after another 30 days. Be polite and brief  (and complimentary) in your note. You might want to add this:

(If you’re not interested, by the way, I don’t need details!)

Agents Do Know What They’ve Requested

Most literary agents track requested material, and feel bad if they haven’t responded. (I’m so sorry, Lance and Steve!) And, to be harsh on our kind–if an agent can’t get it together to respond, that’s probably a big red flag. The agent isn’t quite interested enough, or is conflicted, or is over-booked. An agent who takes forever to respond to polite inquiries about requested material is probably not the best publishing partner for you, at least not right now.

Book Proposal Magic Formula

Globe with Books

“What’s the best formula for a book proposal?” an emailer asked me today.

“What’s the right way to open a book proposal?”a writing workshop attendee asked me yesterday.

We all want rules to govern our lives, guidelines to make the creative process somehow manageable. In the uncertain world of book publishing, of course aspiring writers hope that if they follow the proper 10-step outline, publication will follow. It won’t. Book proposals that are too formulaic can set off negative bells in an acquiring editor’s mind. I propose (heh heh) thinking about a proposal’s magic formula in terms of key ingredients, not rote structure.

Ingredient #One: Integrity

What? Since when did writing a book proposal have a moral component? It doesn’t–I’m not talking about “integrity” as in “being honest,” but as in “being unified, and sound in construction” (cribbing from my handy dandy online dictionary.) Internally consistent. If you’re writing a humor book, your proposal should be funny. If you’re writing a how-to book, your tone will be instructive and engaging. The writing in your proposal for a work of narrative nonfiction must be intelligent and compelling, demonstrating a fresh voice and perspective.

Ingredient #Two: Answers to Key Questions

The structure of your book proposal doesn’t matter. (Egad!) The content does matter. Your proposal must answer these common sense questions:

  • What’s the book about?
  • Who is going to buy it?
  • How do you know someone is going to buy it?
  • Why are you the right person to write it?
  • How are you going to help promote it?
  • How will the book be structured?
  • What books are comparable, and how do they prove the market for your book?
  • What’s in the book? (Detailed table of contents, sample writing)

The Book Dictates the Proposal

I have acquired, represented–and sold–vastly different book proposals.  Proposals from my company have opened with fun facts about camels, an essay about Beethoven, writing from the book (placed before anything else), old photos, art  and quotations–as well as straightforward “Overview” sections. How do we choose? We think about the book, and we think about the editor’s needs.

Ingredient #Three: Clarity

Proposals aren’t read the way books are read. There is no forgiveness; there is no leisure. There is no room for confusion.


This is why, when you have answered all the questions listed above, and written the answers in a voice that is topically consistent, you will work very hard to add logical clear headings. From this organic need was born a world of instructional books that tell you to write “Author Bio” and “The Market” and “My Platform” sections in every single book proposal.

Your proposal may have those headings, or it may have other headings that conform to the logic of the proposal as a whole. But without headings and structure that makes sense and grounds the editor in the proposal, your editor will give up and move on to the next proposal.


Every sentence you write creates an expectation in the reader. (For example, the sentence I just wrote created the expectation that you will soon read something about what that expectation is, exactly. And, by now, you may be getting a little frustrated as I still haven’t addressed that expectation. If I move on to the next topic without saying more about that expectation, you will be left a little uneasy. You won’t quite know why, but you’ll start to feel that there’s something off in the writing; something missing, something wrong. That’s not good. Oh wait–I have just explained it, haven’t I? Yes!)

If you write, “The parenting field is very crowded,” early in your proposal, editors will expect you to drop the other shoe. To explain why your book will stand out from the crowd. If you let such expectations hang around too long, you lose the editor.

Ingredient #Too Super Important to Have a Number (or “Four” if You Must): Interest

There is no room for boredom.
There is no room for boredom.
Yes, I said that twice on purpose.

You do not want an acquiring editor’s attention to wander as she reads your proposal. Once your proposal is written, re-read it ruthlessly. Or get your friend Ruth to read it. She’ll still have to be ruthless, though, which is a conundrum I’ll address no further.

Where was I? Oh, yes, in your proposal, delete any sentences like the one I just wrote up there. No tangents. No unanswered questions. Be an observant reader of your own work–note whenever your own attention wanders. Read digitally and read in print. Mark any spot your attention lags, and cut. Pacing, in proposals, is everything.

Magic Book Proposal Formula: Integrity + Content + Clarity – Boredom = Excellence

I know, I know. Sounds much easier to just write a proposal that has seven sections, four subsections, a pithy mission statement at the beginning and a series of one-paragraph chapter descriptions at the end. And of course you can still do that.

But it might not be magic.

Update that Novel in Your Drawer

Success and Failure by Celestine Chua

Success and Failure by Celestine Chua

Hidden reason your novel gets rejected #253: outdated references.

You have finally built up the courage to submit–at long, long last–that novel you’ve been massaging for ten years. You send queries to hundreds of agents and–oh joy!–several agents ask to see your work! So you send it…and the rejections trickle in.

Why? [Read more…]

Literary Agents Closed to Queries: Is the Sky Falling?

Literary Agents Closed to Queries:  Is the Sky Falling?

 Who knew?  I’ve just learned I led the literary agent crowd when I closed my doors to new queries several year ago (for me it was to find time to develop software and hang with my family).  But now I hear that’s the norm–yet another mega-contraction in the world of possibilities for the unpublished writer. (If I listen closely, I can hear the

[Read more…]