I've applied this year, so I'm excited to see whether or not my manuscript gets picked up, although even if it doesn't - just getting my submission ready was quite a good workout. I learned a lot from that process by itself. Also, bear in mind that even though I'm querying science fiction at the moment, these observations are largely applicable across the board.
Anyway, here's some of what I've learned in the last few months of sending out queries. Also, this list assumes that your manuscript is complete and relatively polished (edited/beta-read/etc.).
1. Read up on query letters - how they should look, how long they are and what they should contain. Practice drafting a few. Then draft more. Then mix and match until you're happy with the result. You're still going to have to edit/amend/revise/redraft each one as you send it out, but the practice is really going to help tighten up what you're trying to say. Reading samples of other letters is also a great idea - just don't copy them verbatim. It's fine to use a guideline, but make sure it's your voice and your project that comes through.
2. Pick your agents carefully. Only go for agents who are interested in your genres, who represent books similar to your own, who are open for submissions and who you think are a good fit for you. To that end, read submission guidelines carefully. Then, go to the Publisher's Marketplace to see if the agent you're querying has a page there. Often you can find additional information on their likes and dislikes there. If not, look for interviews, wish-lists, blog posts - whatever you can find. The internet can be a wonderful resource as long as you do your research. The more recent the information, the better it generally is, so don't rely too much on anything older than a year or so - likely the market and their needs have moved on.
3. Read and re-read your query letters every time. I guarantee you'll find a typo, misplaced comma - whatever. There's nothing worse than hitting send and then taking another look, only to find you edited a sentence and forgot to delete/add a word. Also, personalize your queries. It doesn't have to be groundbreaking - just be honest about how you found the agent, or why you're interested in having them represent you. Most of your query letters will be fairly similar, but there will be changes based on a particular agent's agents and the specific things they're interested in.
4. Rejection stings, but not as much as I expected. The first few were really hard to take, my stomach twisted up and then the adrenaline arrived. Having that happen at 11:00 pm on a work-night was a little rough. So I turned off notifications and now I don't have to deal with that. It's important to note I don't begrudge getting the messages at that time - I'd rather get the answer than not, no matter what time of day. However, while it can feel like a never-ending slog, or the story of Sisyphus if you want to get mythical about it, it really isn't. Believe in your work - I do. I know my book is strong and it'll sell - I just need to find the right person to help me bring it to market. That doesn't mean it's perfect - it can absolutely be improved - but I've done my best so far, so now its time to test the field.
5. Agents are busy people and often inundated with submissions, so they often won't respond within their timelines or send you personalized feedback. This is a common theme in just about every industry where dozens or hundreds or thousands of people are trying to break in through the same door. Give them time to respond - don't bother them with followups asking for updates - likely that'll just give them a bad impression. No one wants a high-maintenance relationship - it's that simple.
- Add-on: You should be querying multiple agents AT DIFFERENT AGENCIES at the same time. Don't query a second agent at the same agency until the first one responds to you or a significant amount of time passes after their response is due. Agencies don't want their own agents stepping on each others' toes. Likewise, if an agency says a no from one agent is a no from all, don't keep submitting - its time to move on.
7. You are your brand. That means you have to make all decisions relative to your product(s). How you present yourself is just as important as who you choose to work with. Getting an agent isn't just about getting through a door. It's a two-way relationship. The goal should always be to find someone you can work with, who respects you and whose goal is to improve your market-share. Agents make their money off of you and should only be representing work they click with - that they believe in - that they think they can sell. Read this article about how to spot a bad agent. In fact, if you go back one page, SFWA.org has a whole section on helping writers avoid scams, bad agents, bad contests, publishers, etc. It's great stuff.
8. Stay organized! I can't stress this enough. You should create a list/spreadsheet of who you've submitted to, their agency, their timelines and their results. Here's a small sample of mine (apologies if it's a bit small):
Keep it up to date and ADD TO IT as you go - keep sending queries. Even if you think you've queried enough, just keep going. There are a lot of agents out there, and you never know who'll be interested in your story.
9. Don't be a jerk. Seriously, I shouldn't have to say this, but don't - DO NOT - be a jerk to anyone. If an agent/publisher rejects you, that's fine - don't try to fight with them about it. If they send you a personal note it's probably okay to ask them a question or two (if you need clarification on something they've said), but don't take that as an opportunity to call them out or disagree. Nothing you say is going to change their mind and it's just going to hurt your reputation. People talk, and if you're a jackass, chances are word's going to get around. Or you'll end up on social media, going viral for the wrong reasons. Take it as constructive feedback. You still have the choice of taking it or not - it all depends on how it'll affect your work (ex. changing tense or the MC's perspective)
10. Get involved. Post on social media when you can - create a presence, even if you can't do so regularly. Be supportive of your fellow writers. Participate in discussions, AMAs on Reddit or Twitter, #Pitmad, Pitchwars, go to conventions and ask questions - you don't know what you don't know. And the only way to find out is to get out there!
Alright, I've probably gabbed on enough. If I've missed anything, feel free to leave a shout out in the comments or in an RT. Likewise, if you've got a blog or a resource you'd like to share, please feel free to do so.
All the best - stay awesome and, as always, thanks for reading!