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Obvious to Us, Less Obvious to You #2: Why are agents' submission guidelines different every where you look?

Some writers feel nervous about submitting to agents when they discover that the submission guidelines listed on the agencys' websites are different than what's listed on their AQ profile which are different still than what's listed on their profile. What's a writer to do? Which guidelines should a writer follow?

This is one of those questions that seems obvious to us because we troll all these resources, almost on a daily basis. We see the discrepancies, too--even after receiving updates directly from agents regarding their own AQ profiles and submissions guidelines. This doesn't bother us much because we know the agent just updated their AQ profile with us, and if they really cared, they would have changed the submission guidelines too.

But for writers who have been beaten into paranoid fright with the idea that they must follow a agent's submission guidelines--to the letter--OR ELSE RISK BURNING IN PUBLISHING HELL IN ADDITION TO BLACK LIST DISEMBOWELMENT... this might be less obvious.

Case in point: we receive many updates from agents. We have an AQ form, they fill it out, and they include their submission guidelines.

For example: an agent's AQ form might list their agency's submission guidelines as: query with first chapter and SASE.

AQ posts the information listed in the AQ agent form in an agent's profile. What happens next? We receive a lovely little email from one of our many studious AQ users, saying that the agent's website states they want a "query with the first 3-5 pages and SASE," but the agent's AQ profile says: query with first chapter and SASE. Which is it, our lovely little AQ users want to know?

Well, the answer is both.


The bottomline is that the agent just wants to see a small sample, and they really don't care how long the sample is, just as long as it's not a partial (three chapters, or the first 50 pages).

In good faith, we always go back to the agent and email them for clarification. And invariably, the agents response is: "either one, it doesn't really matter to me."

Here at AQ Headquarters, we've learned a thing or two about agents as a whole. Yes, agents are fastidious and persnickety (yay, SAT words!), but they aren't really that picky about submission guidelines. Submission guidelines are just that. They are guidelines.

Submission guidelines aren't there for you to dismiss--like ignoring when an agent's AQ profile says "does not accept email queries" and you send them one anyway. (Yeah, we know. We've heard some of you say that you sent email queries and got requests for partials, so nee-ner, nee-neer. But really, what you don't see is these same agents, over time, emailing us and asking us to remove their email because our AQ users keep sending them email queries, even though their AQ profile says "does not accept email queries. This sucks because our site has become a niffy little industry resource for agents, and editors, and conference coordinators--not just writers. And some agents like having their email address posted on AQ, but not because they want email queries.)

So nee-neer, nee-neer, right back out you (with love and jest, of course!).

So, with this newfound appreciation for some flexibility within agent's submission gudielines, let's demystify the "submission guideline" jargon, shall we?

  • The Default Guideline: Snail Mail: query with SASE

    You can't go wrong with this submission option. It doesn't matter if the agent accepts fiction or nonfiction. A simple query only plus SASE for their response is still the most polite and innocuous way to approach agents about your book, and it's what AQ uses as their default guideline. If an agent doesn't care, or hasn't specified, or hasn't updated their profile with us, we use the default. The only way you can go wrong with the default is if the agency has gone full-blow digital and paperless.

  • The Electronic Only Guideline: Email queries only
    The complete opposite of the "Default" guideline is the "Electronic Only" guideline, which means email queries only. Yes, that's right. The agency hates paper. They hate the Santa-sized bags of queries that Mr. Postman delivers ever week, and they've decided to go completely paperless.

    We're seeing this preference popping up more and more, and we ALWAYS tag an agent's profile as "EMAIL QUERIES ONLY."

    Now, before you do a Snoppy dance, and push these agents to the top of your submission list, beware that there are unspoken guidelines within this "Email Query Only" guideline. Email queries only does NOT mean, "we accept attachments." It DOES NOT.

    The unspoken rule with email queries is NO ATTACHMENTS--ever, unless you have been in direct correspondence with Ms. Agent and she has told you specifically to attach pages and send them to her via email.

    Not every agent's AQ profile says NO ATTACHMENTS because frankly, we thought everyone knew this was an unspoken rule, like you don't drive on the highway shoulder, or you don't double dip at a party, so we stopped writing it out in each agent's profile. But clearly, nee-neer on us.

    Agents who accept email queries with attachments are in the 1% minority. And we ALWAYS list when an agent does accept attachments--when we know about it. Otherwise, better to be safe than deleted. Don't send attachments.

    But how then, are you supposed to send sample pages with your email query? Answer: in the body of your email, baby, right below your query. And yes, your formatting will probably become funky once you send it to Ms. Agent. And if you can't get it to look "normal" (because pasting Word docs into the body of an email always funks up the formatting after you hit send), then that's just another reason to honor an agent's request for snail mail: query plus samples pages.

  • The Partial First Guideline: Snail Mail: query with first three chapters & SASE

    If an agent lists their preference as snail mail with sample pages, they usually specify "first chapter or first 3-5 pages" vs. "first three chapters."

    Here's the unspoken rule of this guideline. "First three chapters" = a "partial." Yes, the agent is actually inviting you to submit a partial with your query--right off the bat. And "first three chapters" means give or take. The agent wants you to send your "first 50 pages" give or take a few pages.

    So if your chapters are short, send your first 50 pages (or first 55 pages, or even first 60 pages, so long as you end with a chapter break). If your chapters are long and two chapters equals 45 pages, but three chapters equals 85 pages, then only send two chapters (45 pages only).

    These "partial first" agents like to see a potential client's writing along with a query, so if you have the option to send a partial first, it baffles us as to why some writers choose NOT to send the partial, but instead send their query only, and usually via email. Really, the purpose of a query is to get an agent to R-E-A-D your writing, right? When an agents says, "snail mail: query with first three chapters & SASE, it's a free offer from these agents to read your partial. Carpe Diem Query & Partial, baby!

  • The Nonfiction Query Guideline: Snail mail: query with nonfiction proposal & SASE

    Nonfiction is sold to publishers through a format called a proposal, which includes specific things like samples chapters, an outline, marketing strategy, author bio--highlighting their existing platform, etc. Agents sell the nonfiction proposal to publishers, not the whole nonfiction manuscript. Your agent gets you the deal first, then you write the full NF manuscript.

    Pretty sweet dealio, eh?

    So when you see the Default Guideline: snail mail: query with SASE , and you're submitting a nonfiction query, then most of the time, it's okay to also send along the nonfiction proposal, too.

    On the other hand, NO proposal with the query is generally the EXCEPTION preference, and we try to state this exception in an agent's profile whenever possible. Otherwise, most of the time, we do try to list snail mail: query with nonfiction proposal & SASE because that's what agents want to see. Which is also why most agents who accept nonfiction queries are still married to snail mail because they want to read a nonfiction proposal along with the query. Because have you ever tried pasting that NF proposal in the body of an email query? Oh, the horror! The horror!

  • Memoir Query Guideline: The Most Unspoken of All the Unspoken Rules (Shhhh, can you hear it? We didn't think so.)

    Memoir is a nonfiction genre that's sold to publishers like fiction. Huh? That means if you have a memoir, it must be a completed manuscript and NOT in the format of a nonfiction proposal.

    For this reason, agents treat the submission process for a memoir like the submission process for fiction. Just like aspiring fiction writers have to finish the whole damn manuscript before querying agents, writers who are seeking representation for their memoirs must write the whole memoir, and shouldn't query agents until it's finished, polished, and ready to be read. And when you do query agents for your memoir, you follow their fiction submission quidelines for submitting your memoir rather than the nonfiction guidelines.

    In a few cases, we've actually seen agents specify memoir guidelines, and we've listed them accordingly in their AQ profile. But mainly, agents assume that writers understand that memoir is sold to publishers like fiction because it's the concept and quality of writing that will interest readers. Got it?

    Okay, so now that you've been de-misted, hosed down, and reprogrammed, and you think you get this whole follow-the-agent's-submission-guidelines game, here's the mandatory "common sense" submission check list of things that agents DON'T want writers to do:

    • They don't want writers sending them their full manuscripts without the agent requesting it. AQ commentary: Duh. That's a no-brainer.
    • They don't want writers sending them email queries if they prefer snail mail ones.
      AQ Commentary: Obvious to Us, Less Obvious to You #1.
    • They don't want gifts or bribes with their query letters.
      AQ Commentary: No, really. They don't. Not even cash (okay, maybe cash).
    • They don't want to see typos in your one-page query. Or their names misspelled on the query. Or have writers address them as "Mrs. Ashley Wilkes"--when really, it's Mr. Ashley Wilkes.
      AQ Commentary: Which also goes for "Tracy" and "Theron" and "Damaris"

      But anything after that, they're pretty cool about.
      AQ Commentary: No, really, most agents are pretty cool and easy-going. Truly.

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