Query via Email or Wait for Conference?

Jill asked: Say I’ve been doing the research, investing an agent’s website and following the blog for a while and I’ve decided I want to query that agent. Would it be better to do a cold query (following all the submission guidelines, of course) or wait for the possibility of an appointment at a conference, even if the conference is four or five months away? Is one way of querying better than the other?

I think you should go ahead and send your query. Face-time with an agent is nice and it can make your project a bit more memorable, but in the end, the project is either going to sell itself, or it’s not. Meeting with an agent at a conference MIGHT give you a slightly better chance of getting more pages read, IF you give a good pitch and if you and the agent seem to connect. But if the conference is months away, there’s no guarantee both you and the agent are going to be there, or that you’ll score an appointment with that agent. So it’s a gamble.

I know you don’t want to get lost in the shuffle of the agent’s slush pile. But here’s the truth about those pitch sessions at conferences: they can be completely overwhelming for agents and editors. We can only retain so much, and so we might not remember much more about your project than we would if we just picked it out of the slush. Tough reality, I know. The good news: if we really like your project, we WILL remember it and want to see more regardless of whether we come across it in the mailbox or at a conference.

If you’re planning to attend a conference within, say, the next two months, and the agent is going to be there, you might want to hold off on the query at least until you find out whether you got an appointment with that agent. If you do, then save your query for the conference… but remember to make the best of that appointment. There’s always the chance you’ll have that little bit of agent-writer serendipity, that personal connection that makes the agent want to spend more time considering your project.

I imagine there are various ways of approaching this. What does everyone else think?
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  6. Glynis on June 12, 2009 at 7:25 AM

    >An interesting insight for me, it is a dream away yet, but it is good to read what others think. Thanks

  7. Karin on June 11, 2009 at 8:21 PM

    >I started querying last year as SOON as my manuscript represented my best effort. I continued writing and learning, including entering a few contests. I did get one request for a partial off of those queries, but it didn't work out.

    After getting my contest scores back I realized I have a lot more to learn and practice, so I stopped querying.

    I was already scheduled for a conference though, and didn't want to pass up the chance to meet people. I signed up and met with a half dozen agents/editors, but told them I didn't have anything. I just wanted to get the nerves out of my system.

    I did end up sharing my pitch with someone (the manuscript might not be done, but I had the pitch!). She invited me to contact her in 6-12 mos, however long it takes to revise it.

    So, that's the long way of saying I would send queries as soon as you think you're ready, but be willing to going back to revising if the "pros" tell you it's not quite ready yet!

  8. Dr. David and Lisa Frisbie on June 11, 2009 at 12:51 PM

    >One of the best ways to connect with an agent is via a referral or recommendation. If you know a published author somehow, say through your common membership in a writers guild, ask that author if she would recommend any agents, or perhaps even refer you to any.

    That request, politely stated, may gain you access at a level that is different from "off the street" contacts with agents. Plus, you'll have a chance to learn from that author's experience with agents.

    May God bless your search!
    David & Lisa

  9. Dave on June 11, 2009 at 12:34 PM

    >The two month wait guideline seems like a good one.

    Nothing can beat a good conversation with an agent. I appreciate hearing what the agent likes from the story and hearing a bit about the industry.

    I would chose to wait a couple of months to meet with an agent, because I love that look of excitement when you do connect. That is so much better than a form letter rejection and the feeling that agents are so overworked that they can't take the time. I think that agents appreciate seeing the true dedication of a writer, which can actually come out pretty quickly in coded conversations about the industry and books.

  10. Roxane B. Salonen on June 11, 2009 at 10:36 AM

    >Rachelle, this post went a long way in helping me feel less anxious about whether conference attendance and agent contact at one is imperative to being read and seriously considered. I realize the benefit of face to face and would love that experience, but for me, right now, it's not possible. Knowing that it is not the only crucial element in finding an agent put me at ease to continue refining my work, researching the market, and deciding in which direction to go with queries, etc. Thanks, as always, for the inside view. It is very helpful and helps us see agents as less mysterious and more human. 🙂

  11. lynnekelly on June 10, 2009 at 6:13 PM

    >I'm in the query process now, and I submitted first to an agent I met at a conference; she sent a nice, personal email asking me to submit my WIP when it's ready, but passed on the work I was submitting. Then I've had full manuscript requests from agents I haven't met, but just queried based on what I'd heard and read about them and what they like to read. I agree that if the conference were a month or two away, you might as well wait, but with it being 5 months away, I don't see any reason to put off your query. If they like it, they like it.

  12. lynnrush on June 10, 2009 at 1:49 PM

    >I'm so glad someone asked this, I'd been wondering it as well. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. Amber Argyle-Smith on June 10, 2009 at 11:50 AM

    >It's always worked better for me to meet the agent first. In a round about way, it's how I got my agent.

  14. Cheryl Barker on June 10, 2009 at 9:58 AM

    >What a good topic for a post. Sure appreciate hearing your take on this, Rachelle. Always appreciate your insight.

  15. Teri D. Smith on June 10, 2009 at 9:32 AM

    >Intereting…thanks! What about another senario? You have a proposal almost ready, and speak to an agent at the conference…after all, it's an opportunnity! The agents likes your idea, reads a bit, and invites you to send a full proposal. How long can you wait to send it in if you feel it needs a bit more polish? Is there a time limit on such offers?

  16. Pam Halter on June 10, 2009 at 9:19 AM

    >I think Rachelle gave good advice. If you're going to meet an agent at a conference in a couple of months, it doesn't hurt to wait. I always feel better meeting face to face, even though it's a bit nerve wracking.

    Although I had the opposite experience a year and a half ago. I queried an agent and then found out she was going to be at Mt. Hermon. I emailed her to say I would be there, too, and would she like to meet and talk in person. She said yes. We did meet and connected personally, however, she simply didn't know what to do with YA fantasy, so she didn't sign me on. But I made a friend and that was a blessing.

  17. Karen Witemeyer on June 10, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    >My experience mirrors BJ's above. I querried an agent several months prior to a conference and she let me know that she was holding my proposal in her "maybe" file. When I registered for the conference, I signed up for an appointment with her anyway, hoping that the personal contact would help my case.

    By the time my appointment rolled around, I had received positive feedback from editors at my target publisher and during my agent appointment, I was able to pass this information on to her. It helped move me from the "maybe" pile to the "yes" pile.

    In my case, having the earlier contact with this agent, paved the way for a productive face-to-face meeting. Would it have been as productive if I didn't have good news from an interested publisher? I don't know. But conferences offer many opportunities you can't get anywhere else. That good news from the editor came at the same conference only hours before my agent appointment. Needless to say, I scrapped my planned pitch and focused instead on the editorial interest.

    Every person's journey is unique, but this is what worked for me.

  18. Sharon A. Lavy on June 10, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >Ditto, what Bill said. =)

  19. Bill Barnett on June 10, 2009 at 8:46 AM

    >Very insightful information.

    Thank you, Rachelle.


  20. Lea Ann McCombs on June 10, 2009 at 8:26 AM

    >In my VAST experience of having attended ONE writers' conference (!) I'd have to say the major advantage of waiting to query agents is that you get to see the agents in action, watch them, take their classes, etc. and you might change your mind on who you thought would be a perfect fit.

    I had (fortunately) already aecured a good agent when I went to my conference last year, but I was able to sit in a class with a well-known agent I had queried some time before. After the class, I was so glad I had not signed with him. He was fine as a person, but I could tell that his brusque, somewhat negative manner would have greatly intimidated me as a first-time author.

    So if you have the opportunity to be at a conference with agents you are considering, it might be worth a couple months wait in order to get a better idea of the personality and style of each one so that you can make a more informed choice.

  21. BJ Hamrick on June 10, 2009 at 8:18 AM

    >In my case, sending my proposal before the conference was beneficial. The agent remembered my name when I sat at her table, and she signed me the next week. It was that little dinnertime nudge that helped her take a minute from her busy schedule to seriously consider my work.

  22. Krista Phillips on June 10, 2009 at 7:52 AM

    >This is something I've been struggling with too, but decided to wait until conference before I send to any new agents–I'll be attending ACFW. I really want to spend the summer months polishing my manuscript/proposal/query, HOPEFULLY finishing my second book and the proposal for it. It gives me a goal to work towards, and I am really pumped about meeting it.

  23. Stina Lindenblatt on June 10, 2009 at 6:45 AM

    >I seriously doubt I'll make any contacts with agents and editors at the LA SCBWI conference that will result in requests for my manuscript. I'm not doing the 15-page $100 consultation (I've already had feedback from an agent–for free), which would have been my only possibility (and there's no guarantee it would be the right person, anyhow). I'm there for other reasons. So that won't stop me for sending out queries to specific agents before I go.

  24. Katie on June 10, 2009 at 5:41 AM

    >This is totally something I'm struggling with as well. In a month or two (after I'm finished revising my three stories), I might (stress, might) be ready to start seeking representation. I definitely have two or three agents in mind, but didn't know if I should just wait until after I go to the ACFW conference this Sept. It's hard to know what the right thing to do is. Right now, I'm just focusing on growth and improvement. But in a month or two, I might be ready…. Wow, that just made my heart pick up its pace a litte!

  25. Anonymous on June 10, 2009 at 1:30 AM

    >I think Kay Ryan best sums up writers conferences, for those who have a hunch to never lose money or dignity to the things:

    "Tomorrow morning at the AWP bookfair a young writer will be able to meet everybody, editors, publishers, all in one place. They’ll all be sitting there behind their piles of books and journals. The hopeful young writer could have conversations, exchange email addresses, hand them manuscripts. Next month if he sent an editor some work he could start his email with, “I’m following up on our conversation at last month’s AWP bookfair…. ” It kind of makes me sick to think about.

    On the other hand, maybe there will be free keychains."