Funny You Should Ask: What are the best times to query a literary agent?

Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader's question about the best times to query a literary agent.
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Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader's question about the best times to query a literary agent.

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Dear Timekeeper,

I love this question because I think it has as many different answers as there are months in the year. My own answer is just a big, “Nope!” But I wanted to get a little deeper dive from others to give you a wholly informed response.

Thus, I committed to the obvious choice: I decided to slip incognito into the local watering hole to ask colleagues what their thoughts are regarding the best times to query. I chose to don a feather boa, galoshes and a pith helmet so as to blend right in with the after-hours agent crowd.

It was clear within moments that no one suspected a thing. I sashayed up to the bar and casually asked New Leaf Literary & Media’s Janet Reid (aka The Query Shark), “So, when is the best time to query you?”

Clearly comfortable speaking frankly in the presence of my boa, she spoke: “It’s always tempting to think you can get a leg (or a fin) up by querying at just the right time.But everyone’s schedule is different. Lots of agents work evenings, weekends and holidays.”

My Irene Goodman Literary Agency officemate Rachel Ekstrom Courage chimed in: “I am as sporadic about responding to them as people are in sending them. I once startled someone by responding to their query at 4 a.m., but I was in an airport and had a chance to peek. Since agents read queries whenever they can (yes, we often don’t have time during the workday), I think you can send them whenever you can.” Then she offers this helpful caveat: “But never on a full moon, on account of the werewolfing. That always takes precedent.”

But as with beer before liquor or liquor before beer, none of this is to say that timing doesn’t wholly matter, as Root Literary’s own Holly Root reminded us, en route to an unattended jar of maraschino cherries. “I’m a big believer that part of the magic of the query process is timing,” she said. “In addition to your query enticing an agent, that agent has also got to be hungry for new projects, and that part is hard to time from the outside. If I’ve just sold the last of my unsold projects, I’m hitting the slush—whether it’s August or December or April.”

She makes an excellent point. There’s industry-wide speculation that August and December aren’t the best months—and there is some truth to that, because a lot of agents and editors use those notoriously slower publishing months to catch up on the submissions clogging their inboxes. Some agents (myself included) will occasionally even close to new queries during those times in order to completely clear the pipes. That said, I’ve also signed and sold things from my slush in those same months—such as G.S. Prendergast’s brilliant young adult novel [Zero Repeat Forever], which I signed on to represent on Dec. 7 and sold to Simon & Schuster at auction on Dec. 17. Slow doesn’t mean stopped, and for the right book, clearly people don’t have a problem getting their hustle on.

“The best time to query is when your project is ready to go,” Reid said, adding, “the best agent to query is me first. Then Barbara Poelle.” I almost blew my cover right there, but I covered quite admirably by muttering about a pith helmet emergency and excusing myself.

“The best day to send a query is the day that you have honed both your query letter and manuscript into the tightest and most polished versions of themselves you think is possible,” Janklow & Nesbit Associates’ Brooks Sherman called after me. “I’ll be happy to receive an incredible query letter for a promising project, no matter what day of the week, month or year. I might not reply on New Year’s or Thanksgiving, but that’s mainly because I don’t want to ruin someone’s holiday with a rejection.”

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So query on, fair writers! I’ll check my inbox as soon as I’m done with all this werewolfing.

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