Querying a Romance Novel: How to Get a Literary Agent

I’ve gone through three rounds of querying agents over the years. The first time, I did very little research or preparation and didn’t get a single request for my full manuscript.

However, the second time I employed much of the strategy below (which I used again this third time around), and I ended up with three agent offers and signed with a great agent for a decade and sold my nonfiction book.

Currently, I’m still in the process of querying agents for my contemporary romance. However, I feel pretty good about my query based on the number of full requests I’ve received so far (14), and I have received two offers of representation.

How long does it take to get a literary agent?

If you scan my advice below, you may quickly feel overwhelmed. I get it. Writing and editing a manuscript is a great deal of work, and you’re ready to get your book out into the world.

Here’s some tough love: if you want fast, self-publish. Nothing about traditional publishing is fast.

If, however, you have your heart set on traditional publishing, understand that the querying process is going to take months. Maybe a year or more.

I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.

If you’ve never written a query before, it’s going to take you a month or more to do the research I’m suggesting here, write a query, get feedback, revise and end up with a final product. Honestly, a month would be fast to do all that, but I’m trying not to scare you too much.

You’re also going to need to spend time building your list of literary agents to query. That research also takes time.

Then there’s the actual querying process. Agents can take months to reply to your query. If they like your query, they’ll ask to see your full manuscript. Then you can expect wait months for them to read that and reply.

Traditional publishing is a LONG game. (It’ll generally take 2-4 years from the time you start querying to holding a published book in your hands.)

How to get a romance novel published

Frustrated by the timeline I laid out above? There are several imprints of big houses, as well as quite a few small publishers, who accept unagented submissions from romance authors (see here).

There’s also indie publishing, which is usually the fastest option.

There are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of blogs and podcasts out there on traditional vs. self-publishing. Joanna Penn is someone I trust who has a good breakdown of the pros and cons of both. Jane Friedman, another trust voice in the industry, has a great post on the pros and cons of publishing with a small press.

What is a query letter to an agent?

If you’ve decided to stay the course and pursue traditional publishing, keep reading . . .

In my opinion, the best way to learn how to write a query letter is to see lots of query letters and get a feel for what does and doesn’t work. Luckily, there’s one website where you can get everything you need: Query Shark. This website has been around since I was querying the first time in 2011, and it’s how I learned to write query letters.

I strongly recommend reading at least a couple of dozen queries on the Query Shark. Pretty sure I’ve read more than 100. I honestly believe it’s the best way to learn how to write a query letter. I’d start with the “most recent queries that got to YES” list on the right sidebar on the site.

This is one time when I’m going to encourage you to go down the rabbit hole. The more of these you read, the better your query will be.

Getting feedback on your query letter

There are a multitude of resources, both paid and free, for getting your query letter reviewed. Personally, I was willing to pay to get a literary agent to review it through Manuscript Academy, and I would imagine the Query Shark’s paid service is good as well. However, there are also many Facebook groups where fellow authors will offer you free critiques. Here are a few:

Must-listen and must-watch resources for querying

I’ve listened to dozens of podcasts over the past couple of years on querying. I’m linking my favorites below, which can all be found on your favorite podcast app.

There are also two YouTube channels that provided a wealth of information. I’m linking to their playlists on how to get a book agent:

Listen to these podcasts and videos while you’re driving, walking the dog, getting dressed and ready for the day . . . you get it. Squeeze as many of these into your schedule as you can.

When to query a literary agent

The most important rule of querying fiction is that you should only do so after you have a completed manuscript that has been edited beyond a first draft. No, you don’t have to hire a professional editor and spend a bunch of money. However, you should do some edit passes yourself and try to find a critique partner or two who can help you spot weaknesses in your plot and character development (the Facebook groups above can also help you find partners).

I was lucky enough to be mentored through Kiss Pitch in 2022 by author Jessica Lepe, and she made me a devoted fan of the reverse outline for editing. Megan Van Dyke has a great guide for reverse outlining, and its her spreadsheet I use.

As a side note, querying for nonfiction is completely different. Although it also requires a query letter, you send a proposal instead of writing the full manuscript. Jane Friedman has a useful guide for drafting a nonfiction book proposal if you need that instead.

Querying memoir? It may feel like nonfiction, but memoir is queried like fiction.

Where can I find literary agents?

There are several tools you can use to find literary agents. Everyone approaches it a little differently, but here’s the strategy I used.

Authors similar to you

First, I made a list of all the authors in my genre who I read and think would have a similar audience to my manuscript. Many authors list their agents in their Twitter bios, and the rest can be found via a search on Google or Publishers Marketplace. Nearly all of them also thank their agent in their Acknowledgements at the end of their books.

Query Tracker

As I started finding agents, I used Query Tracker (which has a free version, but the paid version is worth every penny) to start making my list. It will show you when an agent is open/closed for queries, how they want to receive queries and also has links to everything you’ll need to research the agent and customize your query to them.

Manuscript Wish List

My next stop was Manuscript Wish List (MSWL). Not every agent is on this site, but it’s a great way to find agents who are interested in specific elements of your book.

My manuscript I’ve been querying is a small town romance that’s a fun retelling of You’ve Got Mail through notes left in a Little Free Library. So, I used the search feature on MSWL to search the title of the movie (one of the sections of agents’ profiles on MSWL is Favorite Movies) and keywords related to my book like “small town” and “enemies to lovers.” I’d read through the profiles that came up to verify the agent was interested in adult romance and that they didn’t have anything in the “Not a good match for” section that would rule my manuscript out.

Anyone who looked like a fit got added to my Query Tracker list.

Manuscript Wish List is also a popular hashtag on Twitter: #MSWL. So, next I searched Twitter much the same way I searched the MSWL website. More agents went on my Query Tracker list.

Publishers Marketplace

My last stop was Publishers Marketplace. This is another one that allows you to do some research for free but requires a paid membership to get all the access. In my opinion, it’s worth paying for one month to do your research.

I searched the deals for my keywords like “small town” again and filtered for Romance sales, noting who the listed agents were on the deals. I also went through all the Romance sales for the past 18 months and noted agents for any books that seemed similar enough to mine for those publishers to be a good fit for me too. Again, I added any new agents I found to my Query Tracker list.

By the time I got done, I had about 67 agents on my list. Over a few months, the list grew to 85 as I discovered additional agents on Twitter through #MSWL and seeing other authors announce their deals.

How to get a literary agent’s attention

If I’ know’ve learned anything from Twitter, it’s that there are many ways to get a literary agent’s attention—we just want to make sure you’re grabbing their attention for good reasons and not because you’ve done something wrong.

Here are five keys to getting a literary agent’s attention for all the right reasons:

  • I’ve said it above, but I’m going to say it again: polish your manuscript. Do not query your first draft.
  • Only query agents who are open to your genre. Read their bios on their websites and Manuscript Wish List and other available information, and do not query something they don’t represent. Some will say they’re open to anything they didn’t specifically say they don’t want, but most will be more specific.
  • Know the word count expectations for your genre, and don’t send something that’s way above or below those limits.
  • Follow instructions! Agents are always very clear on their websites how you should query them. From the subject line of your email to how many pages they want to see, every agent is different. Some will delete your query if it doesn’t follow their instructions, so pay attention.
  • Personalize your query. Sure, you’re going to reuse the “meat” of your contract over and over, but you want to personalize the beginning and tell them why you’re pitching them. For example, mention an author they rep who’s similar or something on their #MSWL that applies. Grab their attention from the start so they know you’ve done your research.

How many agents should I query at once?

I’m a big believer in batching your queries. I’d recommend querying 5-10 to start and then waiting until you get some replies for the next batch. Why? Because you want to know if your query and first pages are working. If you’re only getting form rejections (meaning it doesn’t say anything specific about your manuscript), there might be something wrong with your materials that warrants getting another review from a fellow author or an agent at Manuscript Academy (as discussed above).

If, however, you’re getting some positive replies, then you could send another batch of a half dozen or so. Keep going in small batches like that so you can make adjustments along the way, if needed.

Also, because you’re testing the waters a little in the beginning, you probably don’t want to query your top choices in that first batch in case you need to make revisions.

Remember that querying can take months . . . a year even. Between going in batches and waiting weeks (or months!) to hear back from agents on queries and then months to hear back when they request a full, it’s a long process. Don’t try and rush it and send all your queries at once and leave yourself no room for error.

Prepping your materials for querying

Being organized can make querying much easier and less stress inducing. Remember when I said above that every agent has different instructions? There are some common themes in terms of the materials they ask for, so it’s helpful to put those files together in advance and save them in a folder on your computer where you can easily grab what you need and not worry about sending the wrong pages or file.

Here are the files I have:

  • Full manuscript
  • First 5 pages
  • First 10 pages
  • First 30 pages
  • First 50 pages
  • First chapter
  • First three chapters
  • Synopsis (mine is two pages, which worked for everyone’s requirements)
  • Bio
  • One sentence pitch
  • One paragraph pitch
  • Similar titles
  • Why you’re the right person to write this
  • Potential target audience

Also, I always name all my files so they have my last name and the book title in the file name in case an agent separates the files from my email (for example, maybe they send to their Kindle to read) and loses track of who it belongs to.

It’s time to query!

Made it all the way through to the end? Did you actually do all those things? Then, you’re ready to query!

One last suggestion I have is to take advantage of the #amquerying community on Twitter. I’ve met so many fellow authors and even had agents follow me from tweets I posted with the hashtag. It helps to go through this process with other people who understand what you’re going through! (As a side note to this, I’d pin a tweet to the top of your profile with details on your book for when people check out your profile—here’s mine.)

Tag me in your #amquerying tweets and let me know how it’s going: @SavvyCarlisle.