The road to traditional publication is a long one. Once you (and your beta-readers) have taken your novel as far as you can, it’s as polished as you can make it, and you’re ready to share it with the world, the next step is typically finding a literary agent with a process known as querying.
While these are the common definitions for these terms, they are not uniform across the board, and you may find people using these terms for different things.
For those who’ve never queried a novel, here are 9 terms you’ll probably encounter along the way.
What exactly is querying, is probably the first question you have in this process. I’ve talked about this extensively, but querying is the process by which you select an agent, compose a query letter, send it to the agent, and then wait for a response. Many agents ask for more than just a query letter. On the agency’s submissions page, they will describe what they want. A query package may include: X number of pages from your manuscript, a synopsis (1-3 pages), a pitch or logline, knowledge of the target audience, or more.
Originally, people would mail letters to the agencies. Some agents still accept mail, but most have moved to email or even electronic forms.
2. The Query Letter
In America, the query letter is typically 3-4 paragraphs, 2 describing the story’s main character’s stakes and goals, 1 with the manuscript’s stats and any comparison novels, and 1 with a short biography of any relevant information.
If the agency you’re looking at requests a cover letter, it’ll be similar to a query letter, but the story part of the letter will typically just be one to two sentences.
A ‘comp’ or ‘comparison novel’ is a novel that gives the agent a feel for what your manuscript is like. Traditional comps are typically less than 3 years old and in your genre, avoiding any wildly popular novels. (You don’t want to say you’ve got ‘The Next Hunger Games’ or something of that nature.) You can also use older comps with things such as “the court politics of BOOK A with the humor of BOOK B.”
4. Pitch or Logline
While pitches can be longer than a traditional logline, your pitch, or ‘elevator pitch’ is the 30-second version of your story, something pithy and tweetable. This is ineffably easier if you have something that is “high concept”. “She’s a war-hardened soldier, he’s a street-rat who’s made it big as a chef, together, they fight crime.” Or “Cinderella meets Pitch Perfect in a futuristic rags-to-riches battle of the choruses.”
5. High Concept vs Low Concept stories
High concept stories have easy to describe plots and those pithy pitches. Low concept stories are typically more character driven than plot focused, and harder to condense.
6. Slush Pile
Despite the name, a slush pile is neither a stack of slushie drinks, nor plowed snow piled by the side of the road. Any unsolicited query (or, in the short story world of magazines and anthologies — unsolicited submissions) is dubbed part of the ‘slush pile’. Agents have author clients that they are beholden to, and only a small percentage of their time is spent looking for more clients. Often getting dozens to hundreds of query letter submissions a week, the slush pile can easily get away from a busy agent. Reading these piles is sometimes even relegated to interns and agents-in-training.
Submissions are when you send the full story to a publisher. If you’re looking to publish a short story, you’re going to be ‘submitting’ to them, not ‘querying’ them. When you have an agent , (or if you find a publisher that accepts unagented manuscripts), they’re submitting your manuscript to the publishing houses on your behalf.
In the old-school world of physically mailing your manuscript to agents, printing was also rather expensive. So, most authors who wanted the manuscript returned to them if the agent said ‘no’ would include a “self-addressed and stamped envelope” — a SASE for the agency to return the manuscript at no cost to the agency.
Sadly, in the querying process, this doesn’t usually mean “rest and relaxation.”
Some agents don’t say “no” or “yes” immediately. Some see potential in a story, but might email, asking for changes to be made, without offering representation, but asking to see the new version. These are known in the querying industry as “revise and resubmits” or – R&R. Some agents will give feedback without asking for a resubmission, so read carefully whenever you’re given advice. Standard practice is not to requery an agent with the same manuscript — unless it has undergone a massive overhaul. And, even then, it’s suggested to try different agents.
Are there any other terms you’ve run across when querying that those not in the trenches are unfamiliar with?
Let me know!
For those who are new to this: pay attention: if you get an R&R, don’t go off in a corner and sulk, complaining to the world “they hate me”. Instead, you should be jumping up and down with joy. Well under 10%, or it may be under 1%, of all manuscripts are accepted. If someone bothers to send you an R&R, you’re there.
My first published novel is coming out the end of May. I was ->ONLY<- asked for ONE revision. The editors tell me some people need six, or eight, and one was accepted after 17… and this is with a publisher who is old-style, and works to bring new authors along.
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Hi Morgan! Good bits. Just a note re Submissions – usually they just ask for one or several chapters, not the entire manuscript at first. In my experience, at least.
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Ah! I’ve only submitted to publishers with short stories and picture books. Thank you for the clarification.
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