Every agent deals with incoming queries and requested material differently, but I thought I’d do my best to outline how I read my way through query letters, requested partials, and requested full manuscripts. Just don’t read too much into it. This system is what works best for me personally, and every agent will have a different organization system.
When I read queries is the most sporadic part of my system. Some weeks, I’ll read a few queries a day. Other weeks, I don’t have time for the query inbox at all and then find myself setting aside a chunk of time and reading through hundreds at once. Whenever it is that I get to read queries, I never read only one and then move on. I always read a chunk at once, one after the other, which is why the good queries always stand out from the bad. A query letter that follows guidelines is always a welcome change in an otherwise dreadful sea of queries unnecessarily trying to rebel.
Sometimes I read queries in the morning while having breakfast, before I’ve officially started work for the day. Sometimes I’ll read a few over my lunch break. Sometimes I’ll read queries when I’m waiting in line for coffee because my local Starbucks woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I also read queries out loud as much as possible. I like to think of queries as miniature version of movie trailers—they should sound exciting when read out loud. They should make me want to see the film. Or, well, read the book.
I rarely request queries right away. I flag the ones I like and then return to them later when I make my list of manuscripts I’d like to see. This means I read every query at least twice before requesting. Sometimes I change my mind. I request queries in batches because we share a query inbox at P.S. Literary Agency, and our assistant Kyle keeps track of query requests and rejections. I try to make things as easy as possible for her and let her know where I am in my query reading—so requesting in batches, up to a certain date, is the best way to keep things organized.
I almost always request a partial (three chapters) and a synopsis when I like a query. (Picture books are different; I always request the full text and sample illustrations for those.) Three chapters is enough to give me an accurate idea of the tone, the voice, and where the story is going. The opening needs to be very strong for me to keep reading. I generally pause after each chapter and ask myself if I care enough to keep going. If I don’t, then that’s where I stop reading. It’s a simple process. A synopsis is helpful if I’m on the fence about a partial request. The synopsis lets me know what I can expect in later chapters and what the writer views as the most important parts of the story.
I also read partials in batches, just like query letters. I carve out time every week (or two—it depends on what else is going on) and read through the material I have waiting for me on my iPad. (I do all work reading on my iPad, which is why I almost always refuse to read ebooks. It’s a silly mind trick to differentiate work reading and pleasure reading, and it works.) Sometimes I read partials out loud too. This is more common with children’s manuscripts (middle grade and younger—books that you can imagine being read out loud by a teacher to a classroom of students). If this blog post does nothing else, I guess it is admitting to you that I like the sound of my own voice.
If I like the sample chapters enough, then I will ask to see the full manuscript. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen too often. A lot of things need to fall into place for me to request a full manuscript. And I have high expectations for the full manuscripts I request. I also put these onto my iPad and, for the most part, read them in the order that they arrive in my inbox. If a writer receives an offer, or there is some other strange circumstance surrounding a submission, then I’ll manually move it up the list. Otherwise, I just read in order.
And that’s it. That’s my crazy simple system for reading queries and requested material. There’s no magic formula really, just a lot of patience and hope and, sometimes, disappointment. The slush pile is a wonderful and dreadful place. So just make sure your submission is the gem.