Agent stats on personalization, credentials, comp titles, and more!

by | May 1, 2017 | Literary Agents | 8 comments

Does it really matter if you personalize your query?

How much do writing credentials matter?

Are young agents more likely to take on clients via queries?

Opinions vary out there on the old Internet. Sure, I tell you to personalize your queries, but that’s just my opinion. Someone else out there might say something different. They would be 120% wrong and how dare they disagree with me, but OPINIONS.

Well. The good folks over at Query Mastery and New York Book Editors compiled a survey of twenty-one agents, 57% of whom had over ten years of experience. These were not your fly-by-night pseudo-agents. These are real, reputable agents at major agencies, including Curtis Brown, ICM, and Dystel, Goderich & Bourret.

What did they say? Let’s find out:

You face some steep odds

Let’s get the part out of the way that might send a shiver up your spine. What portion of queries result in a partial or full manuscript request?

A majority of the agents surveyed request less than one out of twenty submissions. In case you’re into percentages, that’s less than 5%.

Yeah. I know.

Including comp titles only works when you do it well

Should you compare your book to other books out there? My advice: it’s optional, but if you do, don’t include megabestsellers or anything too obscure.

A large majority of the agents surveyed seem to agree with the optional part. It can help, but only if you do it right:

Writing credentials don’t matter that much for novelists

Please don’t torch your MFA diploma or your list of story publications, but these agents don’t care that much about your credentials.

On the plus side: don’t sweat it if you don’t have credentials!

57% of the agents said they’re not important at all, and none said they were “very” important.

Your odds may be better with younger agents

As agents grow more experienced, they tend to rely more on referrals from their network and less on what comes through the transom.

This is reflected in the stats. A bigger portion of the agents’ list came from unsolicited submissions when they were early in their career:

Personalize, personalize, personalize (but story is everything)

What do these agents wish authors knew?

Research and personalization. In the freeform advice/feedback portion, agents stressed the importance of these key tasks:

“Research agents before you query.”

“Biggest mistake: LACK OF RESEARCH! Into author’s genre, agency query guidelines, and/or my category interests.”

“Do your research!”

“Read and abide by our submission guidelines!!! And don’t overshare on personal details, like hobbies/family life.”

Lastly, it really is all about the story:

“Don’t bury your best work: make sure that the very beginning of your query and the very beginning of your manuscript grab the reader and compel them to keep reading.”

“You don’t have to go to school for writing to be a writer, you have to be demonstrably writing as a mode of expression to be a writer. Too many queries focus on the “credentials” and not enough on demonstrating that writing habit.”

“Just tell me what happens in your story. Most everything else in your query is secondary.”

Query mastery

So. What to do with all this information?

Well, my friends Natasa Lekic, former editor and the founder of New York Book Editors, and Rachel Stout, formerly an agent at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, teamed up to create a service called Query Mastery, a ten-week training course that includes:

  • Rachel’s system for researching agents
  • Live coaching sessions
  • In-depth training modules on the query process, including query and synopsis writing, researching agents, and choosing the right keywords to market your book
  • Permanent access to cheat sheets and other resources
  • An exclusive Facebook group to connect with other authors

I’m a part of this too! I’m going to be doing a “bonus session” on how to make your book description stand out.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!

For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.

And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!

Full disclosure: I receive an affiliate commission via the links to NY Book Editors and Query Mastery, but I believe in these services. I mean, Natasa and Rachel met at a party at my apartment, and I’ve provided feedback on both services. Click freely!


  1. Shepherd

    Stellar advice, per the norm. *claps* Thanks for looking out for we little writers just shedding the down for feathers.


    Pie charts make me hungry. But thanks for the research and links, even if I can't actually eat them.

  3. Jackie

    Thanks for this great advice. I've always been amazed when authors tell me they've sent out query blasts without researching individual agents.

    Have a great day!

  4. Mary Hughes

    I knew about the research thing, but a lot of the rest is valuable new advice, especially that agents don't care if you've ever written anything before.

  5. Bryan Russell

    If actual pie makes an appearance, I'm fighting John T. Shea for it.


    I want the one that's 57.1% blueberry…



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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