Guest Post: Literary Assistant Anita Mumm on Queries


Today I have a terrific guest for you guys. Nelson Lit's Literary Assistant Anita Mumm! There have been some posts lately about the dire numbers of clients signed from cold querying. In response to some of those reports, author/blogger Jody Hedlund recently asked: is the query system dying?

Well, I didn't really know the answer to that question. I did get to Sara via a client referral, so this made me wonder. But I figured instead of just pondering, I'd go straight to a source that could give us some insight. Anita is on the front lines of the slushpile at Nelson Lit, so I posed the question to her. Is there hope for a new writer to get an agent via a cold query? And now I'll turn it over to Anita for her answer.
There’s a rumor floating around cyberspace that agents don’t read blind queries anymore. That unless you’re already published, or recommended by Famous Author X, you might as well stuff your letter in a bottle and pitch it out to sea. The slush pile is dead.
Well, let me start by saying that if the slush pile is dead, I sure feel silly spending so much time wading through ours every day. *grin* On average, we get just over a hundred queries a day, and yes, we read them all. What we’re NOT looking for is an excuse to reject a query because it doesn’t contain enough name-dropping or publishing credits. Don’t get me wrong—those can definitely help, but they are not essential. When I read a query, I’m looking for a combination of the following: unique story, hot topic, strong voice (one that, we hope, mirrors what we’ll see in the manuscript), compelling characters, and an ability to be both thorough and concise—capturing the essence of the story in a couple of paragraphs is no small feat.
Here is an interesting statistic for you: 75% of our clients were cold queries (i.e. non-referrals). Yep, that means they were sifted out of the slush pile based solely on the strength of their writing in a one-page letter. Next, their 30-page sample made the cut, and we requested a full manuscript. Kristin or Sara fell in love, and the rest is history.
I can’t offer numbers from other agencies, but the fact that we frequently compete for the same hot manuscripts—from the slush pile—shows that we are not an anomaly here.
That said, I’d hate to mislead anyone by implying this is an easy process. Remember those 100 queries a day? So that means in a year we see…merciful heavens, that number is too scary for me to even think about writing! Makes my eyes bleed! And out of that scary number, our agents sign a tiny handful of new clients.  The odds are not in your favor.
But when have the odds ever been favor of wild, unrealistic dreams? Good thing JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins and Paul Harding didn’t waste time worrying about their chances. And neither did our clients, who have become NYT bestsellers, among many other honors. It started with a query letter.
Believe in your writing. Let it speak for itself. And by all means, learn how to perfect your pitch—that part doesn’t have to come naturally. Kristin’s query workshop on her blog ( is a great tutorial if you need a kick-start, and here is the link to some great examples of our clients’ original query letters:
Happy writing.


Anita recently joined the NLA team as literary assistant. A compulsive book collector whose interests span the genres, she chose her current neighborhood based on the number of bookstores within walking distance. She received a B.A. in linguistics and French from the University of Kansas and an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Illinois. She has taught English and creative writing to international students in the U.S., France, and China. Anita is thrilled to bring her love of language, writing, and other cultures to her new position at the Nelson Agency. She shares a cozy apartment near downtown Denver with a curvy kitty named Francine.

Now Anita is generously donating a query critique for a prize, so don't forget to enter the contest. You'll also be included to win the other query crits up for grabs as well. But remember, you need to comment on both this post and friday's, and fill out this form to enter. :)

Thanks again, Anita!