Query.Sign.Submit. with Ali McDonald


Ali represents children's literature from board books through new adult (ages 0-18+).

“I'm afraid I can't always respond to all queries because of my hectic schedule, but no response just means I haven't had a chance to get to it yet. Queriers should always feel comfortable nudging me if they haven't heard back within a month, and should update me with any offers of representation or publication.”

To connect with and learn more about Ali, visit . . .

The Rights Factory

literary agent and author Now for Ali’s insight on querying, signing with an agent, and going on submission.


What advice would you give to querying writers?

The best advice I can give to querying writers is to do your homework! Be sure to visit the agency's website, get a feel for their company culture, study sample catalogue copy and tailor your query. The queries that catch my eye address me personally (getting my name right!), adopt the casual, but professional style of our firm, model their pitch after my own (with comp titles, introduction to the plot highlighting the hook and the emotional core of the story, and brief bio), adhere to my submission guidelines, and show personality!

Do you always read a query all the way through? If not, what would make you stop reading?

Not always. I'll stop reading immediately if my name is misspelled or incorrect, or belongs to some other agent entirely (which happens more often than one might think!). Generic salutations, such as "Dear Agent" turn me off. I can live with a weak title, but misrepresented genre and audience get my goat (e.g., autobiographical sci-fi; middle grade YA; realistic paranormal; romantic-tragic-paranormal-comedy-fantasy-science-fiction). Other missteps that will cause my eyes to glaze over include: multiple and repeated typos or grammatical errors; a wall of text; a synopsis instead of a pitch; or comp titles that are vague or overused (Harry Potter, Twilight, Fifty Shades, etc.). A query that is outside my area of specialization (children's literature) is automatically deleted. And the rest is subjective, based on current trends, market interests, and personal taste. For example, in this moment in time, I likely wouldn't read a query for paranormal romance all the way through—it's not a genre that interests me as an agent or reader and the market at present is over saturated. I'm not generally one for trends, having just taken on a profoundly moving teen novel with a vampire protagonist at a time when "vampire" is considered a bad word throughout the industry :)

What would you love to find in the slush pile?

Because I'm primarily interested in debut authors whose writing careers I can help launch and grow, I'm always looking for that exceptional new talent in my slush pile. For me, part of the great fun of being an agent is digging in my inbox for buried treasure. And while you never know what you might find, I have my heart set on an early reader centered on an inseparable friendship; a chapter book series about summer camp, horses, or adventure, or a combination of all three; some dark and gritty YA along the lines of Law & Order: SVU for teens or the story of a young Hannibal Lecter, and anything set in the South.


Are there any specific questions you’d recommend that a writer ask when talking with offering agents?

Sure. Signing with an agent is a big decision. When fit is everything, it's important to ask the right questions to define the shape of your future relationship:

  • Ask agents whether they are interested in your work on a project-by-project basis or for the length of your writing career.
  • If you write across genres and age groups, be sure to find out what areas the offering agent represents, and what happens if any of your projects fall outside of their scope. Will you be encouraged to find another agency for those projects? Or will another agent at the firm represent them?
  • Get a sense for the company culture: is it big or boutique? Formal or more casual? Does the agent have personal relationships with their clients?
  • What is the agent's style of communication? In-person, phone, video-chat, email, etc. How often can you expect to hear from them? What is their approximate timeline for getting back to you?
  • How will they manage your rights? Do they handle their own foreign rights? What conferences, trade shows, fairs, etc., do they attend?
  • How many clients do they have, and where do you fit on their list?
  • Be sure to confirm they work on industry standard commission rates (15% domestic and 20% foreign or film/TV), and that you understand additional costs such as disbursement fees or billing for supplies.
  • Try to get a handle on where the agent is in their career: Are they new to the business, or close to retirement? How many deals have they done in your area? How well established are they in the industry? How long have they been with the agency? What other agencies have they worked for? Do they also write books?
  • And always ask about their submission policies and the specific strategy for your work.

Once a writer has signed with you, what’s the next step?

Once a writer has signed with me, the next step is editorial. We have a fabulous network of skilled readers at our agency that provide invaluable feedback and editorial comments for our authors. Additionally, we do both substantive and line-by-line edits, often over several drafts, to ensure that when we submit, we are sending out the most polished product possible.  While the authors are editing, we're building their submission lists. I've found it's in my authors' best interests to submit broadly to editors in each market.

How do you get to know editors and what they’re looking for?

We love our editors! Our agency travels extensively in order to cultivate and grow these relationships. Personally, I attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Bologna Children's Book Fair, and make several lengthy trips to New York throughout the year. We meet editors at our table at the fairs, at their offices, over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or cocktails, to chat about books and the literary life. But the best thing we do for our editors is send them exciting projects!


At what point would a client share new story ideas with you?

I want to hear about my clients' ideas whenever they are ready to share them with me! The earlier the better, because I love to be involved and support the work in any way I can. Sometimes clients wait and share full manuscripts and other times we pass chapters or drafts back and forth as they are being written. We decide together with our authors what is the best approach for them and the particular project.

Do you forward editor feedback to writers?

Once out on submission, I let my authors dictate what level of communication they'd like moving forward. Some authors want all the feedback verbatim, in which case I forward passes and interest along to them directly. Others only want an ongoing list of editors who are still reading and those who have passed. And others still only want to hear offer news. We like to customize for our authors' needs!

What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?

I always encourage my clients to start working on their next project while on submission. It's the best way to focus your energy! And because the publishing cycle is so long these days—sometimes more than two years—you need to keep writing away to maintain your momentum in the marketplace! Ideally, to build an author, publishers want to be putting out titles year-over-year at a minimum.

Thanks, Ali!

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Posted April 2014– Always check for current info and guidelines.

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