Over on the QueryTracker forums, one of the perennial questions is when it's okay to contact an agent. Back when I was still in the query trenches, I remember feeling terrified whenever it had to be done...or could it be done at all?
Frankly, with my first two agents, I was scared out of my mind whenever I did attempt to contact them, and we were already yoked together with a contract. There was no reason I should have been so scared to talk to them, but I had them on pedastles in my mind, and I would shrink with fear rather than call. By the time I had my last one, I'd just pick up the phone.
So on the one hand: Don't be scared to communicate with an agent. Agents and editors are in the communications industry. For that reason, they expect a certain amount of communication to take place.
And on the other hand: Don't pester them. There are certain times an agent will expect to hear from you and won't think it's even a little unusual to do so.
So let's go over the times it's a good idea to pester an agent. Ready?
1) When you send your initial query.
You probably don't need a whole lot of encouragement about this, but some writers do feel unnerved about querying an agent. "What if she doesn't like it?" "What if she feels I'm wasting her time?"
"What if his agency guidelines have changed
and now he wants all queries submitted
in iambic pentameter in a
No, no, no, no. Take a deep breath and send this query. Make sure you do it according to the guidelines on the agent's website, but don't worry about upsetting the agent or wasting his/her time. This is an understood part of their position and you're not going to annoy them with your one query following the guidelines. (In fact, if you follow the guidelines, you're already in the top five percent of queriers.)
(In case I've instilled within you a false bravery: please never call the agency to pitch over the phone. Follow the guidelines.)
2) When the agent requests more material
Yay! Don't be like me and triple your blood pressure when you get that request in your inbox. (I used to exclaim at the offending email, "This is a mistake! You were supposed to reject me.") Take your time and assemble the material requested by the agent, make sure it's attached, and then hit send. Close your eyes if you have to. Pace around the house and hyperventilate if you must. It's okay. You had permission to contact the agent this time, so you may do so without fear.
3) When it's been a long time since you submitted the requested material
For you, 48 hours is going to be a really long time since you submitted your requested material, and you'll ask yourself how freaking long it takes to read one book.
"A long time" actually means three months on a partial and six months on a full. Only then may you nudge. No, it doesn't take six months to read a book. But the agent already has a full roster of clients, contracts to read, editors to pitch, conferences to attend, and probably a stack of other full and partial requests.
(When you want to pester an agent while waiting, that's fine, but pester a different agent by returning to step 1. It works. The new agent will just see your shiny new query and won't think, "I bet she queried me because she had already waited three days on a full and couldn't sit on her hands any longer." Bonus: You may get more requests this way and then you can divide your fretting amongs several fulls and partials rather than just one.)
4) When you have an offer on the table
All bets are off here. You've had a phone conversation with an agent who has now offered you representation. This is the point where you contact every single agent who still has a live full or partial from you and let them know, even if you're not at a "nudge" point.
You give the other agents a reasonable amount of time to get back to you (anywhere from one week to two weeks) and rest assured they are happier if you contact them now than if they read your manuscript only to find out they'd wasted their time. (Don't do that.)
Some agents at this point will step aside rather than try to read your manuscript in a few days. But all of them will want to know.
Some agents want to be notified even if they have only your query letter. Other agents don't. Apparently there's no industry standard for that.
5) When the agent has given helpful advice on a rejection and you want to say thank you.
This is another one where I see agents talking on Twitter and voicing preferences that don't all agree. Everyone agrees you shouldn't CC 58 agents on the same query email, but they're really divided on whether it's okay to say thank you to helpful advice.
I always erred on the side of thanking the agent. If I found the advice helpful, I would send a two or three line email (maximum! I know we're writers and we can get carried away here, but don't) and say thank you for your time and your insights. If this manuscript doesn't land a home on this go-around, you will be in my first batch of agents to query on the next book.
On the minus side: you're taking up their time. On the plus side: it's polite and professional, and agents are human beings who take pride in their jobs, so you might as well let them know when they've helped you out. It doesn't cost you to be thankful.
Also, there are times when you should never contact an agent. Ready?
1) When you are drunk.
2) When you are angry. If you're going to react to unfair and pompous rejections, do so by screaming into a pillow or sending a nasty email to yourself, then deleting it. Later on, have a good laugh at the agent's expense.
But do not involve the agent in your venting. Ideally, the agent will never know she or he got under your skin.
3) When you're worried that your material got lost in cyberspace or it's been two whole weeks or your friend got a response from that agent faster than you did. Don't fret over this stuff. Email doesn't go missing nearly as often as you think it does, and agents tackle their inboxes in different ways. Take a deep breath and go pester a new agent.
Okay? Okay! So now go there and send your emails, and follow up appropriately, and remember to laugh. Keep those queries flying!