I often see a lot of confusion from authors regarding referrals and I see them used wrong all the time in queries. The query software I use has a box for referrals and I think that makes authors feel pressured to provide one. I often find myself considering getting rid of it because the majority of people who use the referral box do so incorrectly, making it kind of useless to me. My original intent was to use it to bring actual referrals to my attention quicker, but that hasn’t worked. So let’s cover referrals, what they are, how to use them, and what to avoid.
While some agents may hold different opinions, when it comes to referrals I want them to be from someone who actually knows me. Someone whose name I will recognize instead of going “who?” This generally means clients and other agents or editors I’ve worked with or any other publishing professionals I’ve met personally. Sometimes If I meet an author via an event I might ask them to include that even in the referral box to remind myself of where I requested from. Referrals are also different from someone simply suggesting you query me. Referrals are rare, which is what gives them more sway, but they don’t necessarily increase your odds of getting an offer. The writing itself is what I will make my decision on with or without a referral. Plus referrals give me higher expectations going into the query and sample compared to the average query and that can be hard to meet.
I often see people inserting a name into the referral of someone who happens to be some industry professional who told them they should query agents. Don’t do that. You are sending regular queries in that case without referrals. A referral also isn’t some website you happened to read about me on. Don’t use someone’s name as a referral because they said something polite about your book either, especially if you jumped on them at a conference to put them on the spot or they never actually read it. You should never use someone as a referral without their permission to do so.
So how to get a referral? I’m of the mind that you shouldn’t reach out to people you don’t already know to beg for referrals. Popular authors can get inundated with these requests. If you happen to know someone who knows or has an agent, you can ask POLITELY for a referral but don’t be offended if they say no and don’t pressure them. Make sure you get their permission before using them as a referral and preferably they should have seen your writing already. Keep in mind that asking someone for a referral is a bit like asking them to put their reputation on the line.
Referrals coming from other publishing professionals and my clients can be a sign that the project has quality writing and that’s what I’m hoping for in referrals, to get already-vetted projects that are to my tastes instead of a referral that I received because someone happened to know someone who never looked at their writing. Referrals aren’t worth desperately chasing after. I read all queries sent to me personally and so far I’ve only gotten one client via referral and I would have signed her without the referral because at the end of the day it comes down to the project itself. I’ve also turned down projects that came with referrals because I didn’t fall in love with them.
Can referrals be useful in getting yourself in front of an agent? Yes. But if your project isn’t to their tastes or high enough quality yet to be published then that referral won’t do you much good. You should focus more on the quality of your project than chasing after referrals because in the end it’s the project itself that will get you an offer. I like to view referrals as a sort of networking tool, they can be a way for me to take a look at projects I may not have otherwise gotten or to get a more personal introduction to an author, but in no way are they needed.