As a writer, I date back to the age of ink, paper, and stamps. That time isn't quite done. I've had a request from an agent for a query sitting around, unattended to for weeks, because her's is an agency that requires hard copy.
But the primary way to submit queries and partial or full manuscripts to agents (and those publishers providing access without agents) is through email. They do have their own guidelines as far as what they expect. Some want samples in the body of the note. Others will accept attached files. A growing number use online applications for submissions. But everything can be done from your laptop. No trips to the Post Office.
And when can you expect a response? Maybe never. One thing that hasn't changed is these people are so overwhelmed. So, today, many reject writers en passant. Typically, this means you, as the writer, are expected to mark your calendar for a date six of eight weeks after submission. My calendar is crowded with little boxes that say things like, "Angela B., Last Chance Agency, The Olive Orangutan, NO." When that date comes up, my submissions spreadsheet collects another negative (-). Well and good. I can handle it. I'm a big boy.
Some add insult to injury by insisting -- with waits that can extend far beyond a couple of months to most of a year -- that they, and only they, see your manuscript. This seems pretty one-way to me. A successful author said recently, "My advice is, ignore it."
Face-to-face is another option for the stout of heart. At conferences, you can make an appointment to sit down (for five minutes) with one of these gatekeepers and breathlessly make your case. Most ask for partials or full manuscripts, plus queries. In fact, it's rather rare that a writer is told, straight out, "No thanks." (In one case, an agent had "I am eager to reject you" written all over her face before I even sat down. And she followed through.) I've heard more than one agent admit that these were "pity" requests. Safer for them, but, perhaps, crueler in the long run to the writers.
A new option for connecting with agents and editors has emerged, and, to a "fast" guy like me, it's wonderful. At the end of last year, I stumbled upon online pitching. These occur mostly in blogs and tweets.
For blogs, you usually need a few hundred words of your "finished and polished" manuscript, but the key is a very brief pitch. Somehow, you need to provide a sense of your premise, your character, and your voice in 35 words. Your copy must be impeccable, sensitive to the audience you intend to reach, and fresh. It's a bit like writing poetry.
Oh, one more requirement: above your pitch and query, you need to list your audience (YA, Adult, MG, NA), your genre (SF, Rom, UF, etc.), and your word count. The last can kill you. Too few or too many words for the audience/genre you select can get you rejected out of hand.
If you think that sounds difficult, try tweeting your pitch. You have 140 characters to garner a gatekeeper's interest. And these editors and agents flash in and out of the "pitch party" and may miss you in the feed, so be prepared to pitch (slightly different) tweets twice an hour for 12 to 24 hours. It is marketing haiku or a full-contact sport, depending on your point of view.
Actually, you don't have 140 characters. You need to use some up identifying the party - something like #PitchBlack - and the audience/genre -- e.g., #YA #SF. Oops, now we're down to 120, including the blank spaces.
Here's an actual pitch I've had success with: It's Bud or the cats as he fights chaos to bring peace to a wounded household coping w/their dying aunt
Not as good as it might be, but it worked. As have my 35 word pitches. I've had over twenty requests for queries, partials, and fulls working this way. I've found five contracts from publishers in my in-box in the past 60 days. None of these came to me because of pity. They came to me because these folks are interested in my work. Cloaked by online anonymity the editors and agents self-selected with no social pressure to be nice.
I'll add that I've gotten access to "closed" agencies and publishers through these online opportunities. And everything is happening very quickly.