Your book is finally finished. You’ve just come back from the printers hauling several new copies (in manuscript form of course) and they look just fantastic sitting in the box on the floor. Now what? You’ve heard the stories about how difficult the publishing world can be, and they are all true. To make matters worse, the first step is perhaps the most difficult one: finding an agent. And it’s virtually impossible to get a publisher to consider an unsolicited manuscript. The good news is that agents do look at new material that is presented well and that catches their eye. While you cannot necessarily predict what is marketable in the fickle world of publishing, you can give your work its best chance at getting noticed by an agent. Here’s how to get started:
Make sure your book is really finishedYou only get one shot with an agent so make it your best one. Consider hiring a professional editor. These are often published writers themselves who make extra money helping other writers get their manuscripts ready. They might be writing teachers, or people who have worked as editors for a publishing house. A good editor can suggest changes to your manuscript that make the difference between a really good first effort and a book that grabs the attention of an agent and makes them want to take it on. It is well worth the investment. Keep in mind that you can work with your editor by phone and email so location is not much of a consideration.
Attend a writer's conferenceAlthough they cost time and money, writer's conferences are rewarding on many levels, not just for networking but also as a way to improve your writing. There is something magical about spending a week or two in a place where everyone is talking about writing, exchanging ideas and information, and critiquing one another's work. As a bonus, conferences are often held in beautiful natural surroundings. But do your homework. Attend the conference that is right for you. Some are all about the business of publishing while others focus more on improving your work. Still others have a little of both, panels and discussions with editors and agents, as well as workshops in which participants get feedback from writers and hopefully one-on-one with an editor or agent. I went to a conference when I was just beginning to work on my book and, not only did I make many contacts with agents and writers, the experience gave me confidence and a sense of what work I still needed to do. It was invaluable.
Write a good query letterThe first point of contact with a literary agent is the query letter. Crafting one is a skill in itself which you should learn (there are books written about how to write a good query!). The query letter is a one page introduction to you and your book. It should never be longer than one page. It needs to be professional and concise, not friendly or cute, not funny or particularly inventive. If you have a personal connection to the agent, or have met him/her at a conference, make sure to mention this in the first line or two. Then you will need a one-sentence tagline for your book which is a lot more difficult to write than it seems. A tagline needs to hook your reader and make them want to know more. It needs to tell us the genre, who the main character is, the central premise and dramatic action of the book, all in one sentence. You can spend hours and hours drafting a good tagline, and it is worth every minute.
Your editor may be able to help you with you query letter, but it’s a good idea to give it a try on your own. Coming up with a good tagline, for example, is very good practice. It helps distill your concept to one line which can reveal weaknesses in the story. Go to agentquery.com for more extensive advice on how to write a good query letter. Look at samples. Keep in mind that the type of query letter may vary according to genre, so do your research.
Submit your materialMake a list of agents. The best way to make a submission to a literary agent is through personal contacts so start with who you know. Agents you met at a writer's conference will most likely be open to hearing from you. If you don't know any agents, ask your writer friends to refer you to theirs. If that doesn't pan out, branch out to people you know in other fields. I once mentioned to a theater director that I was looking for a book agent and he put me in touch with a friend of his at a major New York agency. People who are influential in their fields often have contacts like these so remember to let people know what you are up to. If you can't get a personal referral to an agent, find out who represents the authors you like and start from there. Do a search of agents who represent books in your genre. Remember to follow their guidelines.
Search agentquery.com’s list of literary agents. It is free and provides a profile of each agent from who they represent to what genres they work with and what recent deals they have made. Make sure to send your query only to those agents who you know are interested in your kind of work. If you have a science fiction action adventure and an agent only deals with memoir and self-help books, approaching that agent is obviously a waste of time and shows a lack of professionalism on your part. Do your homework.
Submit cautiouslyNow might be a good time to take up yoga. The submission process is achingly slow in part because you can only submit your work to one agent at a time. Of course they won't know if you're submitting to more than one agent, but it is considered bad practice to do so. While it may be a nice fantasy, you don't want to be in the position of having to tell an agent who has decided to represent you that your work is out to another agent. Agents take time to respond, anywhere from six weeks to three months if you have sent them any sample chapters, and you will just have to wait it out. If you happen to be getting rave rejections (agent responses that are so positive you are ready to break out the champagne until you get to the part where it says "Unfortunately, in this difficult marketplace..."), and you're stumped as to why they are rejecting you, go ahead and ask politely.
If a stream of rejections comes in all giving the same criticism, you might want to have another look at your manuscript. While it is true that successful writers sometimes receive hundreds of rejections before they get an agent or publisher, it’s also a bad idea to burn through a long list of agents when your manuscript needs another pass. Always look for ways to make your work better. Regard the submission process as another way to improve your work, rather than as the final leg of the journey.
Beware the scam artistNo agent should ever ask for up-front money and the only contract you should be asked to sign is the standard author-agent contract. Make sure any agent you deal with has a track record of making sales to publishers. Again, do your homework. Avoid possible scam artists by not submitting to them in the first place.
- Be careful of spelling and punctuation in your book and in all your correspondence with agents. You'd be surprised how many people make the mistake of spelling the agent's name wrong, for example. Agents will simply throw your letter in the trash if their name is spelled wrong or if there is any other sloppy work on your part and who would blame them? Be meticulous and professional or it won't matter how brilliant your book is.
- Unless you are extremely lucky this process will take more time than you think, so be patient. Begin writing your next project so that your whole life is not taken up with submitting and your work and receiving rejections. And by all means be willing to go back to your book time and time again if the feedback warrants it. Re-writing is everything.
- The process of looking for an agent is best regarded as another step to improving your work. Rather than looking at your book as a finished product written in stone, keep looking at it with fresh eyes and be open to criticism. Above all, be true to your work. Don't try to predict trends in the publishing industry or do rewrites according to what you think will sell. If people could predict these things writers would be able to churn out bestsellers by formula. The best way to get your work noticed is to make it as true to itself as you can.