Finding a good literary agent – which is generally the first step to getting published with a traditional publisher – can be like finding any good relationship: complicated! But just as every aspiring author is hoping to meet the perfect agent, every reputable literary agent is hoping to discover the next great American author. You don’t need connections (with rare exceptions). You just need to write a really good book and present it well (definitely two different things). But agents are also dealing with unbelievable volumes of submissions, and hoping to get out to dinner with their spouses or to their kids’ soccer games. So you need to catch an agent’s interest and keep it at every turn – in a way that is PROFESSIONAL, not hokey or wacky or will-this-guy-stalk-me-ish. The Goal: Send as little as possible to lure an agent into asking for more. The minute you move from the to-be-gotten-through pile to the I-asked-to-see-this-so-maybe-its-good pile, the presumption changes. They’ve ASKED to see your work.
(If you want to self-publish, there is a wonderful summary of the options in The New York Times “Tool Kit”: The Joys and Hazards of Self-Publishing on the Web, by Alan Finder.)
Here’s an overview of what you need to put together to query an agent:
- A Query Letter/Email (with hook, bio, why you, and thank you very much)
- A Synopsis (or maybe not)
- Manuscript Pages (or, again, maybe not)
I’ll also address here how you put together a list of which agents to query, how many Submissions/how often (and the importance of persistence), what to do when an agent asks for pages, the follow-up, and a few Bewares (aka Run the Other Way If…).
The Query Letter
A greeting, three sections, and a signature, totaling not more than one page in 12 point font. 11 point if you absolutely must. Don’t spend a page turn on your letter if you can help it.
It’s a marketing tool! General Motors doesn’t sell cars by saying it’s brown with four wheels.
- Dear Annie Agent or Dear Ms Agent: (a colon is the proper punctuation here because this is a business letter).
- Do address to a specific agent, and spell the name correctly.
- Don’t include anything between the greeting and the hook.
- Use as few sentences as you can pare it down to and still intrigue someone to want to read.
- Make it like the description on the back of a paperback, or on the inside flap of a hardcover – not more than two paragraphs.
- Include the title of your book!
- Consider starting with a question, or with your first few lines of your book.
- Resist the urge to tell the whole story. If you do, what’s left in it for them?
That’s just the start: like a good novel – and perhaps even more so – a good hook generally gets better with a lot of thought. My queries can go through 20 drafts. It’s a pain, but it’s necessary pain.
- Again, be short and to the point.
- If you have publishing credits, trot them out. If you don’t, try to get one or two. I once heard an agent say if a writer can’t get published in his or her local paper, she’ll approaches that query with great doubt.
- If there is a reason you are in a particularly good position to write this book, trot that out. (Are you a prosecutor writing a legal thriller, a doctor writing a medical one, a mother writing a book about motherhood?)
- State your education, writing or otherwise, and career.
WHY I’M QUERYING YOU, MR. OR MS. AGENT
If you have chosen this agent because they represent someone whose work you admire, say so in one line on the letter. More on this later, when we talk about your list.
But do think of a book you like that you think is something like what you’ve written, and drop in that author’s name: “I am querying you because I understand you represent [author name], who writes the kind of novel I aspire to write.”
Note the “aspire to.” Do not say “I think I am the second coming of Steven King.”
THE THANK YOU: “I hope you enjoy the opening of [Name of Your Novel], and thank you for considering my work.” Or “Thank you for considering my work. I look forward to hearing from you.” Confident. Unapologetic. Nice. Not arrogant. Professional.
A FEW NOTES ON FORMAT: Think of this as a literary date; brush your hair and wear clean clothes.
- (Repeat) ONE PAGE. 12 Point Type. 11 if you really must.
- Absolutely pristine – no typos, no coffee stains, no pink ink. You’ll be surprised how much agents (who often come from editing) are put off by little things.
- DON’T FORGET TO INCLUDE YOUR CONTACT INFORMATION: EMAIL AND PHONE NUMBER!
- If you’re submitting by mail, use nice letterhead. (You can make it on your printer with good quality paper.) And include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
So Now You Have a Draft of Your Query Letter. Just a draft, though. You know you can make it better. Each time you send it out, try to make it better. Time may not heal all wounds, but it does allow us to see our work with a fresher eye.
Frankly, I don’t synopsize. Almost nothing, boiled down to a page or two or three, plays well. My theory is it just gives them another layer at which they might stop reading before getting to the manuscript. If I’m submitting online and there is a space for a synopsis, I would just include my hook paragraph. But if you think your novel will synopsize well (high concept?) do so in as few pages as possible.
The Manuscript Pages
1. The first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page – always so important to keep the reader’s attention. Remember, they have that kid’s dance recital to get to, and they don’t want to come in over the weekend to get through the pile.
2. Send the least number of pages you think will intrigue them to want to read more.
3. Choose your ending page carefully, someplace you think they’d want to be turning the page to see what comes next.
4. If they say they want 10, don’t send them 100, but if they say they want 30 and your good end point is 20, just send the twenty. If they want thirty and you have the perfect stop point at 32, play with font types (but not size, stick with 12 pt) to see if you can’t get it on 30. If you can’t, do send the 32.
5. If you are submitting online, do make sure to send it in whatever format they request. Some will only read email text, and will not even open emails with attachments. Some have website forms for submissions. My agent won’t open pdf or .docx – a fact disclosed in bold on her website.
6. Consider not enclosing pages, just sending a query. If your query is strong enough, they’ll ask for some pages, and then all of a sudden you have moved from the to-be-gotten-through pile to the I-asked-to-see-this-so-maybe-its-good pile. The presumption changes.
1. What kind of book have you written? (Genre? If so which? Non-genre, then how would you describe it?)
2. Think of books you like that are something like yours, or that would be read by readers who might like your book. Look in bookstores, at the shelves you think your book belongs on for names of other authors.
3. Flip to the back of a book and skim through the acknowledgments – often the author will thank their agent.
4. If so, google them for website and/or address.
5. If not, google the authors name and the word “agent.” This will very often turn up their agents.
6. If not, try Contemporary American Authors in the library.
7. Once you have an agent name, if they don’t have a website, you can find their addresses through The Association of Authors Representatives (which most reputable agents belong to). You can also find more information from them at querytracker.net.
This is the best way I’ve found to land a good agent for your particular work. An agent who actually sells books. You can go to an online list or a book of published agent names and addresses, but you have no way of knowing if they’re reputable or not. If they are too busy to take on new authors, they will often pass an interesting query onto one of the younger agents in their firm, or another agent they know – and that’s fine too.
It is definitely time consuming. But you’ve spent so much time on this book. Don’t you want it in good hands?
How Many Submissions / How Often, and the Importance of Persistence
Think of a book that you’ve read that you thought absolutely sucked. Or even better, one that you and several of your friends did not like.
Now: Imagine if you were an agent and that book was sent only to you.
Not every book is for every person. And you can spend a whole lifetime waiting for an agent to read. Which is why you multiple-submit.
How many people do you submit to? Lots.
Send out in batches of twenty, unless you have an good list of publications, in which case I’d send in tens. When you hear back from ten or a month passes and you haven’t gotten a bite or two or more, send out ten more. If you’re not getting nibbles, take another look at your letter. Maybe bait another hook.
Don’t give up! If you’re getting rejected, read these 1st Books posts:
Jane Austen was rejected?! Amazing, isn’t it.
Due to volume, some agents will never reply. Many say on their websites that if they want to see pages, they’ll let you know, and if you don’t hear from them please don’t take offence.
When an Agent Asks for Pages
So they might do this any time. I’ve had agents ask for manuscripts within a day of an email submission. Have your ms ready before you send your query.
If they ask for pages, send them! Right away, by whatever means they want it sent.
If they ask for an exclusive…. I hate exclusives, and the good agents rarely give exclusives to editors. BUT I would give a limited exclusive – say a week or two – if they asked for it.
If someone else already has the manuscript, politely tell them so. It’s like teenaged dating: everyone wants the boy or girl everyone wants, so it will only make them want you more and read faster.
If you get an offer and other agents are still reading:
1. If this is your #1 pick and they answer your questions well, go for it – but tell them you need to withdraw it from the other agents first.
2. If you’d like to hear from others first, tell them others are reading but you will let them know you have an offer and give them a very short additional time.
DO KEEP TRACK OF YOUR SUBMISSIONS: dates sent, replies, etc. so you can withdraw outstanding queries when you’ve agreed to go forward with an agent.
Run the Other Way if an Agent:
- Requires a reading fee.
- Requires a “marketing” or “submission” fee on contract signing.
- Asks you to buy a critique or manuscript assessment as a condition of submission or representation.
- Offers or requires the agent’s own paid editing services, or frequent referrals to freelance editors.
- Offers pay-to-publish contracts.
GOOD AGENTS MAKE THEIR MONEY SELLING THEIR CLIENTS’ MANUSCRIPTS TO REPUTABLE PUBLISHERS.
Some helpful links, including the Association of Authors Representative, can be found HERE.
Meg Waite Clayton
Bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters, The Language of Light, and the forthcoming The Four Ms. Bradwells