As anyone who has attempted it knows, writing is deceptively hard. It takes mental acuity and acrobatic imagination, organized creativity, and tremendous patience coupled with spontaneous genius. It’s the perfect equation of personality and intelligence finding space over time. And if, by some miracle you do happen to do it—and do it well by your own standards—you want it to be read, preferably by hungry hoards of fans holding out palmfuls of money, dinero, argent or even bitcoins to read your next work.
You want to be sustained by your writing—emotionally and financially—so you can do it some more. So do I.
The secret to reaching this realm is the guidance and support of a literary agent, that Merlin of the publishing world who turns the unread and unappreciated into an author.
A literary agent will not turn you into a writer—you have to do that. They will perform the miracle of changing the world around you, by escorting your work to the best place for it to shine. And for you to continue doing exactly what you have worked so hard to do well.
Having recently finished a mainstream novel, I am in the process of seeking an agent for the book called, Of Yin and Yang. I did my research first and picked up a number of tips that are worth sharing.
Are you ready? It may be hard to tell, but here are 9 tips to help you get there:
1) Finish It
We’re not talking about the first draft–just typing ‘the end’ doesn’t mean you are done. Many writers make the mistake of sending out early drafts, thinking that agents (and sometimes even editors) will recognize the talent and want to shape a write.
Time to face facts: agents do not want to prune, parse, shape, hone, or buff your work. And they don’t want to see anything from you–including a query letter–until you have a finished novel.
2) Clean Up Your Copy
Get rid of typos, awkward phrases, weird spaces, widows and orphans, strange paginations and anything else that could be fixed.
3) Create a Master Document
This is the copy that will be replicated in many forms for submission. Make sure it is always your latest version and does not get corrupted with inconsistencies or new typos. Even better, make a master copy, which becomes the document you derive all your samples from. And of course, print out a hard copy and store it someplace safe.
4) Begin Your Search
Now, you’re ready to look for an agent. Be discriminating. You are looking for someone to take on a great deal on your behalf:
- submit to appropriate publishing houses and editors
- negotiate for the best deal
- help you navigate the editing process
- champion the book throughout publication and distribution
- help you prepare to promote it
- guide you in choosing your next project
There are many places to look for agents, including the Writer’s Market, which has long been the quintessential tool for writers seeking publication. It is subscription-based, and there are good free resources you can try first. My suggestion is 1000literaryagents.com, which offers a free basic membership that will give you enough information for your initial list. You can then upgrade for more information. QueryTracker.net and AgentQuery are also good resources.
5) Compile Your List
Look for agents that meet your basic criteria. This needs to include the genre you are writing in—don’t even bother to send queries about your mystery novel to agents who are not interested in mysteries. It’s a waste of your time, and you will be shutting a door permanently, as they all keep records of submissions and queries.
You might want to stick to a particular region of the country. I chose to look for agents with more life experience (ie, older, like me) who would be more likely to find a novel about characters over fifty more entertaining than younger agents would.
6) Set Up Your Tracking Sheet.
This can be in Excel, Word, or you might use a tracking tool provided by the sites listed above. If you create your own tracking sheet, it should contain the following information: agent, name of agency, location, query requirements, and response time.
7) Check the Agent’s Website.
Read their submission page, and prepare to send them exactly what they ask for. Some want only a query letter, some a query and bio, others will accept sample chapters or just the first 5 pages. Some get very specific about fonts and margins, so make sure to create a new file for each—be sure not to mess up your master document when doing this.
8. Compose your Query Letter.
Draft your basic letter. There are some good examples of query letters on various websites, such as:
- Agent Query
- Media Bistro – 23 query letters that worked
- Writer’s Relief – publishes a number of very useful articles on all the components of a query, including writing a synopsis
9. Tailor Your Submission
The query letter should in some way make a personal connection with the agent and show you know what kinds of books they like to represent. Put together the other pieces, including bio, synopsis and sample pages or chapters ONLY AS STIPULATED on the submissions page of the agency website—if they don’t take attachments, don’t send any!
Now you’re ready. Push the button…and then log it by date in your tracking sheet.
This is a numbers game. Agents get a lot of submissions, and you only have one page to convince them of the extraordinary value of your book. Don’t take it to heart when they don’t respond—as most of them will not. One of the agents I spoke to said you want to send your query to as many agents as you can—at least a dozen or so.
I’ve sent queries out in batches of 5-6 every two weeks. If one agent requests the entire manuscript, they may want an exclusive of 6-8 weeks to read it. Others may not require an exclusive, but you should always acknowledge that the book is being simultaneously submitted to other agents for their consideration. If you have to juggle who gets it next, it means you’re doing something right.
Regular Mail vs. Email Queries
This seems to be a matter of personal preference–I am not sure there is a clear benefit to either method, so I recommend trying both. I think email is easier (and certainly cheaper), and many of the agents only take online submissions through their own websites. But some still prefer the old fashioned paper query. These agents often take sample chapters as well, which is an advantage, since they actually read some of your work before deciding upon it. And, a real benefit is that most agents DO respond to hard queries, even if it is only a form letter rejection.
If you submit online, most agents state they will only respond if they are interested. You can send a follow-up, but it is unlikely that you will get a response to this if you did not hear from them in 4-6 weeks on your original query. Move on to the next.
Please share your experiences in the realm, or getting there, so we all find our way. May the force be with us all! Now get back to writing!
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