How to Get a Literary Agent
Unicorns, leprechauns, literary agents. What do those three things have in common? Well, they’re all pretty hard to come by, but by following a few simple steps, one of those three will be in your reach.
Well, first of all, I think we should ask two simple questions. What is an agent? Why do you need one? A literary agent is your advocate. He/she will push your book to all the major publishing houses and negotiate your book deal. They know the business and they use their expertise to your benefit. They only make money when you make money. So, if an agent is offering to represent you for a small fee, run, run, run away as fast as you can.
Of course, some people are lucky enough to get published without an agent. Their brother’s best friend’s second cousin’s nephew happens to know a big time publisher and can get their novel on some important person’s desk. Bam! Instant publishing contract. The rest of us need an agent. We need someone who knows the right people and knows where to push our book. If you want to take a chance and send your unsolicited manuscript to a publisher, you run the risk of ending up in a slush pile. Check out this slush pile I found at agentquery.com.
There is a very slim chance you will ever get read that way.
So, how can you do it? How can you capture that illusive agent? I have a few ideas on how to do it. You don’t’ have to listen to me or take my advice, but hey, the following steps worked for me. I just thought I’d pass it along.
Step 1 Write a really great manuscript
This may seem obvious but it’s not. In this market, you have to write something fresh and original in order to catch the attention of these jaded industry people. Your novel has to be outstanding not only to you but to a potentially large audience of people. Ask yourself: Who is going to want to read this and why? The answers to those questions should go in your query letter. If the only other person who likes your novel is your Uncle Sal, well just remember, he also loved your third grade report about baked potatoes. He may not be the most objective critic. Join a writing group or a writing site. There are plenty of free ones but even if you have to pay a few bucks a month, it is money well spent if it helps whip your book into shape.
Step 2 Edit that really great book
You think your book is ready. Trust me, it’s not. Go back and edit again.
Step 3 Do your research
Don’t send your erotic foot fetish manuscript to a children’s book agent. That may seem a little extreme, but people do things like that on a smaller scale all the time. Research the agents you are interested in. Find out what they like and what other books they’ve represented. You might even want to read some of the books they’ve represented. I’m not saying you should compare yourself to other books they’ve represented in your query but I am saying that you should know what they’re looking for. Otherwise, you’re wasting their time and yours. Think about it. How long have you spent writing your manuscript? A year? Two years? Ten years? You owe it to yourself and your novel to spend a couple of hours researching who you want to represent your book.
Step 4 Write an outstanding query letter
A letter riddled with mistakes will get you know where. (Did you notice the mistake in that previous sentence? I guarantee an agent will.) Have your letter proofread over and over again, preferably by that wonderful writer’s group you joined in Step 1. Also, at this point, you want to make sure you strictly follow the specific guidelines for the agent you are querying. Check out their website and FOLLOW THEIR GUIDELINES. If they don’t accept email queries don’t email them. If they ask for the first chapter with your query, don’t send them the first fifteen.
Step 5 Be organized and have a system
When I was doing my agent search, I made a list of agents I was interested in. Then each week I zoned in on two and wrote specific letters for those two. I also took advantage of those agents that accepted email queries. I love email queries because they’re cheaper, faster, and you get a response so much sooner. When I emailed my current agent, he got back to me that night. I was signed within two weeks. (Please note that this was after almost two years of searching for an agent.)
I don’t recommend finding fifty of your favorite agents and sending the same letter to all of them at the same time. This is how I started. Bad idea. I found that by writing individual letters, each letter I wrote got better and better. I honestly feel like my first year and a half of searching for an agent was pointless because I was so bad at it. My query letter was horrible and I didn’t do enough research.
Step 6 Wait
It’s painful, it’s hard, but there’s nothing else you can do.
Step 7 Write another great book
While you’re waiting, write another fantastic book that your future agent will also want to represent. In the two years while I was searching for an agent, I wrote four more books. This was also helpful with my query letters. Most agents don’t want to sign a one trick pony. They want someone who plans on making writing their career. In the query letter, feel free to state what other books you have completed and what else you are working on.
Step 8 Wait
Step 9 Wait some more
By this time, you will start getting some rejections. Don’t fret. The rejections actually turn out to be helpful. When you start getting personal rejections, ones that are handwritten or ones that you know the agent herself actually sent, then you know you’re on the right track. Tweak your letter or your manuscript according to what they’ve said.
Step 10 Sign with that wonderful agent
Once you have an agent, then the real pain begins. See my other blog post: Labor of Love. And keep an eye out for a future post where I will give specific help on how to write a query letter.