Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Finding a Literary Agent

Finding the right agent is a complicated and intimidating process.  In fact, finding any agent at all is hard.  There are a limited number of agents out there, still fewer credible and capable agents, and by the time you've pared them down to those who actually accept manuscripts of your genre, the list is probably much shorter than your average grocery list.

So how do you do it?  How do you find an agent?  More importantly how do you find one who is competent enough to market your work correctly, connected enough to sell it, and scrupulous enough to trust with what you've poured your heart and soul into for who knows how long?

Research and hard work are the keys to a solid approach at this.  It takes time and energy and a lot of hard work, probably almost as much hard work as you've put into writing your novel.

The first key to finding an agent is organization.  Like anything else, organizational skills are a vital part of the search for an agent.  Since you're highly unlikely to find an agent with the first query you send out, you have to track your submissions carefully to avoid sending multiple queries for the same manuscript to agents who have already passed, research the right agents, and not duplicate efforts.

Keep a detailed log of your submissions in whatever format is easiest for you to use and maintain.  Whether it's a database, a spreadsheet or a word document, populate it with the pertinent details of your submissions.  Include dates queries were sent, the agency sent to, the specific agent and the contact information for them.  I also include details on the response, whether there was no response after a set amount of time, a personal rejection or a request for more.  I file all of this by each individual title I send out and maintain it meticulously and often.

Since I now query exclusively via e-mail, I have separate folders in my e-mail for queries, bites, and related correspondence, and I keep every e-mail for my reference.  If I need to see specifics on how an agent responded back, I have it.  I have also kept every rejection I've ever gotten via snail mail as well.  I have a large folder with each one inside, in case I have to reference them too.  Chances are, I probably won't need to reference them all, but I have them in case I do.

The next step is learning to write a killer query, one that will catch the attention of the agent you're targeting and land you that request for the full manuscript.  Study advice from agents regarding queries.  Find out what works for them and what doesn't.  Your goal isn't to make a perfectly constructed query for query's sake, it's to sell your writing and your novel.  Agent Query has some advice on writing better queries.  They have a forum showcasing queries that actually worked.  Chuck Sambuchino also has good advice on writing queries.  Query Shark, as I've mentioned before, is one of the better places to see query analysis in action.  It's better because you can see them broken down and critiqued as they improve with subsequent iterations.  Study the queries posted there for what works and why it works.  You'll notice that a few of the queries that break the rules are the ones that entice you to read the book the most.  You'll notice that most of the ones who follow the rules, however, are effective as well.

As a general rule of thumb, you have approximately 250 words to interest your target audience enough to want to read more.  If they want to read more, they'll ask for more, and that is exactly the point of a query letter.

Some tips:
  • Do trim your query to as close to 250 words as possible.  If can't get the job done in that amount of words, you're doing it wrong.
  • Do craft an opening hook that encourages them to find out more.  A good place to research this is the back cover blurbs of similar novels in your local bookstores.
  • Do write a polite, professional query.  It's still a form of business letter to a professional in the field, and it's your venue to sell yourself as a professional they want to work with.
  • Don't ramble about your personal life or how really great your novel is.  Agents stress time and again the best way to get them to read more is to show, not tell them how great it is.
  • Don't try to include too much in your query.  It's best not to try and stuff every character and subplot into it.  You haven't got the room.  Include the essentials.
  • Don't open with passive voice, rambling run-on sentences, or rhetorical questions.  Agents are evaluating not just the content of your novel, but your writing talent and style as well.
Writing the synopsis is the next step.  You'll need one for many of the agents you query.  A synopsis is not about writing style, although it shows through in one.  It's about the basic, bare bones plot of your novel, and whether it has the elements needed to be successful.

A synopsis should generally be two to three pages, but must cover the essentials of the novel.  If it runs a little longer, you should be fine.  Agents don't read synopses for the reading pleasure or to get a feel for your writing.  They read them to understand where the plot goes, how conflict is resolved, and the motivation behind character action.

Author Nathan Bransford has some tips on synopsis writing, as does Marg Gilks of Writing-World.com.  Other examples can be found by doing a little more research yourself.  Very few authors like to write synopses, but they are a vital part of marketing your work.

Some tips:
  • Do write the synopsis in omniscient form, regardless of how the manuscript is written.
  • Do use a synopsis for showing the logical progression of the novel from beginning to end.
  • Do note the key points of conflict and resolution in the manuscript.  Present the stakes present for your characters and their motivation and basis for the decisions they make.
  • Don't leave the agent guessing how the novel ends.  Save the suspense for the readers.  The agent has to know how it ends to know whether it's going to sell or not.
  • Don't include too many details which detract from the main plot of the story.  While they may be important to your story, if they are not part of the basic plot or key subplots, they do not belong in the synopsis.
Once you have your system in place and know how to write and refine queries and synopses, it's time to research agents.  Most agents belong to a literary agency, and most agencies maintain websites.  Sift through their website with a fine-toothed comb to determine what they want, how they do business, what types of books they sell, and any other information that will help you determine a good fit.  Looking at an agent's client list will give you a good idea whether they'll be open to marketing your manuscript, or whether they're not into that particular genre or type of work.

Once you've found an agent who has compatible needs in a reputable agency, you need to branch out to other sources of information on them.  Vet them through sites like Publishers Marketplace and Query Tracker.  Visit Preditors and Editors to make sure they're not running a scam or conducting bad business practices.  Find out if the agent you're interested in has a separate website from the agency's website.  Do they blog or twitter?  A large number of agents now do both.  Check these sites immediately before you send them a query, as their needs can change.  They can also shut down for submissions while on vacation, a hiatus from work or other reasons.  It does you no good to send your query to an agent who isn't in the market for manuscripts, so it is in your best interest to do your research thoroughly.

Check and double check the agent's submission guidelines.  They're not there simply to look good.  They're there to tell you as an author exactly how they want their submissions.  They'll tell you what genres they'll consider, what they're specifically not in the market for, what's hot that they're looking for more of at the moment, and how to correctly format and send the material.  Do they accept e-mail or snail mail?  Both?  Do they have a submissions form on the website?  Do they want just a query?  The first five, ten, or even fifty pages of the manuscript?  A synopsis?  Generally it's a combination of all of the above, and maybe other specific requests.  Find out exactly what they want and give it to them exactly the way they want it.

The vast majority of agents do not even open, let alone consider e-mail with any attachments.  They want to see the requested material pasted into the body of the e-mail.  They need your contact information - name, address, phone, e-mail - but they do not want to see it up front.  Put it at the end of your letter.  It's there when they need it, but not in the way.

Once you're sure you're ready to send everything out, compose the e-mail and send it back to yourself.  Open it and make sure it looks correctly.  Send it in plain text, to avoid any instances where the HTML does not get translated correctly in the agent's e-mail program.  Send it again to yourself.  And again.  Read it out loud and continue to tweak what doesn't sound right.  Once you've gotten exactly what you want back a couple of times, you're ready to send it to the agent.  Send it and file it in your query tracking system.

Now that you've sent it out, you start all over again.  Rethink your query and edit it further.  Find another agent, vet them and send out another query to them.  Do that multiple times to multiple agents.  Querying multiple agents at the same time is perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged.  This is not the same as simultaneous submissions, which is when you send the same manuscript to be read and considered by multiple agents at the same time.  You're not going to get your manuscript into nearly enough hands if you query one agent at a time every once in a while.

Be methodical in your research and precise in your submissions.  Get it right the first time.  And the second, and third and however many more times you have to send it out before you sell it.  Remember, you're not only selling a product, you're selling yourself as an author, one who will be able to produce more novels in the future.  Doing it the right way will increase your chances of success.


  1. Let me throw in a plug here for one of my favorite author's resources QueryTracker.net

    It contains an amazing data base of agents with links to their websites and submission guidelines. It also provides a place to record your submissions and the ability to see the results of other authors on the site.

    All for free!

    Then, kick in an extra $25 and it has an awesome assortment of management tools.

    Patrick does an awesome job on the site and it includes a separate blog and discussion forum.

    Check it out.

  2. Yep. Query Tracker is one of the resources I recommend. I haven't kicked in the extra dough, but I probably need to.