Thanks to some recent pitch contests, I’ve been talking to a lot of new writers who are thinking about approaching literary agents. Below, I’ll break down the basic process of seeking literary agents and explain some of the common vocabulary that trips newcomers up. Note that this post is primarily geared towards writers of fiction and memoir, with a few notes for non-fiction writers to keep in mind.
Why Would I Want a Literary Agent?
For one, large traditional publishing companies rarely look at manuscripts unless they are submitted by literary agents. If you want a traditional deal, getting an agent is the way to go. For another, agents are the advocates for your literary career. They will negotiate contracts for you, and step in to help with any issues that come up as you continue to write and publish your work beyond a single book deal.
How Do I Get a Literary Agent?
Reaching out to literary agents is a long, complicated process, and actually getting an agent requires hard work, persistence, and some good luck and timing. Here are the basic steps for reaching out to agents, ultra-simplified.
- Finish a manuscript. That’s right! Unless you are super famous, or win a super famous writing prize, you need a complete, polished manuscript to land a literary agent. So finish that manuscript, send it off to critique partners, revise, and repeat, until you are sure the manuscript is the best it can be. Non-fiction writers play by different rules here, and generally can reach out to agents with a detailed proposal and a few sample chapters.
- Write a query letter. Here’s a great guide from AgentQuery.com to get you started. A query letter should be a brief pitch for your book. Personally, I like mine to start with a one-sentence hook, give a short preview of the plot, and end with a very brief bio. The “plot preview” should read like a jacket cover, enticing the agent to want to read more, with one key exception: jacket cover copy often brags about the writer. It would be weird to say your own writing is “engaging” or “page-turning.” Describe the story and let the agents decide whether they think that will be engaging or page-turning. Just like with your manuscript, be sure to get a second pair of eyes (or five) on your query. If you’re new to querying, I highly recommend a professional critique (hint hint, I do those and I am running a discount right now).
- Research agents. Find a list of agents who represent the kind of book you write. You can search by genre or age category on places like QueryTracker or AgentQuery, or check out what agents are asking for on ManuscriptWishList. Writer’s Digest also has some excellent resources. Personally, I create and record my queries using QueryTracker. It keeps me away from spreadsheet hell and the $25/year fee for advanced reports is totally worth it. Aim for creating a list of about 100 agents, spread across different agencies.
- Send a batch of queries! I recommend sending queries to about 15 or 20 agents to start. That way, you can get a good sense of whether your query and first pages are working before you run through your entire agent list (you only get one shot per agent, normally, and sometimes only one shot per agency). Agents normally have detailed submission guidelines on their websites that tell you what they would like included with the query. Common requests are the first five pages, the first chapter, or even a dreaded synopsis (a topic for another post!). Make sure that you follow each agent’s submission guidelines carefully. Forgetting a key component could lead to an automatic rejection.
- Wait. This part sucks. It can take agents anywhere from 3 minutes to 2 years to respond to a query (I am not kidding! Two years happens. I’ve gotten a request after a year!). A month is a pretty normal time to wait. Some agents will only respond if they are interested in reading more of your work. We writers call that the dreaded “no response means no” policy. Some of those “no response” agents will give you a timeline on their website such as “if you don’t hear back in three weeks, assume we aren’t interested in representing your work.” Agents do sometimes request after those projected timelines, but I normally add another week or so and then write it off as a no.
- Get rejections. An agent responds to your query…you grit your teeth…click on the email…and it says something like “Thank you for sending me your manuscript. Unfortunately, I did not connect with the writing, and I will have to pass.” Many new writers will read into rejections like this, thinking that there must be something horribly wrong with their writing. However, vague language about “connecting” is often a generic response that agents send to everyone they reject. Don’t read into these rejections, called “form rejections,” too much.
- Get requests. If an agent loves your query and sample, they will ask to read more of your work. Woohoo! Time to celebrate! Before you crack open that bottle of wine, send your manuscript! Read the request carefully and send the agent exactly what they wanted. Common requests are for the full manuscript, the first fifty pages, and a synopsis. Most agents ask for Word documents. I recommend saving the file with your name, the manuscript’s title, and the date.
- Reassess your request rate. After about a month, or as soon as you’ve heard from most of the agents you’ve tried, it’s time to take another look at your query and sample pages. According to QueryTracker’s stats as of today (May 18, 2017), the average request rate is about 9%. If you are only hitting that rate (about 2/20 queries), you may want to go back to the drawing board and revise your query and/or sample pages. Pro tip: changing your title can also make a huge difference to your request rate.
- Query more. If you’ve revised your query, send another batch out into the world to test! If your original query had a great request rate, there’s no reason to wait until you hear back from the agents with your manuscript. Send some more queries!
- Wait some more. If you have requests out, this is the really hard and long wait. Some agents will get back to you within days. Some agents will take several months. Some will respond in two years. Some will, sadly, never respond, though most agents commit to responding to requested materials.
- Get rejections on materials. As you send your work out more, query rejections will stop hurting. Rejections on a full or partial manuscript request, though, pack a punch. Again, make sure you’re not reading too much into form rejections. Several agents may reject your book before the right one reads it. However, if multiple agents reply back with the same feedback, it might be worth revising your manuscript. For example, if many agents say they believe your pacing is slow, or your main character’s motivations are unclear, it might be worth taking another look at your manuscript. You should only revise if feedback rings true to you, because another agent may give you the opposite feedback, or simply have a different vision for your book. If you decide to revise your book, you should stop querying until the manuscript is ready again.
- Get a “revise and resubmit.” If an agent passes on your book, but gives you specific feedback, and invites you to send a new version, that is not a rejection! Rejoice! That is a “revise and resubmit.” Agents mean it when they say they would read a book again. They don’t always offer that. Many writers sign with their agents in this way. However, there are no guarantees, so as I said above, you should make sure the feedback resonates with you before you act on it.
- Get an offer. Time for champagne! Normally, an agent will email you to ask you to have a phone call about your manuscript. Don’t get too excited yet, because occasionally agents ask for revise and resubmits via phone calls. Sometimes, agents will call you out of the blue (my dream/worst nightmare), and sometimes, they will offer right in the email (hallelujah!). When an agent “offers representation,” that means they want to sign you as a client! Now, don’t say yes right away. When you get an offer, it’s customary to let all the other agents who haven’t rejected your manuscript or query yet know, so they have a chance to offer representation as well. Normally, the first offering agent will give you a week or two to let other agents know and make your decision. This time period is very stressful and intense for writers, so if you’re feeling that way, you’re not alone. I dig deeper into the etiquette for this situation in another post.
That’s it! At least, that’s it for the process of querying agents cold. You can also go to conferences where you might meet agents, enter contests, and get referrals from author friends (carefully). Perhaps I’ll cover those topics in a future post. Now, after getting an agent, you still won’t have an automatic book deal. Those only come from publishers. Another topic for another day!