Writing Advice: All About Agents, Part 2: How to Query

In Part 1, I talked about how to compile a list of prospective agents.  Now that you have a list of who you’re going to contact, you’ve got to get together what you’ll contact them with: namely, a query letter.

A query letter is a single page cover letter which includes a one or two paragraph summary of the book, followed by a brief author bio.

The author bio should include previous publications, relevant awards and educational history.  Work experience, too, especially if it has bearing on your novel (this would be even more relevant in the case of non-fiction).  For instance, be sure to mention that you’re a doctor if you’ve written a medical thriller. Likewise for relevant biographical details like years of chess playing when your character is a grandmaster. But keep it straight and to the point.  But it’s okay to include things that just make you look like upstanding, hardworking and interesting. Agents like that in a client.

Before you draft your query letter, do some research and look at samples that worked.  Like writing great jacket copy for a book, writing a great query letter is an art in itself. It’s also a completely separate skill from writing a great book. That might seem unfair.  After all, you’ve written an amazing book, but your inability to draft an equally amazing query letter might  keep it from ever being published? Unfortunately, the answer might be yes.

So if this kind of marketing blurb isn’t your strength, get some help with your letter.  Have a good friend, critique partner, or outside editor revise your letter.  As much as some might wish otherwise, this one page letter couldn’t be more important. It is ALL the agent has to go on unless they ask for manuscript pages at the same time. Even then, they may not look past a so-so letter and read the pages. This is not because agents are bad people, it is because–like everyone else–they have limited time.

In general, be sure the tone of your letter matches the tone of your book.  If your book is funny make your letter funny.  If your book is suspenseful your letter should be, too. Don’t overdo it, of course, but the letter is your chance to show what you can do in your genre. Don’t squander it.

And don’t worry about hewing exactly to your story line in the letter. You don’t want to misrepresent your book–because that wastes everyone’s time.  But if the letter grabs an agent and then he or she asks for your pages and loves those too, they are not going to go back to your letter to see if you exactly represented the entire plot of your book.

Just like the summary that will one day appear on the back of your published book, you’re not going to be able to include everything that happens in the story.  The goal is to entice your reader (in this case an agent) wanting to pick up the book. If capturing all the book’s complexities makes your letter weaker leave them aside.  Ultimately, it’s your book that will land you the agent, your letter gets your foot in the door.

And don’t be afraid to revise your letter if you’re not getting the intended response. If you don’t have a decent percentage of agents asking to see a partial manuscript, there is probably a problem with your letter (not your manuscript necessarily).  Pull it back and make changes.

Likewise goes for your manuscript.  If three agents ask to see it and don’t offer representation, consider taking another look at it before your give it to anyone else.  And if anyone gives you criticism, use it.  Obviously you shouldn’t adapt according to notes you disagree with, but if the feedback resonates make the changes.  Agents don’t go around offering feedback on every manuscript they pass on.  It’s a great gift when they do.

Just remember, the job of getting an agent is entirely different form the job of writing a book.  It’s the business of writing as opposed to the art of it.  Recognizing the distinction, though, can make navigating it much easier.

Writing Advice: All About Agents Part 1: Who to Query

I’m often asked by aspiring authors whether 1. You need an agent to get published and  2. How to go about finding one.

I’m going to break my advice into a couple different posts, because there’s a lot to say about finding an agent.  First up, here are my thoughts on whether you need an agent and some tips on how to come up with a list of prospective agents.

Whether or not you need an agent depends on what your goals are.

Short Stories

If you want to publish short stories in literary journals you do not need an agent.  You need a great guide setting out the various submission guidelines for the literary magazines and you’ll need a whole lot of stamps–actually these days you probably can do it all online.  Back when I was submitting to journals, snail mail was the only way to go.

Self-Publishing

If you want to self-publish your novel, you also do not need an agent.  You’ll need to do research into the various options for getting your book out into the marketplace without a publisher, including the reputable companies that can help make this happen.  I’m not an expert, but I’ve read enough to know that you’ll want to be sure you’re not paying unfairly for these kind of services or to a company that won’t be able to deliver on its promises. ALso, you’ll want to understand whether self-pubishing will limit your ability to take the same work to a traditional publisher later.  My understanding is that it depends.

Traditional Publishing

If you decide you’d like to go with a traditional publisher, particularly a large press, you will need an agent.  Really, you do.  Trust me.  Are there stories of people getting published with a major publishing house without an agent? Definitely.  Are these stories typical?  Not in the least.

And contrary to what you may have heard, it is not harder to get an agent then it is to get a publisher.  A simple review of the basic stats proves as much.  No agent sells 100% of the work he or she takes on, no matter how successful they are.  Therefore, more people have agents than sell books.  That’s not to say it is easy to find an agent.  It isn’t.  But it’s not EASIER to find of publisher.  I speak from experience.  I had various agent for over ten years and four unpublished books before my fifth book finally sold with the help of my third agent.

Compiling A List of Agents to Contact

The first step in finding an agent is compiling a list of those agents who might be a good match for your work.  A site like Agent Query which lets you research agents by genre and interest is a great place to start. For the most up-to-date information, I would cross-reference the prospective list you compile from a site like Agent Query with the agents’ recent deals reported in Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly, as well as the information agents’ own websites.  Combined, this information will give you a good picture of whether the agent is a good fit for you and your work.

And the fit matters.

Do not bother querying people who don’t represent fiction if that’s what you write.  Also do not bother contacting agents who don’t represent your type of novel.  99% of the time you’re just wasting your time and theirs.  It’s like going to a heart doctor when the problem is your back.  Some agents are general practitioners, but most don’t represent everything from cookbooks, to memoirs to middle grade.  You’ll be setting yourself up for immediate rejection by contacting agents that represent 95% political non-fiction when you have a romantic mystery your trying to sell.

I would also not bother querying agents who say they are not taking on new clients. Those agents are often not reading submissions at all. Again, you’re setting yourself up for rejection that won’t have anything to do with your work.

On that note, if you have connections use them. You do not need to know someone to get a terrific agent.  All you need is a great query letter (see my next post: All About Agents Part 2: The Query Letter).  Most agents are absolutely committed to finding the best writers and usually thrill in discovering an unknown talent.

But most agents are also absolutely buried in unsolicited queries–sometimes hundreds a week.  A personal introduction to an agent whether it be through a teacher or a friend or meeting them yourself at a conference can help sift your letter to the top of their mountainous pile.

Also be sure to follow their submission requirements.  If they say they want just a query letter, don’t send them your whole book. You’re not helping yourself and you won’t somehow beat the system but not following the rules.  Be an ideal client right from the start. What’s going to determine whether an agent wants to take you on is whether they love your work, but being able to follow directions never hurt either.

I would get a list of twenty to thirty agents together all of whom are accepting new clients and all of whom regularly represent books somewhat like yours.  After you’ve drafted a killer query letter, I would then plan to contact them in groups of ten, always letting them know in your letter that you are simultaneously submitting to other agents.  (Be aware, there are agents who require exclusive submission.)  That way you can assess how good your letter and/or pages are based on the response you receive.  In other words, if you send out ten letters and no one asks to see a partial manuscript I would consider revising your letter.

(More on drafting the all-important query letter in my next posting.)

One caveat on this research component of finding an agent: don’t get stuck obsessing over it.

I’ve spoken with some writers who spend a lot of time researching each agent, for instance reading several of the books represented, etc.  I’m not saying this approach can’t work, but I’m not sure it’s worth the investment.  You want to do enough research to be sure the agent is approximately the right fit, but after it will be all about diminishing returns. For all you know, that dreamy agent you’ve just spent hours and hours looking into, may be about to leave the field to write their own book.

In other words: be educated, not over invested.  When you’re looking for an agent you are trying to find the perfect fit–but think college rather than spouse.  There is a piece of the process that’s a numbers game. After you find the perfect agent and they’ve agreed to represent you, there will be time enough to fall head-over-heels in love.

Sounds hopeless, right? Don’t worry, it’s not as hopeless as it seems.  I did have a personal connection who helped me get my first agent, but the next two agents I got simply through contacting them blindly and following their requirements.

Really, truly it can and does happen.  I swear.