Seeking a literary agent? Here are some tips

Finding a literary agent to represent your work to publishers is a tough gig. Agents see hundreds, if not thousands, of author queries every year, and take on only a few new clients from those. Sending query after query only to be met with rejections — or, more disheartening, grave-like silence — can make you decide to take up gardening or knitting instead of writing.

Do not let that stop you. Agents are out there, and they do take on new clients. You will have to put in the work to land a deal with an agent, but it can be done.

I managed it, so I figured I would outline my steps in hopes that other prospective authors might save time and trouble. My advice is geared toward fiction authors; finding an agent for a non-fiction work is an entirely different thing. If you write fiction, however, you might benefit from my experience. Or, you might land a deal with an agent you meet in a hotel bar somewhere at a writing conference, and skip all the messy stuff most authors go through while netting six figures for your debut paranormal teen romance. You never know.

Anyway …

1. Write the damned book

This should not need to be said, but people do sometimes send queries to agents regarding books they haven’t written yet. I suppose it makes sense, in a way. Why put in the time writing if you don’t know you can sell it?

The problem, though, is that having a brilliant idea does not mean you can sit down and write the book. Lots of people have ideas for a novel, but not many actually write them. Lots of people have great concepts, but no idea how to string words together into a coherent story. Even so, I have heard agent horror stories of queries from people who say they will write the book if the agent likes the idea.

Agents see ideas pitched every day. They need to see more. They need to see words, plot, character, story. So write it first, then start seeking an agent. 

Seriously. Finish the book first.

  
2. Write a good query letter

It is a business letter, so be professional. Don’t have your characters narrate it, don’t drop a bunch of vague hints as to what the book is about. 

The letter should briefly describe the work, the genre, the plot, the main characters, the setting and the primary conflict. It should include the number of words in the book. It should mention whether you think it would appeal to Harry Potter fans or Dan Brown fans. It should include any relevant information about your writing successes. 

It should be short, a single page if possible. And you want them to know you are a pro, so make it possible.

Next, send any particular agent EXACTLY what she wants. If she wants five sample pages, do that. If she wants three sample chapters, do that. If she wants only the query letter, do that.

Do not tell yourself that “sending a few extra pages will give her a better chance to see what I can do.” Do not tell yourself that your sheer genius will overcome any quibbles the agent might have about you ignoring their wishes.

Why? Because agents see tons of queries, and they know what they want to see. They also want to know more than just whether you can write. Are you professional? Can you comprehend simple instructions? Or are you a pain in the ass? No one wants to work with a pain in the ass. Give the agent ANY reason to toss your query aside and move on to the next, and that agent may never realize you are the next Stephen King.

Follow a few agents on Twitter if you don’t believe me.

3. Follow a few agents on Twitter

It’s a decent way to learn about things such as pitch contests, new agents joining agencies, old agents opening once again to queries, etc. They also tweet about books a lot, which is fun.

4. Use QueryTracker.net

QueryTracker.net is a great resource. It is free, with the option to pay for added features. It lets you keep track of which agents you have queried, which you want to query and the status of any queries sent. This is good, because you may be sending a lot of queries.

The website has numerous functions beyond mere spreadsheet tasks, however. You can look up agents to see if they are accepting queries, find out which genres or formats they represent, read comments about interactions with other writers, follow links to agency websites and more. These functions alone will save you lots of research time.

5. Go beyond QueryTracker.net

As useful as QueryTracker is, you should dig deeper. My experience is a good case in point. I wrote a murder mystery, so at first I submitted to agencies based on seeing “mystery” among the genres represented by any particular agent.

I should have filtered things more than that. “Mystery” encompasses many sub-genres — cozy, Agatha Christie-style books, cerebral Sherlock Holmes stories, psychological thrillers, hard-boiled detectives working in a sullied world, police procedurals of the Ed McBain variety and books that mirror the crime-and-romance offerings of TV shows such as “Bones.” Few people read all those sub-genres, and this turns out to be true of agents as well.

The agent who loves a John Grisham-style novel may not be at all interested in a Miss Marple clone, and vice versa. So the mere word “mystery” on a list of genres didn’t really tell me much about what the agent liked. As a result, I had many agents early on reply “this sounds interesting, but it is not my kind of thing.” And, of course, many did not reply at all.

So I drilled down a bit and looked for agents who were interested not only in mysteries, but in historical fiction and — significant in my case — action stories. My murder mystery is also an action-driven pirate story, and thus is not likely to appeal to every Agatha Christie or Wilkie Collins fan out there.

I looked at agent blogs, too, to gauge whether an agent’s likes and dislikes matched mine.

I started getting faster replies and greater interest from agents right away once I made that mental adjustment. And I had an agent shortly thereafter, too.

6. Don’t give up

You will see rejections, mostly of the soulless form letter variety. You will have agents ignore your query; a large number say upfront they will reply only if interested. Hell, some don’t even embrace auto reply, so you never even know if your work showed up at the agency. It’s a hard world out there.

Such indifference does not mean your work sucks. It just means you may have to search longer for an agent who likes your stuff enough to represent you.

When you get a rejection, take a deep breath and send out the next query. It worked for me.

Good luck.

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