Want to publish your manuscript? If you’re not interested in going the self-publishing or assisted self-publishing route, you’ll need an agent. Without an one, a traditional publishing house won’t review your manuscript. And, more and more, the small presses won’t either. You’ll need an agent who gets you invited to the publishing party, gets you the best contract for your book, and gets you out of the slush piles and into editors’ hands. But how do you find an agent to represent your work? Or, better yet, how do you find the right agent? I’ve been doing a lot of research on this topic this past year while working on the second draft of White Grrl, Black Sheep, my novel based in memoir. I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.
Here is what will give you the best chances of success:
1. Know that agents want works they can sell. Make your manuscript the product an agent can back by prepping your manuscript for publication. Revise and edit your work as far as you can take it. Get readers who give good feedback and listen to them. Read my post on critique groups. Revise and edit again. Get another set of readers, preferably a professional content editor if you can afford one (My Editor is a great option). Revise and edit your manuscript again. Have someone reliable proofread your work for typos and grammar problems (a professional proof reader is a good investment as writers become blind to their own mistakes). Edit again. Polish that manuscript until you can do no more. Is this a sell-out? Depends on who you ask, but I bet you want that publishing payday. Do you want to publish your book, making as much money as you can, or do you want to publish for nothing more than closure to writing it? If you can accomplish this first task, you’re already more than halfway to your agent contract where you’ll have the most control of the value of your product/book.
2. Research each agent before you send them your manuscript. You’ll find many scammers masquerading as literary agents and/or publishers on the internet. You’ll find “fresh” agents with no idea what they’re doing. Reputable agents don’t advertise or charge for critiques, editing, head shots, or anything else. They get paid about fifteen percent of your advance and royalties, LATER, when you get paid. They have working phone numbers and postal addresses. They work for you. One way to find agents who are successful is to look at the agents associated with the publications of the books most like yours. Try to be as specific as possible because agents and publishers generally specialize in particular genres and even subgenres (think cowboy romance, crime caper parody, or lesbian historical). Narrow your search as close as possible to the kind of novel you’ve written. Look inside the books you take off the shelves for agent names. Check out the Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents by Jeff Herman. Agent Query and Query Tracker are both free and claim to screen the agents they post but are still no guarantee of a win. Go to www.writersmarket.com. A friend of mine recommends Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check which has a lot of information but be prepared to wade through the discussion threads for the valuable info. Sound like this will take too much time? My published friends swear this will save you time wasted in unanswered queries and tail chasing.
3. Write your one page synopsis and query letter. Sound impossible to do on your own? Here are some resources:
Think you need professional help? My Editor is available for synopsis and query letter critiques with reasonable rates.
Don’t forget to target your query letters to the specific agent you are submitting. Refer to research above.
4. After you’ve narrowed down your list of potential agents, read their preferred submission guidelines. Find them in the resources listed above or on the agent’s website. Send the agent what they want to see, and only what they want to see. Start submitting to the agents you’d most want representing you and keep track of who you queried.
5. Send your query letters to any and all agents you like. But send the submissions out in smaller quantities, maybe ten at a time. After a couple of months, if you’re receiving rejection letters or no responses, re-evaluate that query letter. Revise and edit your query until it gets agents asking for your manuscript. Gracefully accept the rejections you receive, even if it means investing in psychotherapy, by not writing back to agents, especially to ask for an explanation or argue their decision.
6. Be patient. Ugh, you’ve heard this one before and it’s so frustrating. Why do agents and publishers move so slow? They’re busy, I suppose. A friend of mine recently told me an agent got back to him two years after receiving a query. Good thing my friend signed with the agent who got back to him in two weeks.
7. Even if you get requests for a full manuscript, instead of a partial (generally the first three chapters and a synopsis), send out more queries. If an agent asks for an exclusive on the work, you agree the manuscript goes only to them for a certain period of time (usually 30-60 days and detailed in writing). In this case, stop your queries. If you don’t get a response from your exclusive request before the expiration of the agreement, send a kind follow-up email and get back to querying. Maybe that exclusive will get back to you, maybe not.
8. Re-evaluate. If your query letter continues bringing in requests for your partial or manuscript but they’re getting rejected or ignored, what do you think the problem is? I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you that it’s probably your manuscript. Yep. Are you getting rejections with the same noted reasons over and over? Great! You know exactly what needs development if you want to get published. Sure, have a drink with your writer friends and complain about selling out, “I’m an artist!” Then, sober up and focus on storytelling. Listen to your responders and revise accordingly. Then query again.
Please don’t let this process lead you into destructive behavior or thinking. Don’t kick a hole in your office wall. Know that you’re not alone in this nail biting climb toward your goal of securing an agent and getting published. It sucks, but it isn’t personal. If an agent doesn’t want to represent your work, it doesn’t mean you suck. Pick up the pen again and don’t let yourself fall prey to those scammers. A reputable agent, like a spouse, is worth all the work you might have to do to find the right one.
Want to read more on how to get an agent? Check out these links:
Rachelle Ramirez is a writer and freelance editor. Her current work, White Grrl, Black Sheep, is a novel based in memoir. She has yet to search for an agent and, aside from the many hours she spent researching and discussing this topic, is completely unqualified to write this article. You are encouraged to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.