For Newbies: How To Get An Agent & Why You Need One

I’ve been in a number of conversations recently where I explain to people what I do. I think a lot of people think I’m sitting around my house reading books and eating bonbons. (Maybe that’s just my family… ) Anyway, I’ve explained it a bunch of times now, and that’s forced me to go through the “how publishing works” spiel, to get to the part where I explain what a literary agent does. Then a friend of mine sent a friend of hers to me, because her friend was writing a book and she figured I’d be able to help her figure out the whole publishing thing. After writing the friend’s friend a big old e-mail, beginning to explain how the whole process works, I figured I’d put up a blog post for folks just getting started down this road. So this one’s for you, newbies!

#1. Write a kick-ass manuscript. If you’re writing for kids, you’d better have read a lot of kids’ books. You need to know what Middle Grade (or MG) means. You need to know what YA (Young Adult) means. If you’re writing for adults, you need to know what genre to call your writing. Is it a thriller, scifi, mystery, literary, upscale commercial women’s fiction, self-help, spiritual, romance, fantasy,  western, Christian, erotica? You’ll need to know this for when you write a query letter. (see #4)

#2. When you’ve finished writing your kick-ass manuscript, go back and re-write it. That’s called revision. There are special groups called “critique groups” that you should seek out. Or sometimes people have what they call a “critique partner.” That’s someone who’s (usually) not related to you, who’s not afraid of hurting your feelings, who will give you the truth about your writing. Even if that makes you cry, these people are the key to improving your writing. Re-write your manuscript until it sings to you, until it’s shiny and beautiful, and there’s nothing to improve. You’ll probably still have to revise it after this, but you need to at least think you’re done (for a while).

#3. In order to have an editor at a publishing house want to buy your manuscript (which is how it gets published), you’ll need a literary agent. Some publishing houses accept “unsolicited manuscripts,” which means you can send it directly to them. But most don’t. A literary agent is someone who sells your manuscript for you. You don’t just hire a literary agent though, like a plumber or accountant or something. You see, the literary agent picks you. So in order for you to get picked, you do something called “querying.”

#4. With all your masterful writing skills, you will need to craft a letter (usually an e-mail) that performs a few functions. It’s called a query letter. It a. tells about who you are, as a writer; b. tells about your manuscript in such a way that the agent wants to read the manuscript, piques the interest of the agent, tells enough so the agent requests to read more; and c. conveys information about how to get in touch with you via e-mail and telephone. It does not explain how happy or honored or lucky or miserable you are to be a writer. It does not share that you’re recently off your meds. It does not blow smoke up the agent’s skirt with flattery. It does not tell the whole story (even in a synopsis) of your manuscript. It just does a. b. and c. There are books about query letters. Classes about query letters. Magazine articles about query letters. Places online with information about query letters. Make sure you write a kick-ass query letter. Otherwise nobody will want to look at your kick-ass manuscript.

#5. You will need to research literary agents to figure out which ones are the right ones for your work. There are many ways to do that. There’s Publisher’s Marketplace. There’s Query Tracker. There’s Agent Query. There’s Jeff Herman’s Guide. And there are forums like Verla Kay’s Blue Boards (for kid lit authors) or chats on Twitter (e.g. #MGLitChat, #SteamPunkChat, #AskAgent, etc…). And there are tons more places for figuring out which agents are appropriate for you. But Do. Your. Research. Most agents I know get pretty peeved when they receive query letters for genre they clearly don’t represent. You will increase your chances of getting a response from an agent when you do focused querying.

#6. When you have a nice long list of agents to whom you plan on querying, a beautiful query letter, and a totally complete manuscript, you are ready to begin! You’ll want to make some kind of system for keeping track of where you’re querying. And make sure to FOLLOW THE AGENT’S GUIDELINES FOR SUBMISSIONS. Different agents require different things. Some agents ask for the first 10 pages, the first 20 pages, the first 50 pages, no pages unless requested, the whole manuscript immediately, a detailed synopsis, a full non-fiction book proposal. Because you’ve done your research, you’ll know what the agents that you are querying require. And you’ll follow their guidelines. Because, guess what? You’re not special and the rules do apply to you. (I know. I’m harsh. But it’s true.)

#7. So after you’ve sent out your query letters, you wait. And wait. And wait. And you’ll get a lot of rejections. And a lot of no answers. And you might obsessively check your e-mail and go on all the forums and chats and Twitter to see what is usual and ordinary for those agents. And eventually, someone will ask to see more of your work. Because you queried the right agent. Because you wrote a truly kick-ass query letter and a fantastically kick-ass manuscript. Because you made sure to read so much in your chosen genre. And your writing was vetted by your peers. And you revised like crazy and even took a writing course when you couldn’t afford it. And maybe went to some writing conferences to learn stuff and to network and meet other writers and agents and editors.

#8. When an agent asks to see your full manuscript you’ll send it (making sure to follow their guidelines!) and wait some more. And after a while, maybe the first time an agent asks for your full manuscript or maybe the tenth, an agent will send you an e-mail asking if they can give you a call. The technical name for when this happens in the book world is getting “The Call.” They’re usually calling to offer representation. Sometimes they want to talk to you about a revise/resubmit though. That means they like your manuscript enough that they want to give you feedback (sometimes in an e-mail, sometimes in a phone call) and have you re-submit to them. That’s still a very good thing. But if they’re offering you representation, you’ll want to send an e-mail to the other agents to whom you’ve submitted and let them know you have an offer. Read my blog post about the feeding frenzy that ensues, and what you should/shouldn’t do (from an agent’s perspective, of course).

#9. I can write another blog post about “Once you’ve nabbed that perfect agent,” and what that journey looks like. Or maybe one of my clients will write it for me! (Any takers?!) Because getting an agent isn’t the end, but just the beginning of your journey!

Ok, newbies! Talk amongst yourselves. Or better yet, ask me some questions!

What else do you want to know?




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21 responses to “For Newbies: How To Get An Agent & Why You Need One

  1. So, after much foot-dragging, I started a blog because I am told it is a smart move for authors seeking rep. I’ve posted character info and reviews of the ms, but should I also post a few pages from the book? Would love your opinion on blogs for writers and what should / shouldn’t be on them. Cheers! Great post!

    • My feeling about authors blogging is that unless they love doing it and they do it well, it’s not an advantage. I do recommend all authors have a web page which gives information about themselves, their writing legs, any publications, works in progress, etc… Unless reviews of an unpublished work are from a very credible source, I wouldn’t include them. I don’t know about posting pages from the book. I vacillate between thinking that it’s fine and that it doesn’t matter. I don’t think it hurts anything though.

    • This is for sharkprose: In my blog I incorporate excerpts from my unpublished novel weaving each specific one with a fitness tip – blogging as The Literary Leotard. It has created interest in my novel which I hope will benefit me whenever it gets published. And I link the blog to my website where I do have the first chapter in PDF. Anything to stir up interest, right? I’m just not sure any agents have looked at it, but I keep going. We must, if we want representation and publication. Good luck.

  2. Thanks for the great post, Linda. My ms, an upmarket commercial women’s fiction novel is ready for an agent. The query is ready and out there and yes, the rejections are coming in and I do check email several times a day. It’s like a magnet. Maybe this time I’ll get the response I’m hoping for. But, at the Slice Conference last weekend I learned that my 54,300 word ms is not long enough to be considered by any agent. Do you agree?

  3. Hi Linda, very helpful all in one place info. I am enjoying Agent Query and Query Tracker and Jeff Herman’s book. However, sometimes it is good to focus just on revision of letter and mss or other writing stuff, and not get too overwhelmed. Clear the head. Love your blog, thanks again, Sheila

  4. Pingback: For Newbies: How To Get An Agent & Why You Need One « Women's National Book Association – NYC

  5. That guy under your sink, you know, the one working on your pipes, he looks a lot like my husband when I found water under our sink. I cleaned out under there, ewww, and after a look see and a lot of WTF’s we realized the water came from a watering can I pitched in there which still had water in it. At least I cleaned out under the sink.
    What does this have to do with newbies and agents…absolutely nothing. I thought I’d drop by after reading you on Betsy, “The call” is what I live for plus an occasional half gallon of Rocky Road.

  6. Thanks so much for the great post! Wonderful info here 😉

  7. Very thorough. I could’ve used this post way back when. I’m sharing.

  8. Great post….so tweetable!

  9. Best post ever. That is all.

  10. This is such great advice; so helpful. Thank you for such a comprehensive post! I’m in the process of querying right now; one thing I haven’t been sure of is this: If I’ve been rejected by one agent in an agency, is it okay to then query another agent in the same agency? Some agencies address this on their websites, but most do not, and I wondered if there’s a standard operating procedure? (I’ve primarily run into this when one agent has been closed to submissions when I first queried or is a new agent to an agency.) Thanks for your help with my journey…

    • It’s difficult to know what they want when it’s not specified, but I’d say with a larger agency you can resubmit to a different agent if you get rejected. Just don’t ever submit to more than one agent at the same agency at the same time. Nobody ever wants to be in a situation where they might be vying for the same new client with their agency- mates. But what do you have to lose by submitting to a different agent after you’ve been rejected? If the second agent is interested it’s the first agent’s tough luck! If the second agent rejects you too, it’s just another rejection. I say go for it.

  11. Great piece. One of the shocking thing for querying authors is that the wide world hasn’t got a clue about how to proceed towards publication. (People think agents are publishers; or they’ve never even heard of agents.) So this is where I’m going to send everyone who asks me about the whole publishing enchilada from now on.

    You got one thing wrong though, Linda. It’s not “you might obsessively check your e-mail…” It’s “you WILL obsessively check your e-mail…” Unless you’re a Zen master. Which neither I nor any of my writer pals seem to be.

  12. MLP

    Well said! So glad you posted it here. I’m bookmarking this handy little reference. Thanks!