Q: My question concerns getting that first novel published by a good firm. From what I've read, the critical first step is finding an agent who knows all the right people at the big houses, so I'm wondering how one gets taken on by such an agent, especially when many of them accept new clients by referral only.
A: Dear Michael,
Your question is the one I'm most frequently asked, and thus provides an excellent kick-off for this column.
As you've discovered, the majority of large publishers—Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, etc.—no longer accept unsolicited queries or manuscripts from writers. (That is, they don't read slush.) While there are exceptions to this rule, especially in the genres of romance and science fiction/fantasy, you do need a literary agent if you want your book published by a New York house.
Before I address how to gain representation, let's get a couple facts straight about literary agents:
1. Literary agents are primarily in the business of selling your work, not critiquing it and revising it. So when you query an agent, make sure you have a complete and perfectly polished manuscript ready to send. No first drafts—ever.
2. Literary agents come in all shapes and sizes; their tastes, specializations, and strengths vary tremendously. And their submission policies vary. The top agents may take clients only by referral, while new agents may actively read the slush pile.
Many writers believe there's a Catch-22 to finding an agent: No agent wants you if you're unpublished/unknown, but you can't get published/known if you don't have an agent. While it's true that it's more challenging to find representation when you have a limited publication record, other things can attract an agent's attention, especially:
1. An effective query letter that reflects your professionalism, and succinctly and persuasively describes your project (without being sensationalist)
2. A compelling manuscript that hooks the reader from page one
3. Any publication credits, writing degrees, or experience that would demonstrate your dedication to the craft and your readiness to be published
Unless you're lucky enough to get that golden referral, you'll need to start mastering the query letter. A query must make an excellent first impression and convince the agent to request your manuscript (unless their submission guidelines ask for your manuscript on first contact; before contacting any agent, make sure you read their submission guidelines).
How favorably an agent responds to your query depends on two things:
1. How good your query letter is
2. How well you've targeted the recipient of your query
Even if your query letter is a work of art, it'll be a waste of your time if you haven't sent it to the appropriate agent. Research agents carefully before sending a query: Do they represent the type of work you've written? Do they have a strong record of sales with the publishers you envision for your book? Have they worked with authors whose work is similar to your own? When you write your query, consider personalizing it for each agent. Mention how you came to query him/her and why you think you're a good match. This also demonstrates that you're not sending out a query blast to 100+ agents.
A few query tips:
1. Keep it to one page.
2. If selling a novel, focus on what makes your story compelling. Don't get wrapped up in the minutiae of the plot or minor details. Boil it down to protagonist-conflict-setting. (Think about how jacket copy, in 100 words or less, compels you to buy a book.)
3. Keep it professional and don't talk too much about yourself except relevant publishing credits and writing experience.
4. Don't say how much your spouse/siblings/children/friends love your work. In fact, leave out all editorialization. Let the story speak for itself.
Even the most established agent can be reeled in by a tantalizing query, and if your manuscript delivers on the promise of your query, you may find yourself with an agent. Also, new agents join the industry every day, and need to build their client lists. Seek them out, since they may be more receptive to your queries and willing to assist you with minor revisions if they believe your manuscript is "almost there."
If you need help finding agents or researching them, try the following resources:
• PublishersLunch.com and PublishersMarketplace.com — "Lunch" is a free daily industry newsletter that often mentions new agencies/agents, and "Marketplace" is the paid subscription version that offers a database of agents, deals, and potential leads for aspiring authors.
• The Association of Authors' Representatives (www.aar-online.org) — Reputable agents can be found here; all members must abide by a canon of ethics (available on their site).
• SFWA Writer Beware (www.sfwa.org/beware) — If you're worried about the legitimacy of an agent or agency, check here. Lots of helpful articles and resources.
• Guide to Literary Agents 2007 — An annually updated guide that lists several hundred agencies and agents, with agents indexed by genre. (Disclosure: This book is published by Writer's Digest Books, where I work.)
A few other sites offer agent listings for free (try a Google search)—just be sure to check out an agency's Web site or match up information from several sources so that you have the most up-to-date and accurate information. (Things change fast in publishing!)
• Read Miss Snark (http://misssnark.blogspot.com), a literary agent blog, to get inside the head of an agent and understand what they look for.
• Don't give up after a handful of rejections. Query many agents who might be a good match for your work.