Book Gadget v0.72

Friday, April 15, 2011

5 Steps to Landing a Good Literary Agent

Before you begin the querying process, you should answer these questions to make sure you are prepared.
●  Is your book complete?  Literary agents know how difficult it can be for a writer to finish a novel, especially a first novel.  Querying them before you are done not only wastes their time, but yours as well (believe me, I know!)
●  Is your book the proper length?  A book-length novel is somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 words  (this is according to the word count on your word processor).  The range is further narrowed depending upon your  book's genre (mystery, romance, young adult, etc.).   Books that are too short are difficult to publish due to paper and printing costs; those that are too long often require extensive editing, which both agents and publishers shy away from.  Before querying agents, you should research your genre and make sure your book is of the appropriate length.
●  Is your manuscript polished?  Though this should be obvious, agents expect your manuscript to be free of typos and grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors.  Do the best you can do rid it of these problems before beginning your search.
●   Are you fully convinced that you need a literary agent?  If you are not completely certain about this,  it may adversely affect your attitude and come across in your query letter and other correspondence and make the task more difficult.   It took me a few  years to accept the legitimate need for literary agents and the value they bring to the  table.  To learn more about what literary agents do, read my discussion in Common Questions about Agents & Publishers.

STEP 1.  Write a Strong Query Letter

The first step in landing an agent is writing a  strong query letter.  A query letter is simply a short (preferably one page or less) letter that introduces you and your book to the agent.  It must be well written and enticing .  Bear in mind that response you get will be no better or worse than your query.  
When writing your query, it's important to note that its purpose is not to tell the agent everything under the sun about you and your book—its purpose is only to whet the agent's appetite and entice him or her to find out more;  namely, to accept your offer of sending part, or all, of your manuscript.
The basics of a good query are (not in any particular order):
●  The reason you are querying this particular agent
●  What your book is about (short synopsis, including the length of the book and its genre)
●  Your writing credits
The main problem most writers have when they first start to compose queries is one of verbosity.   The old writing adage "less is more" definitely applies here.  Agents are extremely busy people and receive voluminous numbers of queries--they want you to get to the point, and get to it quickly.  Ramble and they have the urge to say, "Just the facts, ma'am," as Dragnet's Detective Joe Friday used to say.
The heart of the query is your synopsis.  Because many writers have so much trouble with this (including me, back at the beginning of my career), I have written a helpful "how to" article on this subject which I suggest your read, unless you are one of the lucky few who can effortlessly compress the gist of your 300 page tome into a few sentences.   (See A "Secret" Formula for Creating a Short Synopsis)
Probably the best way to demonstrate the concept of brevity in a query letter is with a real example, one that worked for me, and worked well.  Here is a query I wrote back in 1998 for one of my first novels:
Dear (agent),
I am writing to you because I have just finished a novel that it similar to two other books you have sold, XXX and XXX.
WILD CHILD, an adventure-thriller, is about a 17 year old boy and girl who discover a magical substance in a cave that has amazing euphoric and healing properties...but is also severely addictive.   Soon, the U.S. government learns of its existence, and both the teens end up fighting for their survival.
Although I have not published any fiction, I did write a screen adaptation of a novel for a producer at LucasFilms, and have published over 20 business articles in magazines and newspapers.
WILD CHILD is 35,000 words long.   Please find the first 15 pages enclosed.   May I send you the entire manuscript?

Is this a great query letter?  My citing two other similar books that each agent sold certainly should have gotten the agents' attention, made the query personal for them.  Admittedly, the synopsis could have been better.  I could write a more compelling one now.  Also, I don't state that the book was a "young adult" book (the publishers made this determination after they read it).
Still, the query letter did the job.  After what seemed like weeks of painstaking research (there was no such thing as the Publisher's Marketplace online database back then), I dug up 15 agents that had sold at least two books similar to this one.   Three of the agents asked to see some sample pages, and two others asked to see the whole manuscript.  One of those became my agent for that book.  I should point out here that she never did sell it because the publishers said it was too short--you may have noted that the length was less than the acceptable range I have in my checklist at the beginning of this article.  The agent was aware of this problem, but thought the book was good enough that the publisher's might make an exception.  They didn't, but it ended up finding a market on its own (see The Wild Publication Story).
Later on, I started writing longer and longer queries, got caught up in the "everything under the sun" syndrome, and my response  rate went down.  Eventually I came full circle.  Today my queries are generally short and to the point, as in the previous example (note that the body is only about 125 words long--a half page).  
Am I suggesting you write very short queries?  No.  Am I suggesting that you follow the structure of this query as a formula?  Definitely not!  Being creative and different goes a long way towards grabbing the agent's attention.    The query above merely demonstrates that you do not have to pack your query with information to pique the agents' interest. 

As an example of a more creative query, you may want to consider the use of a "hook," something that's intriguing that pulls the agent into the letter.  For my technical thriller, THE TESLA SECRET, I opened my query with the following sentence:
On January 9th, 1943, FBI agents stormed the lodgings of Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla and seized all of his laboratory notebooks.
This tidbit was apparently enough to keep most agents reading, because the query generated a very good response.  I should also point out that I added this hook after I had sent out ten queries that went virtually unanswered. Sometimes you need to sharpen your arrow to get the busy agent's attention.
There are endless such hooks you can use to draw agents in to reading your letter.  This particular hook worked well because this FBI raid plays an important part in the premise of my novel.  To come up with a good hook, ask yourself what element of your story, or back story, is most unusual or intriguing and see if you can find a way to open your letter with it. 
Another crucial element of the "what your book is about"  part of the query letter is book genre, setting, and length.   I usually just state this in one sentence.  "THE TESLA SECRET is a 100,000 word technothriller that that takes place in present day Russia."  Sometimes part of this information is obvious from your synopsis, so you don't need to state it, as with the case of my WILD CHILD example above.   I state the genre (adventure-thriller) but I don't state the time or setting.  This is because if you don't state a time, agents will assume that takes place in present day.  And if you don't assume a location, they will assume it takes place somewhere in the country where you live and that the exact location is not important.  (The way WILD CHILD is written, it could take place anywhere in America).
One last note on queries--don't sweat the credentials part of the letter.  Most unpublished writers have very little in the way of fiction-writing credentials, but if they have written a good book, they still manage to land agents.  Fiction writing credits (short story publications, winning writing contests, etc.) only give agents an idea that you might be able to write a good novel.  All of them reserve final judgment until they start reading your  actual  manuscript.  If your query is well written and piques their interest, they will give you the benefit of the doubt, believe me.  Every agent I know worries about overlooking some budding author who goes on to become the next J. K. Rowling.   Most have done so at least once in the careers, and they kick themselves for it.
Once you have written your query letter, you should read 15 Common Mistakes Found in Query Letters and see if you've made any of the common mistakes.   You may want to write several versions, and when you move on to Step 3 (sending out your queries), you can try each one and see which one generates the best response.

STEP 2.  Build Your Query List

After you have written and polished your query letter, the next step is to build a list of appropriate agents to query.  The key word here "appropriate."   You only want to send your query to agents who handle the same type of book that you have written;  preferably, agents who have actually sold such books.  If your book is a thriller, for example, you don't want to query agents who only handle romance.  Similarly, if your book is non-fiction, you don't want to query agents who only handle fiction.
There are many directories and websites that offer lists of literary agents and assorted information about the agency size, years in business,  authors/books they represent, and so on.  Using these, you can go to each agent's website and look at the books that have been sold (most agents list all of them, usually sorted by represented author).
By far the best way to find agents who have actually sold books similar to yours is to use the Publisher's Marketplace Database.  This only costs $20 a month, and you can just join for one month, build your query list, and then un-join.  Their Deals database is a fantastic tool--there, you can see which agent has sold which author's book to which editor at which publishing house, along with a one-line synopsis of each book!   And it goes back ten years. (This is a good place to see a lot of powerful one-line synopses, by the way, and the current trends in book-buying).
I cannot overemphasize the importance of finding the right agents for your submission list, and for including the TITLES of the similar books they have sold in the opening paragraph of your query letter.   Remember that taking on a new, unknown author is already risky for the agent;  if the agent has little or no experience with your genre, it multiplies the risk.   This is because when it comes to selling books, each genre has a built-in learning curve.  If the agent has already sold one or two books similar to yours, then he or she  can simply put your book through the same marketing pipeline created for the previous books (the agent will already know editors at publishing houses interested in your type of book).  This takes a lot of risk out of the equation on their side.
Of course, just because an agent has not sold any books similar to yours does not mean he or she will not be interested in yours.  Sometimes an agent may want to branch out into the new genre that your book represents.  But, by and large, this is the exception and not the rule.  Most new authors secure representation with agents with experience in their genres.
Yes, I know all this agent research is a lot of work.   
Now it's time for a word of caution:
WARNING!   Please be advised that there are quite a  few unscrupulous people out in the world who pose as literary agents and prey on new authors.    The telltale sign of a scam literary agent is if they ask you, the author, for money.  
Legitimate agents make a living by taking a commission from the author's royalties before they are passed on to the author.  Monies flow from publisher to agent to author--not in the other direction.  Agents that are asking you for money up front, for any reason, are not legitimate.   Be particularly careful about agents who offer any kind of editorial service or who charge "reading fees."  A useful website that tracks unethical agencies is "Preditors and Editors," located at http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/
 Legitimate agents will have a track record of selling books to legitimate publishers.   The only way to know if an agent is legit is to go to their website, look at the books they have sold, and then click through to their Amazon (or bookseller) link and check out the books.   Make sure the books are not self-published.  Also, there is a professional organization, the Association of Artist's Representatives  (AAR) to which many agents belong and which has a Canon of Ethics that its members must follow (and which prohibits their members charging reading fees, etc.), but there are some very good agents who choose not to belong to this organization as well, so it is not a perfect test (You can go to the AAR website and access their membership list for free)
Another important factor to consider in building your query list is your overall impression of each agent.  Remember, this is an individual who might become your business partner for many years, possibly for life.   As you browse through the agent database, you should go to each agent's website and ferret out as much information as you can.  You should ask yourself:  does this seem like the kind of person I could  relate to, someone with whom I feel a common connection?  Often, you can learn a lot along these lines by simply Googling the agent's name—many agents attend conferences, give talks, and have online interviews you can read.  Also, published writers often speak about their agents interviews. 
One additional factor to weigh when building your query list is your overall stylistic fit with the agent or agency.  When you look at their author list on their website, can you see yourself up there with all the rest?  Many agents have a certain "style" which is reflected in the kind of authors/books they handle.  Do you match that style?  This is important because their slant or style usually reflects the editors and publishers with whom they have the best connections.
Finally, the agent's geographic location may be a factor.  If you happen to live in, or close, to the same city, face to face meetings will be easier to arrange, which is an advantage.  Also, many writers feel that having an agent in or near NYC (or London or Sidney, etc.) is important, as many such agents regularly lunch and otherwise rub elbows with editors at the big publishing houses.  However, there are many excellent agents who are not based in NYC.  (Note:  if you want to sell your book in a country other than where you currently live and wonder about where you agent should be located, see near the bottom of my Q&A page)
Once you have your preliminary agent list, you should prioritize it based on all the information I've presented above.  I have emphasized the importance of looking at the actual number of books the agent has sold, but it is also important to remember that an agent who is selling a large number of books may not necessarily be the best agent for you.  A smaller agent who is selling a few books a year may be a better fit for you than a big shot who is selling fifty—a smaller agent will likely give you more personal attention.  Ultimately, you can only make these kinds of choices yourself.

STEP 3.  Send Out Your Queries

After you have built and prioritized your agent list, it's time to start sending out the queries.  As most agents accept email queries these days, you will be sending most of them electronically, but some may need to be sent via snail mail.  (There is more discussion of this at the end of the article).
Either way, one of the age-old questions is:  how many queries should you send out at a time?
First, it is important not to "blast" out your query to your  entire agent list all at once.  This is because there is a chance that you will need to modify your query to improve its response.  If you send your query out to your entire list and then discover that it needs significant tweaking, you've put yourself in a compromised position—when you send out your new, improved query, the agents who saw the old one will likely remember your book title or general premise, and will think, "I rejected this book already!" and it will probably end up in the trash.
As far as how many agents to query at once, some people will tell you only to query three at a time.  Of course, agents would like you to query as few of their competitors as possible.  I personally believe three at a time is far too few—I recommend querying at least ten at once.  In my experience, even the best queries typically only get a 20% response—this is because some agents simply aren't taking on new clients  or for many other unpredictable factors.   Thus, if you only query three agents, there's a strong chance that you will get no response, yet your query letter may be fine.  
Also, perhaps more importantly, you will be in a much stronger negotiating position if you have more than one offer of representation.  If you only send out a few queries at a time (once you know the query works, that is), you will likely only get one offer of representation.  Telling the agent you want to query a few more, or trying to stall while you secretly do that, is a good way to end up with no offers at all.
On the flip side, the "danger" of sending out ten queries at once is that all ten of those agents will instantly recognize that you have written the next Twilight and you will be overwhelmed by ten agents all fighting over you at once.  Needless to say, the chances of this happening are very, very slim…and in the event that you found yourself buried under an avalanche of agents vying for your signature on their representation contracts, I would say that, as a new author, that's the best problem you could possibly have.
You should, as I alluded to earlier, customize each query a little bit by writing a sentence or two about why you are querying that particular agent as opposed to others.  Agents are bombarded with "blast" queries from services that send out 500+ queries at a time, and the only way they can differentiate these from more serious queries is by the inclusion of customized information germane to their agencies.  If you have done your research in Step 2, including this information (i.e., why you like this particular agent and think he/she will be interested in your book) this should be relatively easy.  
A further way to differentiate your query from others, and increase your chances of invoking a timely and positive response, is to offer your most preferred agent an "exclusive."  This means that you are querying that agent, and only that agent, and will not query anyone else until he/she makes a decision.  This exclusive approach is appealing to some agents because it eliminates their competition for this particular book evaluation—if they like the book, they get the book.  Of course, you must also receive something in exchange for providing this "insurance";  namely, a reasonably fast answer.  Reasonably fast means a week to ten days rather than the 4 to 6 weeks that most agents quote.  Bear in mind that if you give your first choice agent an exclusive, and that agent passes, you can then move down to the second choice and offer him or her an exclusive, too.  (For more on this, see the Q&A page)
However, I should also point out that most agents are not impressed or affected by exclusive offers and will just put your query in with their normal stack.  Nothing to do about that but accept it.  
When sending out multiple queries, you should give each batch of email queries a couple of weeks before you evaluate the results (next step).  For snail mail queries, allow 10 days longer, to account for transit time.  In my experience, agents tend to fall into two categories in terms of how fast they respond to queries—either they contact you immediately (within a couple of days), or it takes them a few weeks.  This is a reflection of two styles of processing their letters—some sort through them every day, and others wait until a Saturday or otherwise slow time and dig through the pile.

STEP 4:  Adjust Your Query/Manuscript (may not be necessary)

Once you start sending out your query letter, if you don't receive what you consider to be an adequate response, you may need to rework it (see 15 Common Mistakes Found in Query Letters).  Similarly, if one or more agents ask to read sample chapters or your whole book, and then reject it, you may need to rework some parts of your novel (see A Dozen+ Reasons Books are Rejected by Agents & Editors)
There is no simple way to know when you need to do this reworking—it's one of those decisions that must be made using a combination of whatever feedback you get from the agents and good, old fashioned intuition.  Some agents respond with vague "not for us" type letters.  This gives you little to go on.  Others will provide some detail.   
For the ones who don't, there is absolutely nothing wrong with politely asking why they have chosen to "pass" on your book, explaining that you do not wish to argue with them about their decisions (please don't try this—it is a waste of time and will only make them mad), but that you greatly value their feedback because you are always trying to improve your writing.  Many agents will take the time to respond with a sentence or two explaining their reasons, and sometimes this feedback can be extremely valuable in finding a problem that can often be easily fixed.  In any case, you have nothing to lose by politely asking.
If you get a lot of rejection, don't despair!  It's all part of the process--virtually all writers go through it.  For more about this, and what to do about it, see Dealing with Rejection from Literary Agents and Publishers.

STEP 5:  Sign the Contract and Celebrate!

This is where all your hard work pays off.  If you have diligently followed all the steps above—and your book is well written—chances are that you will receive at least one offer of representation.  How long this takes, and how many queries it requires, can vary tremendously.  If you're very fortunate, you might get an offer after sending out your first batch of query letters.  However, the more typical case is that you will have to send out several batches and do at least a little adjustment of your query and/or manuscript in order to hit an agent's "hot button."  It usually takes a few months and sometimes takes years.
If you receive more than one offer, then you are in the envious position of having to choose between agents.  This decision should be made using the same factors outlined in Step 3 above.  As most agents' representation contracts are fairly standard (commission 15% for domestic sales, 20% for foreign), these details are usually not deciding points, though you should definitely look over the contract and check these numbers before signing.  (It is perfectly acceptable, and advisable, to ask for a copy of the agent's contract before making a final decision).  In general, you should choose the agent who you believe has the most likelihood of selling your book, and is a person with whom you feel you can get along in a business relationship over a period of at least several years.
I should also point out that even if a book is exceptionally well written, it's sometimes impossible to find an agent who is willing to represent it.  The world of book publishing is dynamic and finicky—at any given time, certain genres or subject matter is simply out of favor.  If this is the case with you, take heart:  if your next book finds an agent and publisher, you can be reasonably sure that your previous one will be sold sooner or later.

Additional Querying Tips

* Most agents accept e-mail queries these days, although there are a few who insist on the use of snail mail, mostly (I believe) to cut down on the number of queries they receive and to shield themselves from mass-email query services.  As dealing with snail-mail agencies is quite slow compared with those who accept emails, you may or may not choose to query them.  This element should be factored in with the rest of your agent selection criteria.
* When querying agents via email, never include attached files.  Due to the virus threat, agents will delete such messages without even reading them.  What this means is you can't attach sample pages or a synopsis.  However, what you can do is paste either or both of these into your email at the bottom, after the body of your query letter.  I always do this with the first 20 pages of my novels.  Many agents have told me that they like this—when an agent is excited by your query, the first thing he/she thinks is, "Yes, this concept sounds great…but can the author write good fiction?"  To answer this question, they do not have to waste time exchanging another set of emails asking you to send sample chapters to them.  I believe this "strike while the iron is hot" approach gives the writer an advantage.  If they like your sample pages, they will write back and ask for the whole book.
* When you are building your query list and go check out each agent's website (given that they have one), you should be sure to read their submission guidelines or requirements.  A few agents are quite strict about what they require, and some have their own submission system built into their websites that allow you to submit your query, sample chapters, etc. online.  My advice is to follow their procedures to the letter.
Good luck with your querying!

17 comments:

  1. This is probably the most thorough article I've ever seen written on the subject. Although I've already secured an agent and hope to never have to go through this process again, I am bookmarking this page to show to friends who ask me about how to query. This is an amazing amount of work you've put into this blog post!

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  2. Thank you, Kim! I guess it's just the result of a lot of years of trial-and-error agent-seeking, and wading through seemingly endless piles rejection letters!

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  3. I'm so happy I found this page! Although my book is not finished yet, it's good to know what to when I finally get there. Do you have any idea what to do with trying to get screenplays out there? I have a couple of those also lying around :)

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  4. It's pretty much the same process, except you are pitching (querying) producers instead of literary agents. Hollywood is much more of a face-to-face oriented business, though, it's hard to get anywhere unless you are actually in LA. There are lists & directories of producers you can buy which give emails, phone numbers, etc. Getting an agent to represent a screenplay is even harder than getting one to represent a book. Hope that helps.

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  5. Awesome article. I love your blog--you've written some really informative articles. I'm a few months away from beginning the querying process, but I figure learning all I can about it now can't hurt.

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  6. Mike,
    I wish I had seen this last year. I struggled through all of these steps with only a hodge podge of advice from various sites. This is extremely informative.

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  7. Great article, Mike. You caught me early in the query process, so this is really valuable.

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  8. This is really very helpful. Thanks for posting it on Twitter. Just have to finish my book first. Hehe... ;)

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  9. Hi Mike! You've got me quite inspired! I'm moving back to Germany soon, I'm thinking I'll make writing a project while I'm there. Hell of a lot of creating and polishing to do before there's anything worthwhile, though, yet, maybe next year..

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  10. Thank you so much for the information you have shared. It is very helpful!

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  11. Thank you for sharing this. I'm at the querying stage and I used this as a sort of check-list. This has been fantastic help. Marie

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  12. Good stuff Mike, makes me wish I needed an Agent! (laughing) I have always handled everything myself. Good read regardless! John "The Comforter" West.

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  13. Wow, thanks for this Mike. Very nice article!

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  14. Hey Mike, would you recommend querying agents after self publishing? I hear two different sides to this story. Some say they have no problem with it. Others flat out refuse to deal with self published novels.

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  15. Hi Craig. Good question. I think things are changing on this front. It used to be that self-publishing your novel and then trying to find an agent was nearly impossible, because there weren't that many writers doing it and publishers assumed that if the author couldn't sell the book it probably wasn't any good. But now, it's so easy to self-publish, almost push-button, and so many writers are doing it, many agents just take this in stride. That said, it certainly does not sit well with publishers because they like a clean slate--if they give you a contract, you will have to pull your book off the market, which muddles things for them.

    If I were you, I wouldn't approach agents or publishers until I had some impressive sales numbers to show them...on the other hand, when you reach that level you may not be interested in going the traditional route anymore. It is a paradox. Many people think that landing the agent or publishing contract will be the end of all their problems and that they'll soon be a NY Times bestselling author, but I can assure you, the traditional path is just as difficult as the self-publishing path, but in different ways.

    Probably not a very good answer, but it's a tough question

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  16. Hi Mike, who is your agent? Judging by the great work he/she has done for you one wouldn't need to look any further.

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    1. I'm my own agent. I've had several very good literary agents in the past, but none of them could sell any of my books. This was partially my fault for not being willing to make endless changes trying to please the whim of various publishing house editors. Which is why I self-published and now do everything myself.

      However, literary agents can work very well (obviously) for writers who are less stubborn than I an have the required character to deal with the publishing business bureaucracy. I'm too entrepreneurial for it.

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