So you’ve written the book and experienced the surge of joy and relief that only a completed draft can elicit. Now what? Most aspiring authors make it to typing the words “THE END” and mistakenly think the journey of becoming a published author is almost over. For better or worse, the journey is just beginning at this stage of seeming completion. The way the publishing industry is built—on a system of creating books that bears a shockingly similar resemblance to the system of 200 years ago—the greatest chance of an author signing a book deal comes through an agent. But how does a writer get one?
Here are a few simple steps to get started:
1. Do your homework. There is a plethora of information available online and in books for how to submit to an agent. Either Google “How to get an agent” or check out any or all of the titles listed at the end of this article.
2. Write a query letter. This is essentially a cover letter introducing you and your book. For additional resources on how to write a great query letter, and how to make your query letter stand out from the rest, see the list of additional resources below.
3. Target the right agent. Publishing is a very subjective process. Only submit your work to agents that specialize in the genre of your book or to agents who are looking for similar kinds of projects. There are lists of agents and what they’re looking for on AARonline.org (Association of Authors’ Representatives), Writers Net, Agent Query, and Predators & Editors. There are also electronic and print directories called Novel and Short Story Writer's Market and Literary Marketplace. Another way to find this information is simply by going to a bookstore and finding the genre of your book (i.e. mysteries). Most authors thank their agents in the Acknowledgments page. Make a list of agents that represent books similar to yours and Google them later to see if they have a website.
4. Follow submission guidelines. Most agents and agencies have websites that cite how and what they’d like you to submit. Make sure you follow the individual guidelines: It shows them that you’ve paid attention and that you care about their response. In most cases, agents handle hundreds of queries a week, so they are quick to reject any work that looks sloppy or generic. Don’t make your project easy to reject.
5. Send to as many agents as possible. Again, publishing is a subjective process. You never know who will love your book and find a personal connection and who will be less enchanted. Cast your net wide. It’s a numbers game—kind of like job applications. Keep submitting and moving forward and don’t look back.
6. If you are rejected, don’t talk back. This is a classic way for authors to shoot themselves in the foot, and it’s often a case of letting emotions or ego get in the way. Publishing is a small world, and many agents refer projects to one another. Just as often, an agent will warn a colleague not to take any projects by crazy Mr. TalkBack. As an author, you are part of this business, too. Keep all correspondence professional.
Another common question about the process of approaching an agent is whether or not to meet in person before being accepted as a client. As an author, it’s perfectly natural to want to meet someone who may become an important business partner, but think of it from the agent’s perspective for a moment. Agents are often on the unpopular end of the stick when they have to (regrettably much of the time) reject an author who they know has invested time and tears into a manuscript. Would you want to form a personal connection, face-to-face, if you may end up finding that the project isn’t something you can champion, and you’ll have to later reject this person? It’s mainly for this reason that agents do not go out of their way to meet authors until they become clients. The other big issue is time. Agents are commission-based, so they only make money when their clients do. For this reason, agents fall into the category of over-worked, under-rested, BlackBerry-clutching corporate-looking types with a double-booked calendar and a stereotypically neglected significant other. I’m being dramatic here, but you get the picture.
So what’s the best way to attract an agent? Agents always notice authors who have done their homework and who conduct themselves professionally, but the offer of representation boils down to the product: your book. If you have a well-written book for a specific market of readers, nine times out of ten, you’ll get a call from a very excited agent.
Additional resources: How to be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis, P&W.com, and Nathan Bransford
Query letters: Marcus Sakey's query letter and The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman
Sara Wolski has worked in literary agencies in New York and London is the former owner of Calliope Content Development, a Chicago-based literary agency. She also worked at Condé Nast on the editorial staff of Golf for Women magazine. Sara is a graduate of New York University and a former board member of ASME Next, a leadership organization for junior editors and staff writers through the sponsorship of the American Society of Magazine Editors. She has also written for Examiner.com on the topic of writing careers in Chicago.