When people imagine getting published, they imagine something more like what was happening back in the 19th century: an author took their finished manuscript to a publisher’s office; they sat across from someone who read the work right in front of them; the publisher either said, “yes” or “no.” That’s not how it works anymore, unfortunately. These days, writers don’t even get to talk to a publisher directly (unless you’re publishing through a small press, which will sometimes accept unagented manuscripts, but for the sake of this post, we’re talking about a more common route). These days, the first thing a writer needs is an agent.
The only thing harder than selling a manuscript is finding an agent, but having an agent is crucial because an agent is the person who’s going to be selling your manuscript for you. They know editors, they know publishers, and they know the industry. But because they’re so valuable, they can be hard to land. Let’s talk about a few steps you can take to find a literary agent.
Finish Your Manuscript.
I know it’s tempting, but don’t even think about querying an agent until you have a completed, edited, revised, polished manuscript. Because if you query an agent and then they ask to see the project and it’s not done, well, that’ll get you a rejection really quick.
This is the part of the process that’s probably the most important but that is always overlooked. When you’re researching agents (there are lists and websites galore, Google them!), you have to pay attention to what agents are looking for. If you send your horror novel to an agent that doesn’t represent horror, that query letter will go straight into the trash, and you’ve just wasted your time and that agent’s time. All agents will have a list of what they represent, what they’re interested in, and who their clients are. Look at all of these. Look at who represents your favorite authors or authors you think you write like. Make a list! Query those agents!
A query letter is your audition tape. Sometimes it’s the only thing an agent sees of your work. You have to sell your book to them in that one-page query letter. It’s do or die. A query includes a pitch of your novel and an introduction to you as the author. Depending on whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, a query letter will vary. This is easily Google-able. There are tons of websites out there that talk about how to write a query letter, and they are absolutely invaluable. Pay attention!
Responding to Requests.
There are a ton of different ways an interaction with an agent can go. After you query, they could reject you. Sorry. Or, they could request more materials. This could mean they want a partial (usually up to 50 pages) or that they want to see the full work. OR it could mean they want a synopsis which can be anywhere from one page to ten pages. Have your materials as ready to go as possible, so that if this happens, you’re all set. The agent will make it very clear what they need from you, so just make sure you’re following their request the best you can.
Don’t spam. Don’t respond.
There are very strict rules when it comes to agents, and they’re very simple. DO NOT query more than one agent at an agency. DO NOT query the SAME agent with the same manuscript unless they’ve requested a revision from you. DO NOT respond to a rejection letter. REALLY. NEVER DO THAT.
Finding an agent can be a process that takes anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years, but that’s just the way it is. The most important thing to remember is that you have to keep working while you’re waiting to hear from agents. If you’re a novelist, move on to another novel while you’re waiting to hear back. That’s prime work time for you, and it means that when you do get an agent, you’ll have more than one project for them to sell, which is something they’ll be excited about. So get to work!