I was approached by an old friend this week who has recently completed a novel and wants to get an agent. Because my answer is the same to old friends and to strangers, I went looking for a post to copy and paste - surely in the course of 7 years of blogging I've covered this, right? Color me surprised to find I haven't, not really.

You've heard me say before there are many ways up the mountain when it comes to publishing. But there is only one tried and true way to get a literary agent to represent your work, and that's to query. 

My own story is slightly abnormal, but I was deeply involved in preparing queries when it all happened, and I'd already gone through the process once before, so I can't tell you any other way to do this.  

The biggest part of finding an agent is learning the business.

And with all the information out there to be gleaned, there's no excuse for not having at least a basic working knowledge of how publishing churns.

To wit: writer writes blockbuster, polishes it to a high gleam, does their research on the best agent for them, queries, is picked up, agent puts book on submission to publishers, book sells, agent takes their 15% and everyone's happy.  

There are steps missing, of course, and the above scenario is best case, but this is meant to be a down and dirty, quick-start guide. This is for writers intending to seek out the traditional publishing route.

Why Do I Need A Literary Agent?

Because the big publishers rarely work directly with authors, especially new authors who are unknown entities. You can't get in the door without a decent agent. Agents do the heavy lifting between you and the publisher – they handle the money, generate your tax forms, disburse your funds, deal with your editor if there is a problem (and trust me, there's always a problem, this is publishing, remember?) They're your fullback, blocking for you so you can make the big run. And let's be honest, this is publishing, and the traditional route is stronger than ever. There's still a certain amount of caché to having an agent. If anything, it gives you, the writer, some peace of mind that your work is good, and tells the publishing houses you're a writer to be taken seriously. 

But Why Would I Pay An Agent 15% When I Can Self-Publish and Keep All The Money?

A good agent earns that 15%. Hey, if you want to be your own publisher, handle all the work yourself, by all means, have at it. But working with a reputable agent saves you a lot of heartache. They handle foreign rights, audio rights, working with entertainment agents for options. Many do extensive editorial work with their authors prior to submission. They are the revolving door of your career, helping you keep all the balls in the air. Some agents now work the marketing and PR angles too. My agency has an ebook division to help their authors bring backlist titles to the market.

Career management, business management, editor, confessor, friend – trust me, it's worth it.

Picking an Agent to Query

The best advice I can give is to join Publishers Marketplace, where all the deals are listed. You can see which agent represents your kind of material, then tailor your queries to the agents who are best suited to your book. You can also look at the novels you respect, most authors thank their agents in the acknowledgements. If you think your work will appeal to readers who like Lisa Gardner, for example, go ahead and query her agent. Some agents don't represent people who might be direct competition with their bread and butter authors, some build corrals of similar writers – it all depends.

Many agents blog now, and many have a social media presence. Check them out, and make sure you like them. Seriously. While it doesn't feel like it when you're on the query side of the fence, once you get an agent, they work for you. If you can't laugh together, you're probably not going to be a good match.

This is very important – having no agent is better than having a bad agent. Do your homework. Check Preditors and Editors, make sure there aren't any complaints. Most agents belong to AAR, Association of Author's Representatives, which has strict guidelines about agent behavior. For example, if an agent wants you to pay them to read your book, walk away. If you aren't self-publishing, the money ALWAYS flows to the author, not away. Look at Publishers Marketplace, see what kinds of deals they're doing. If an agent doesn't have any deals listed, ask them for their latest. If they refuse to tell you who their clients are, or won't share their recent deals, walk away. If they don't have an established web presence, with a listing of their authors, go carefully.

And chose carefully. Finding an agent is a bit like finding a spouse. This person is going to be your intimate. Your business manager.

They will know your heart, because it's their job to secure the best, most lucrative deals, and protect your hide should things go wrong. He or she will know a lot about you. They will be your biggest cheerleader, and will hold your hand during the big disappoints that invariably happen. They will work the business angle for you, and you will be grateful for their expertise.

I've been with my brilliant agent Scott Miller from the beginning, and I wouldn't trade him for the world. I wouldn't be nearly the writer I am, or have the career I have, without him. (In case you hadn't guessed, that's a ringing endorsement. When trying to decide on an agent, you want the ones people speak of in this way.)

The Dreaded Query Letter 

Once you've decided on who to query, do some research on the query letter itself. And follow the agent's submission guidelines to the letter. There's a right way to do a query - it's a business letter. You can see an example here. And this is a good article on how to write one

And FOLLOW THE AGENT'S GUIDELINES! They are there for a reason. The thing I see over and over again is writers who think they're somehow exempt from the rules, because their book is special, they are special, etc.

You're not.

And agents have a nose for con-men and women. Don't try to be slick, or cool. This is a business, you need to act like it, and show the agent you're actually serious about your job.

And trust me, they can spot a pro from a mile away.

The Dreaded Synopsis

Ack. The synopsis.

Suffice it to say you'll need a one page description of your book, from start to finish. It's all tell, but it lays out the characters, the premise, the crime, who did it, etc.

The synopsis is an art form, but very important to the process. Look here for help. This is something you're going to have to learn to do, because every time you sell a book, you'll need at least a barebones synopsis for the publisher so they know what you're planning to write about.

Fiction versus Non-Fiction

Just a quick word about this process.

For non-fiction, you can sell on a concept and outline, without having written the book, so long as you have a platform.

For fiction, though, it is of vital importance for you to FINISH the book before you query. It's rarer than hen's teeth to sell fiction on a proposal, so don't try. The agents need to know you can actually finish a book. l've seen several people miss out on an opportunity when an agent has seen the first three chapters and wants more, and they don't have it. And guess what happens? Yeah, the agent moves on, and you're left holding the bag. So finish it the book BEFORE you start the process. 

That's It, Right?

Well, no.

Possibly the best advice I can give is make sure you're ready to query. I highly recommend gathering beta readers, people who are objective and will be honest in their opinions, to read your work before you submit. And if you've got the funds, bringing in an outside editor to give your work the once over before you send it can't hurt. You only get one chance to make a first impression in NY. And the market is tight as a tick. So you'll want to be sure the book is as good as you can possibly make it BEFORE you start to query.

I can highly recommend Jennifer Brooks as an independent editor. She's reasonable, and excellent (and has edited me for years.)

What If All The Agents I Query Say No?

This happens.

If you're getting form letters back with zero input, there's most likely something wrong with your query. Rework it, make it punchy and exciting, and try again. If you're getting letters back with encouraging notes – this isn't right for me but please resubmit  – then keep on. And if you're getting near misses, maybe it's time to go back to your opening pages and look at your work objectively. Does it sing? Is your premise clearly unique, your writing polished? Does your passion for your work bleed through? If not, take a break, do some editing and soul searching and try again. 

That's All, Folks

As I told my friend, I wish I could say there was a secret handshake, but this is the process. It's what nearly every published author has gone through.

And before you ask – the most we authors can do is let the agent know you're coming in with a query, so it gets bumped up the pile. We have absolutely zero say in the decision. Again, this is a business, as awkward and strange as it may be, and there simply aren't any real shortcuts.

Good luck! 

P.S. You might also think about joining the organizations, ITWMWA, RWA especially, to start getting to know some of the other authors and benefitting from their knowledge base. And read my Top Ten list.


Looking for more writing tips? I've got a few.