Congratulations. You have finished writing your novel, and you are now ready to take that first step into the vast and confusing world of traditional publishing.
The process of landing your future agent is a long and arduous journey, so let’s break it down into manageable parts:
1. Gather Documents
Write your query letter. Need help starting? Check out How To Write A Query Letter. And make sure to have your synopsis and the first three chapters to fifty pages ready. Agents will often ask for these things as part of your initial submission, or they will request it if they’re intrigued by the query and want to see more.
Your query letter needs to be absolute perfection before you even think about sending it out. Be clear, be concise, and make every word count. Triple check the spelling and grammar. Need some inspiration? Check out Successful Query Letter Examples or Query Letter Help From Agent Pooja Menon.
3. Get Feedback
Being so close to your story, you may not see the holes in your blurb. A second pair of eyes could point out the things that don’t quite make sense. And who better than other writers?
Check out the forums on sites like Query Tracker and Agent Query where you can meet other writers looking for help with their own letters, synopses, and those critical first five pages. You can also see some great feedback in action at Query Shark. (Please comment if you have had a good experience with another website that you would like to share)
It’s tempting to just charge right in, but if you take your time at the start, it will make your life so much easier later on. It seems like a lot of work. And it is. However, you are asking these agents to potentially engage in a long-lasting professional relationship with you. Maybe you think agents are really picky and that it’s hard to get their attention. Well, guess what? You need to be just as picky when choosing your agent.
You don’t want just any old agent. You want the one that’s best for you, your project, and your future goals. There are plenty of tools to help you search for the right one, including the query sites I mentioned in step 3. There are also sites like Publishers Marketplace, books you can buy, memberships you can sign up for, and a million other ways to get info.
Personally, I used Query Tracker and Publishers Marketplace, as well as forums to compile one massive generic list of agents searching for my genre. After that, Google was my best friend. I narrowed down the entire list by searching the agencies’ websites, reading all the agent bios, what authors they represented, their online interviews, and other writers’ experiences with the agents. The information is out there, so use it to your advantage and choose wisely.
Unless you are very, very lucky, prepare to query a lot of agents. Track when you sent out your queries, to whom, if they asked for sample pages, when their website says they will get back to you, etc.
Organization is key to preventing mix-ups like querying two agents at the same agency or nudging too early. Also take note of what attracted you to this agent and any other info you found on them. Dates are especially important because you can mark on your calendar when you can nudge each agent, resend if they haven’t responded, or sadly, when you can cross them off the list as a no-response.
5. Start Off Slow
Start by querying 5-10 agents. Their reactions will give you an idea of how well you’re doing. If all of them are form rejections, ask yourself why. I’d take another look at your query letter. While you should have perfected it before it went out, those dreaded mistakes happen to the best of us. Or perhaps the pitch needs revising. Maybe it’s your hook.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Play around with some new ideas and get more feedback. Then, try again. If the next batch gets a couple of requests for partials or fulls, then you know you’ve done something right. Keep going.
6. Pick Up The Pace
Query widely. Agents know the business of querying is tough, so no one will blame you. It may take months to hear back from an agent, while some won’t reply at all. It’s just the nature of the business. Imagine how many queries an agent receives each day. Remember, they already have clients who they’re helping to get published. That’s their priority, as it should be. Don’t you want to be a priority once you get an offer of representation?
If you wait around for each agent to reply, you’ll never get published. So now that you’re sure your query is 100% ready, go for it!
Some agents ask for exclusive query submissions. My personal opinion: avoid them. It’s just the querying stage. Why narrow your chances and make the process any longer than it needs to be? Besides, there are plenty of other great agents out there who don’t expect you to sit on your amazing story for weeks or months while they deliberate on a simple query. If you did this with everyone, it would take you years to get an agent.
As disheartening as it is, rejection is simply part of the process. And it can be helpful if you know how to deal with it. If the agent takes the time to comment on your sample pages or query letter, take note of it, learn from it, improve your query letter, improve your writing.
Don’t take the rejection personally. It isn’t always due to your writing. It could be because the agent has already taken on too many manuscripts in your genre, has a busy schedule that season, ate a bad sandwich that morning, or any number of reasons. Don’t lose hope. Just tick them off your list and keep going. Rejection is part of this business, and even after you land an agent, it will continue. Learn from it and move on.
You’ve done a great job with your query, and you’ve received requests for either your FULL manuscript or PARTIAL manuscript. This part gets tricky when there’s more than one agent interested. But as long as you are considerate in your dealings with any agent, this step will go smoothly.
What are exclusives?
Agents often ask for an exclusive on a full or partial. This means while they’re considering it, if someone else requests to see your MS, you’ll have to tell them to wait. This is understandable, since they will be spending a lot of time and energy reading your entire manuscript, and they don’t want someone else to scoop it right from under their nose.
How long is the exclusive for?
Usually an agent will ask for 4-6 weeks to view your work. This is a reasonable amount of time. Whatever you do, don’t grant an open-ended exclusive. Make sure there is a specific end date.
Can I say no to an exclusive request?
It’s within your rights to deny them an exclusive. Exclusives really only benefit the agent, not the writer. If you do refuse, remember to be polite and explain that you would like to continue to send your manuscript to interested agents, but that you hope they will still consider your work.
Be warned, there is a chance that the agent will change their mind about wanting to see it. It’s up to you to determine if that’s a risk you want to take.
What if you’ve already granted an exclusive but now another agent requests to see your MS?
You need to follow through with your promise. Just inform the new agent that it’s currently out on an exclusive submission and that you will let them know as soon as they get back to you. Agents will generally be understanding about this and wait.
What if your MS is already out on submission and another agent requests an exclusive?
Again, just be upfront about it. Simply explain that another agent is currently reviewing it, but ask if they would like to see it anyway. If they were interested enough to ask in the first place, then they’ll probably still want you to send it along even if it’s not on an exclusive basis. It usually isn’t a deal-breaker.
What if …
There are a lot of different scenarios and probably just as many opinions out there on how to deal with these delicate situations. The above are just my opinions. Your safest bet is to always be professional, upfront, and HONEST. An agent will never fault you for that.
9. The Call!!!
Congratulations. An agent wants to represent you. Once they put forward their offer, either through e-mail or a phone call, you should also have the opportunity to chat and get to know each other. You want to make sure that you’re compatible, that you have the same goals and ideas for your future writing career. Don’t get so excited to have any old agent that you lose sight of what you want. Because ultimately, the wrong agent is worse than no agent at all.
But I’m assuming that you did your homework and you queried this agent because you honestly thought you would be a good match, otherwise you’ve wasted your time and theirs. During your chat, don’t forget to ask questions about the agent, their experience, as well as what they see for the future of your novel and your career in general. This is an opportunity for both of you to learn about one another.
10. Sleep On It
Wait. Don’t accept the offer yet.
‘What? Are you crazy?’ you ask me. Whether you need to think about the offer or you are completely certain they’re the right one for you, it’s still a good idea to sleep on it. Why? Well, for one, this is a big decision. Don’t worry. The agent won’t change their mind in the meantime. They’ll appreciate that you’re taking the decision very seriously. But there is another reason, and that is…
11. Follow Up
Chances are you still have submissions out there in Agent-land. It is extremely frustrating for agents who have just spent their time and effort reading your work to be told, ‘Oops, sorry. I’ve already gone with someone else.’
They may not become your agent in the end, but it’s a small world out there. What kind of reputation do you want to have? Always be professional. Show them courtesy by giving them a chance to finish reading your work and make their own offer, if they wish to do so. Your original offering agent will understand. I’m sure they’ve experienced enough frustrations themselves.
Send out an e-mail to each of the other agents currently reading your material and let them know you have had an offer. Give them a week or two to respond (set an exact date). And most will get back to you. (I say ‘e-mail’ because most agents converse via e-mail now as opposed to snail mail)
If you want, you can also send out an alert to the agents who haven’t responded to your query letter. Usually at this stage they haven’t even read the blurb, so they’re not invested. You might only get a ‘Congrats! Good luck.’ response, but at least this lets them know where you stand and they can toss out your query.
12. Say Yes!
Hooray! You have an agent. Celebrate this huge milestone. There may be a lot of work ahead of you, and it is easy to get overwhelmed by just how far you have to go, but you are one giant step closer to being published. This is a huge deal! Don’t forget that.