You’ve written your manuscript, had it professionally edited, and polished it to perfection. Now you just need to send it to a publishing house and you’ll get that lucrative book deal, right? Not so fast. First you’ll want to be clear on the best practices for how to get an agent.
The truth is this: If you want to get the traditional book deal you’ve always dreamed of, you probably need to get an agent first.
A literary agent represents you as an author. While publishers are always on the lookout for the next bestseller, there are only so many hours in a day to wade through the thousands of manuscripts submitted to them every year. Most traditional publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts but instead only take manuscripts sent to them by agents. After all, no agent would put their reputation on the line for a manuscript they didn’t think had the potential to become a great book.
So, your literary agent is your foot in the door in the highly competitive world of traditional publishing. They know who’s who at the publishing companies and they know who is looking for what kind of book. But they can also help you get a deal more easily with a hybrid publisher, even if hybrid publishers rarely require their authors to have agents.
There’s another reason having an agent is useful, no matter which publishing route you take: they will negotiate contracts for you. These include your deal with the publisher but also, for example, offers for film rights. They’ll make sure that you get the best possible deal because they work on commission: the better you get paid, the better they get paid.
So how do you land yourself a good agent that is a good fit for you and your book? Here are six tips.
1. Define your book
Before you even approach an agent, you need to be clear on what kind of book you’ve written. It’s not enough to just say whether it’s fiction or nonfiction: you need to be more specific. If it’s nonfiction, for example, is it a memoir? A biography? A self-help book? A how-to guide? And if it’s a memoir, what kind of memoir is it? Say, for instance, that it’s about recovery from addiction: does it do this humorously or does it remain serious throughout? And what makes your book different from other recovery memoirs?
Being able to define your book is important for focusing your marketing efforts, but it will also help you narrow down the list of potential agents you may approach.
2. Make a list of agents you might like to work with.
How do you find agents? Ask on writers’ forums or social media groups for authors. Ask writers you might know. Go to writer’s conferences. Look on sites like Publishers Marketplace, Poets & Writers, the Association of American Literary Agents or the Writers’ Union of Canada for agent databases. MS Wishlist is another great site to find agents that are looking for your type of book. Then, instead of approaching the first agent whose name you find, make an agent wish list based on the genres they specialize in and where they’re located.
3. Research the potential agents to narrow down your wish list.
Before you pick an agent from your wish list, do as much research on them as possible. Of course, you need to know which genre they typically represent. But also find out who else they’ve represented in the past and who they’re representing now. Do a bit of research on those authors too: not only to get a better idea of the books the agent works with, but also as a way to verify their client list.
Make a note of red flags: a shabby website may be a sign of an unprofessional agent; a long list of past clients but not so many current clients may be a sign of an agent who is difficult to work with or doesn’t deliver; a long list of authors whose books never went anywhere or who got terrible reviews may be a sign of an agent who isn’t very discerning.
Use what you find out about each agent to help you narrow down your wish list and find the one you think would best represent you and your book.
4. Prepare your query letter and book synopsis.
The way to approach a potential agent is to send them a query letter. This is a one-page letter in which you tell the agent who you are, what your book is about, who your target audience is, and why you would like them to represent you. It’s not unlike a cover letter you send with your resume when you apply for a job.
When you write your query letter, be sure to address the agent specifically rather than a generic “Dear Agent”, “Dear Literary Agency” or, “To whom it may concern”. This shows that you want that agent personally to represent you and that this isn’t a blanket submission. Be concise and remember to proofread. After all, this is the first impression the agent will get of you and your writing skills.
Some agents will ask for a book synopsis too, so have one at the ready. This is especially useful if you meet an agent in person at a writers’ conference.
Be aware that agents may have specific instructions for how to query them that may differ from what we’ve described above. Many agents use a querying platform like QueryTracker, so read their submission guidelines carefully and follow them to a T. An author who cannot follow instructions will end up in the NO pile.
5. Don’t automatically accept the first offer.
It’s very exciting when an agent wants to accept you as a client, but don’t sign that contract blindly. Read it carefully and get a lawyer to go over it to make sure everything is sound and in your best interest. Agents also work on a commission basis, so if they ask you for any kind of fee, this is a huge red flag.
6. Don’t give up.
When you get a rejection letter from the agent you’ve approached, don’t let it discourage you. Over three years, sixty agents rejected Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: that’s sixty agents who now look at the book’s bestseller status and award-winning film adaptation and are kicking themselves.
The process of querying and signing with an agent requires tenacity, patience, and confidence. And remember, there is more than one publishing route.