You decided you wanted to be a writer, carved the time to write out of your busy schedule and found that perfect café to write in. You’ve studied the rules of grammar. You’ve developed a gripping plot, fallen in love with your characters, engaged them with witty dialogue and thrown them into conflict. Your writing group has helped you whip your novel into shape and given you the confidence to share your work with the world. Your editor has helped you polish your novel, and now it’s time for the truly scary part – finding an agent.
An agent is the gate-keeper to the world of traditional publishing. They present your work to publishers. When a book is bought by a publisher, the agent will earn a commission and is therefore never paid directly by an author. Never pay an agent to read your manuscript. If an agent asks for a reading fee, move on. Good agents will not ask for a fee of any kind.
There are many scams out there that will try to relieve hopeful writers of their cash, and dodgy agents have tried to rip-off authors using a wide variety of “fees’ such as submission fees, processing fees, marketing fees. Some so-called agents make it all sound very complicated and offer a critique if you pay a fee. In fact, the whole fee issue is remarkably simple – good agents read for free. They are looking for their next client, that next breakout novel to sell to the publishers. At that point, an agent gets around 15% of your total income on your book, before taxes. You never pay them up front.
Writers Beware is an excellent resource for those searching for an agent. The website lists agents and publishers with bad practice and who may be potential scammers. The blog keeps writers up-to-date on newly evolving scams. This is a great place to check out that “too good to be true” agent.
A good place to find agents is the Writer's Market released annually by Writer's Digest Books. It gives you lists of agents and publishers. Many publishers will not accept submissions directly from authors, and you will need an agent to present your manuscript for you. Writer’s Market will tell you if a publisher accepts manuscripts from authors. It will also tell you almost everything you need to research your agent.
Researching an Agent
- Only query agents who represent the genre you are writing in.
- Do not query an agent who is not accepting submissions. You are only wasting your time.
- Read the agents website and follow their directions for submissions carefully as specified on the website. Information in Writer’s Market can become outdated.
- Identify agents who have represented writers you admire.
- Alternatively, new agents tend to pick up new authors but will have less sway with publishers.
- Write a kick-ass query letter – do not send a manuscript unless you are asked to.
- Keep a record of who you contact and when.
- Wait some more…
- And then some…
Writing a Query Letter
- Number one rule – keep it short and to the point. It should be one single-spaced page long, in 10- or 12-point type in a normal font such as Times Roman.
- Address the agent by name. Do not send a form letter out to everyone. You will have to spend a bit of time on each letter tailoring it to each agent.
- Sell your manuscript with a great hook, using a sentence or two to pitch your book.
- Summarize your book in a paragraph so that soul of the story shines through. Don’t get bogged down in too much detail. This part is more like the jacket blurb – you need to sell the story here.
- Detail the genre and how many words long your manuscript is.
- Tell the agent if you have a platform, a website, a blog, followers, other relevant publications.
- Certainly you can have a base letter with the core details in it for you to copy and paste, but each letter will require you to tell an agent why you have chosen them to represent your work. Avoid using flattery.
- Include your name, address, phone number, e-mail address.
- If you are using snail mail, use one-inch margins on your paper and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the response
Keeping a RecordUse a spreadsheet to record your progress with agents and fill it in as you go along, when an agent replies (even if it is just a standard acknowledgment of receipt of your query), what their decision is and gray out that row when you get a rejection. This agent is no longer an option at that point but you need to know who you have already approached so you don’t send out to the same person twice.
Set up the following headers in the first row of your spreadsheet. The suggested headers are in bold – notes on them for your own information are in the parentheses:
- Agengcy/Publisher (Smaller publishers may accept queries and this will be noted in their website.)
- Agent Website (You can store the link in this column.)
- Agent/ Editor Name (This is the person to whom you will address your query.)
- Email Address
- Notes on submission guidelines (I usually cut and paste the guidelines from the website to have all the information in one place.)
- Date submitted
- Response (I also indicate in this field if the agent has stated that no reply means “no.” Many agents will give a time frame such as, “If you haven’t heard back in 3 months it means no.” Record all such information here.)
- Location (This was particularly relevant to me as my book was set in Ireland and I was approaching agents both there and in the USA.)
- Address (For snail mail applications)
You will receive lots of form rejections and even some “nice” rejections. Don’t be disheartened. That is all part of it. The best authors have had tons of rejections – welcome to the club. Eat chocolate, drink wine, get over it and keep checking the mail because maybe, just maybe, one letter will not be a rejection…
Byddi Lee grew up in Armagh, Ireland, and moved to Belfast to study Biology at Queen’s University when she was 18. She made Belfast her home for twenty-one years, teaching science and writing for pleasure. In 2002 she took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled around the world for two years, writing blogs about her adventures as she went. She returned to Ireland in 2004 and resumed teaching. In 2008 she and her husband moved to San Jose, California where she made writing a full-time career. After the publication of her short story, Death of a Seannachai, she decided it was time to write, March to November, which was published in 2014 and received international acclaim. In 2016 she moved with her husband to Paris, France and is currently writing her second novel, a science fiction story set in a future where the earth’s icecaps have melted and Armagh is the capital of Ireland. Byddi also writes an entertaining blog called, “We didn’t come here for the grass.” Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
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