About Literary Agents and How to Get One #2

In the first part of this exploration of literary agents https://jaceybedford.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/about-literary-agents-and-how-to-get-one-1/ I gave you a rundown on the three different ways I acquired each of my three literary agents – a very different process for me each time and I’m delighted to now be settled with Amy Boggs of the Donald Maass Literary agency.

What follows in the second part concerns the nitty gritty of submission packages.

The Right Agent

In the last post I gave you a few clues as to how to find literary agents, but as you will quickly see, there are literary agents and literary agents. Some are hands-on agents who will see potential in your writing and help you with your manuscript before sending it out to publishers. Some agents are hands-off. If what you send them is, in their opinion, something they can sell, then they’ll offer representation and send it out on your behalf.

Always remember that when seeking representation and a traditional publishing deal money flows TO the writer. There are lots of genuine agents out there who operate professionally, but there are a few who will charge reading fees and then try and direct you to a professional editor or book doctor to improve your manuscript. All of which you will pay for – often through the nose – without getting any closer to your goal of publication. There’s a great article on these ‘middleman’ services here: http://accrispin.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/how-not-to-seek-literary-agent.html

This isn’t to denigrate professional freelance editors. They perform a valuable service and I would recommend anyone going down the self-publishing route to consider employing a professional editor – preferably one with a good reputation and a solid history of working on your genre of novel. Sadly these editors are not the ones a scam agent will be sending your book to.

So what type of agent do you want? Hands on or hands off? Are you looking for an agent who works with a specific genre of book? (Hint, don’t send your blockbuster SF novel to someone who only wants the great literary novel.) Do you want an agent who is country-specific? Most of the agents you’ll find listed on the web are in North America, but you can find British literary agents listed in The Writers’ and Artists Yearbook. You can usually find out details about any agent by reading the agency’s submission guidelines.

Check the following:

  • Does the agent rep your genre and your age range?
  • Is the agent accepting/actively seeking new clients?
  • Is the agent hands-on or hands-off?
  • What is important to you in contract negotiations? Size of advance / Foreign rights / E-publishing rights / Audio rights?
  • Where is the agent based?
  • Anything special that may connect an agent to your pitch?

Keeping Track

Make a list of the agents you think might be a suitable match and check their guidelines carefully. I actually put all mine into a database, but – hey – that’s just me. A notebook will do the trick just as well. (OK, I admit I had a notebook and a database.) Make sure you note what you’ve sent, and when, and to whom – especially if it’s a submission to an agency rather than to an independent agent. Some agencies will tell you to submit to their agents individually, others will say that a submission to one agent is a submission to all because if your first choice agent doesn’t feel the manuscript is right for her/him it will be passed on to other agents within the organisation.

If the guidelines give a time period for response, note down when you expect to hear back. (When the deadline date has passed you are allowed to enquire about your submission – though I’d always give them a little leeway on time.) Some agents just don’t respond if they aren’t interested, which leaves you hanging. Didn’t they get your sub? Are they so overworked they haven’t had chance to look yet? Did they read the first paragraph and chuck it in the bin, but couldn’t be bothered to let you know? (I went off on one about this practice of non-response in my last post, so I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I think it’s bad form.) At some point, you simply have to decide to walk away if you haven’t heard back after a sensible time period, but it’s up to you to decide what that time period is. Three months? Four months? Six months?

Following Guidelines

What should you send a prospective new agent? The short answer is whatever they want you to send. Make sure you read those guidelines carefully. If the agent wants a cover letter, synopsis and the first three pages then that’s what you send. Ditto if they want the first chapter on pink paper in Comic Sans font. (Hint: they won’t.) But never send it on pink paper in Comic Sans just because you think it will stand out from the crowd. (Hint: it will, but not in a good way.) Most agents accept or even prefer electronic submissions these days, but there are still a few out there who want paper subs. Make sure you know which is which. Paper subs can be really expensive if you have to post them transatlantic.

Your Submission Package

Millions of words have been written on how to submit. I recommend boning up on manuscript format and reading a few essential blogs on the topic of submissions from real working agents.

  • QueryShark, by literary agent Janet Reid has some excellent advice.
  • The Miss Snark Archive, though dormant since 2007, is a fascinating (and funny) insight into the lit agent world from an insider’s point of view. Be prepared to lose a whole night just browsing through it, but you’ll learn a lot.
  • PubRants is a rant about submissions by literary agent Kristin Nelson – again very educational. Kristin is one of the agents who – after some discussion and a request for the full manuscript – turned me down when I was agent hunting, but I was really impressed with her professionalism and I’ve followed her blog and learned a lot from it.

If there’s a literary agent you think looks good it’s always good to check out their blog if they have one and their twitter feed, though do bear in mind that there’s a fine line between research and stalking. 🙂

The Query Letter

This consists of two parts – the query and the pitch. The whole thing should be not more than a single page, single spaced. This is a business letter, be polite, be concise, be clear.

The Query

The order can be fluid depending on which side of the Atlantic you are sending it to, but the query letter should contain the following:

  • If you’re querying by email don’t forget your full contact details: name, address, phone number, email and website if you have one
  • The agent’s name must be correct. Do your research. You may have to reformat your query letter to individualise it for each query you send. Do it. Don’t make it look like they’re getting a mass mail out.
  • The title, genre and length of the work and whether it is complete or not (hint – for a first novel it should be). It should also say whether it’s aimed at adults, new adults, YA or middle grade. Most agents will rep a variety of ages.
  • Ditch opinion. Concentrate on facts. Don’t say you’re ‘the next J.K.Rowling,’ or ‘like Stephen King, but better.’ Don’t say you know this is best seller material. Don’t say that your Aunt Mathilda loved your book (unless she’s the Guardian’s book critic).
  • The pitch – more anon.
  • A bit about you – not your complete life story, but writing-relevant experience, especially if it’s a story about mountain climbers and you shinned up Everest last year wearing a tutu and carrying a teddy bear. Say whether you have any other publications or have won any competitions or have attended Clarion, or Viable Paradise, or Milford. Say if you are a full member of SFWA because you have to have relevant qualifying publications to be accepted.
  • I always like to thank the agent for their time. It never hurts to be polite.
  • Something that tells the agent why you’ve picked them. ‘I read your interview in Writer’s Digest and note that you are looking for stories about climbing Everest in fancy dress…’ etc, or even’ I’ve followed your agency blog for a number of years and have checked out your guidelines and it looks like we have interests in common.’

Remember that bit about the order being flexible. Most British agents seem to prefer an opening statement of: Please accept my query on BOOK TITLE, complete at 77,000 words, but most American agents seem happy for you to begin with the pitch and include that information at the end.

The Pitch

This is a very important part of your query letter. How do you describe your book succinctly while making it sound exciting? You have limited space to make your point. What do you say? Here you can afford to allow your writerly ‘voice’ sneak in. Say you are pitching an urban fantasy with a wisecracking heroine. Use your heroine’s voice in your pitch.

The query letter is not the place for a synopsis. (Though you may include a separate synopsis if the agent’s guidelines ask for one.)

Start off with two or three sentences that will hook your reader into what the story is about. Sound enthusiastic without using unnecessary ‘puff.’ You can say: It’s like Game of Thrones set in modern day Glasgow (because you’re not trying to say it’s better than GoT) or you can simply describe the book. Try to find its unique selling point. It’s about a wizard, a knight and a stable boy who go on a quest sounds like every other quest fantasy you’ve ever read, but maybe: A elephant shapechanger and a lavatory attendant from Bombay, have to journey into the jungle to seek the tiger’s eye, might snag on your agent’s imagination.

These are two slightly different single paragraph pitches for my novel Winterwood, which sold to DAW in 2013 and hit bookstore shelves in February 2016:

Version One – 79 words

Winterwood is a magical-pirate novel in which cross-dressing, widowed privateer captain, Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne, inherits a brother she didn’t know she had and a quest she doesn’t want. A magical winterwood box has to be opened, but how and why? The answer lies hidden behind skeletons in her family cupboard and Ross must uncover dark secrets about slavery and ancient magic before she can free herself from a ghost, learn to trust a shapeshifter and right an ancient wrong.

Version Two – 119 words:

Winterwood is a tale of magic, piracy, adventure and love, set in an alternative Britain in 1800. Mad King George is on the throne and Bonaparte is hammering on the door. Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne, widowed privateer captain and witch, is torn between the jealous ghost of her dead husband and a handsome wolf shapeshifter; between the sea and her loyalty to her unsavoury crew of barely reformed pirates, and the call of the forest, where her magic lies. Unable to chart a course to her future until she’s unravelled the mysteries of her family’s past she has to evade a dogged pursuer and discover the secrets locked in a magical winterwood box in order to right her ancestor’s wrongdoing.

Once your cover letter is as good as you can make it send it out. If this is your first time making submissions to agents you might want to start by sending to a few to see whether you get a good reaction, i.e. form rejections / no response / requests for more pages, or full manuscripts. Keep a record of what comes back and when, so that a year from now you don’t send almost exactly the same query for the same book to the same agent. (You can, however, query an agent who has previously rejected your first book, for your second and subsequent books.)

If you get a rejection from an agent, note it down, learn from it and move on to another submission. NEVER send a snarky response or that door will close on you forever, likely hitting you on the butt as it slams shut behind you. Even sending a polite ‘thanks for your rejection’ is not required. Agents get enough email. Don’t clutter their inbox.

General advice: Pare down / Focus / Revise / Polish / Test on a few / Revise / Send widely / Send again / Send again / Send again / Don’t give up!

Good luck with your search for the perfect agent.

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About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / Border Agency licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificate of Sponsorship).
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One Response to About Literary Agents and How to Get One #2

  1. Pingback: Agent Update | Jacey Bedford

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