How to get a literary agent

I’m writing madly to a deadline, so I don’t have time to write a new blog post this week, so this is an updated reprint from my own blog, previously published in two parts and now condensed to one. I hope you find it useful.

donald-maass-photo

Donald Maass of Donald Maass Literary

I’m delighted to be settled with Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary agency in New York. My own personal journey to agency representation (at least until 2016) can be found on my blog. What I’d like to discuss here are the practical aspects of finding a literary agent, from research to submission packages.

The Right Agent
There are agents and agents. Some are hands-on 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 they judge that your manuscript is something they can sell, then they’ll offer representation and send it out, as is, on your behalf. Do your research. (Hint, don’t send your blockbuster space opera to someone who only wants the next great literary novel.)

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 (never pay them) and then try to direct you to their chum who is a freelance editor or book doctor. All of which you will pay for – often through the nose – without getting any closer to your goal of publication.

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 in your genre. Sadly, these great editors are not the ones a scam agent will be sending your book to. If you’re going to use a freelance editor, pick one based on recommendations and reputation.

Seek wisdom about scammers who prey on writers from the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) on their Writer Beware site.

Witers & Artists YearbookSo, carefully avoiding scam agents, 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? Do you want an agent who is country-specific? Take a look at http://www.agentquery.com. Most of the agents you’ll find listed there are in North America, but you can find British literary agents listed in The Writers’ and Artists Yearbook. Witers’ Digest hosts Chuck Sambuchino’s blog (Guide to Literary Agents) which often highlights new and ‘building’ agents.

Check the following:

  • Does the agent rep your genre and your intended age range?
  • Is the agent actively seeking new clients/building their list?
  • Is the agent willing to help and advise with your manuscript?
  • What is important to you in contract negotiations? Size of advance / foreign rights / e-publishing rights / audio rights / movie options?
  • Where is the agent based?
  • Is there anything special that may connect an agent to your pitch?

Some agents work alone, others work within the framework of a literary agency. If you sign with a single agent you are vulnerable if that agent leaves the profession. If you sign with an agent who works within an agency, your contract is usually with the agency, so if your individual agent is no longer able to represent you, then you will be resettled with a different agent within the organisation. Also a large agency is likely to have foreign rights specialists and contract specialists, so your agent has expertise to call on.

Keeping Track
List all the agents you think might be a suitable match and check their guidelines carefully. When I was agent hunting, I actually put all mine into 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. Regarding agencies, some 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 can politely enquire about your submission. (I always give them a little leeway – maybe a week or two.) Some agents simply 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 throw it in the bin? 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. If the submission has gone more than two or three months beyond their stated response time and your queries have not been answered, then I would write it off. Having said that, I got a rejection from one New York Literary agent thirteen months after I’d signed with my current agency and several months after my first book had been published.

Following Guidelines
What should you send to a prospective new agent? The short answer is: send whatever they want you to send. It’s all in their guidelines. The agent might ask you for a cover letter, synopsis and the first three pages, or maybe the first five thousand words. A few agents still ask for paper subs, but most accept (and prefer) electronic submissions these days. Paper subs can be shockingly expensive if you have to post them transatlantic.

Your Submission Package
Many words have been written on how to submit. I recommend reading up on manuscript format online and reading blogs on the topic of submissions from pro-agents.

  • QueryShark, by literary agent Janet Reid has 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.
  • PubRants is a rant about publishing and submissions by literary agent Kristin Nelson and is very educational.

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 — most British agents seem to prefer an opening statement of something like: Please accept my query on BOOK TITLE, complete at 77,000 words, but most American agents seem to want you to begin with the pitch and include that information at the end.

Your 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.
  • You will have to reformat your query letter to individualise it for each query you send. 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 (and for a first novel it should be). It should also say whether it’s aimed at adults, new adults, YA or middle grade. Some agents will rep a variety of ages, others rep only adult, or only children’s fiction.
  • Ditch opinion. Concentrate on facts. (Not: ‘Hello, I’m 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. Say whether you have any other publications, or have won any competitions, or have attended Clarion, Viable Paradise, Milford, or similar serious writers’ events.
  • You don’t have to include something that tells the agent why you’ve picked them, but it there’s something obviously relatable you can include it (as long as it’s brief). ‘I read your interview in Writer’s Digest and note that you are looking for stories about climbing Everest…’ 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.’
  • The query letter is not the place for a full synopsis. (Though you may include a separate synopsis if the agent’s guidelines ask for one.)
  • I always thank the agent for their time.

The Pitch
The pitch is crucial. How do you describe your book succinctly while making it sound exciting? You have limited space to make your point. Here you can afford to allow your writerly ‘voice’ sneak in. If you are pitching an urban fantasy with a wisecracking heroine, consider using your heroine’s voice in your pitch (but only if you can do it successfully).

Start off with two or three succinct sentences that will hook your reader into what the story is about. Sound enthusiastic without using unnecessary ‘puff.’ You can say: Like Game of Thrones set in modern day Glasgow (because you’re not trying to say it’s better than Game of Thrones) 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: An 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. (OK, I’m being facetious here, but you get my drift.)

Here’s a single paragraph pitch for my novel Winterwood, which sold to DAW in 2013 as part of a three book deal, and hit bookstore shelves in February 2016. (The second in the Trilogy is Winterwood and I’m currently working on the third, Rowankind.)

Winterwood front cover-smallWinterwood Pitch – 113 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 shapechanger; between the sea, and her unsavoury crew of barely reformed pirates, and 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 dangerous pursuer and discover the secrets locked in a magical winterwood box in order to right her ancestor’s wrongdoing.

This may not be perfect, but it did the trick. 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.) Once you’ve got the hang of the submission process and you’ve refined your query letter and pitch, you can query as many agents as you have time to research (as long as you don’t send a mass mail out with no pers0nalisation).

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. Even sending a polite ‘thanks for your rejection’ is not required. Agents get enough email. Do you want to clutter their inbox?

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

Good luck with your search for the right 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 / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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3 Responses to How to get a literary agent

  1. Pingback: The Gift That Keeps on Giving | Jacey Bedford

  2. Thank you so much for sharing; this post was extremely helpful! I’ll definitely be checking your blog regularly from now on.

    All the best,

    Tamara

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