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At a certain point, after you’ve written a novel, edited it, maybe shared it with beta readers, there’s nothing left to do but to seek publication. These days there are two parallel but unequal publishing worlds: mainstream publishing and self-publishing. My advice to aspiring novelists, explained in an earlier post, is to try for the big leagues first. Since most mainstream novels in the U.S. are sold through literary agents, your first task will be to find an agent to represent you.
Easier said than done, of course. It’s a tortuous process, and one that tests the writer’s reserves of perseverance and self-confidence. When I was an agent, I took on two or three new clients a year at best, out of hundreds of submissions. Nowadays, since the advent of e-queries, agents are even more swamped, to the point that many no longer respond even to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Writers who do receive written rejections rarely get a reason or explanation of where they fell short, so it’s not surprising that many writers feel their work is not even being read or considered.
But it is.
True, there are some agents who’ve closed their lists, and others who accept only referrals from established clients or other professionals, but they are the minority. Most agents are still doing what they’ve always done: searching for that needle in the haystack, a publishable book they’d feel proud to represent. Consider the recent experience of one former student, whose first novel was just published by Random House. When she started searching for an agent, she had no prior publications, no platform, nothing to tempt an agent but a first-rate novel; and she received offers from four or five excellent agents, all of whom she queried cold. How does that happen, if they’re not reading?
So how do you get an agent? If you look only at the numbers, it’s a daunting task. Agents can only handle so many books, and their first obligation is to existing clients. They might add a new writer or two to their lists, maybe three or four in a good year. What are the odds they’ll pick yours?
Luckily, it’s not a lottery. Leaving aside celebrities and politicians, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. Yes, agents get thousands of submissions a year…but the vast majority of those are complete non-starters. Unless you’ve read through an agents’ slush pile, you can’t imagine how depressingly bad most of them are. That’s why agents always warn their assistants, (who are the first to cull the slush pile) to beware of Standards Creep. After reading reams of awful stuff, mediocre work looks great in comparison.
If you’re a good writer, a serious writer who cares about both craft and story, your writing’s going to shine in that haystack.
With a strong query letter and a well-written novel, you propel yourself into the much smaller pool of contenders. The query letter is key. With submissions flooding in, agents must be struck by that first letter or they will go no further. The goal of the query letter is to get agents interested enough to read pages; then it’s up to the work to speak for itself, which is all we can ask.
To that end, here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s based on the decade + I spent as a literary agent.
BE BRIEF. A query letter should be one page long, single-spaced. If you have a lot of credentials, maybe a page and a half—no longer. Agents regard the query letter as the first test of the writer’s ability to write economically and effectively. And since they (or their assistants) read hundreds of these a month, they appreciate brevity
GIVE YOUR PUBLISHING CREDITS. Even if they’re far afield from the novel, having been published suggests that at the very least you’re literate, which not all applicants are. If you have none, not to worry: there’s nothing agents love more than discovering great unknown writers.
MENTION YOUR PROFESSION or other life experience only if it’s relevant to the book: if, for example, you’re a lawyer who’s written a courtroom drama, a cop who’s written a gritty crime novel, or a call girl who’s written about politicians she has known.
INCLUDE A SHORT SUMMARY of your story, just a paragraph or two, including genre. If you can write a good hook of one or two sentences, do that. Give readers a sense of where and when your story’s set, what makes your protagonist interesting and novel-worthy, and what great challenge or peril he faces.
GIVE A WORD COUNT. (“Complete at ——— words.”) If your novel’s not complete and edited, you shouldn’t be submitting. One of the most common mistakes of aspiring writers is submitting a draft or two too soon.
TELL WHY YOU’RE SUBMITTING to that particular agent. This is essential, and too few writers do it. The best possible reason, the one that will move you to the top of the pile, is that you’ve been referred to them by a client or publishing professional. If you’re not that lucky, there should be another reason you can cite, because there should be a reason for every agent on your list. (See WRITERS’ RESOURCES for links to help create that list.) . Giving a reason means you’ve done your homework and are unlikely to waste their time.
STRIKE THE RIGHT TONE: respectful but not obsequious, confident but not boastful, businesslike in that it is short and to the point, but conveying a sense of the person who wrote it.
ENCLOSE AN SASE if querying by snail mail.
INCLUDE THE FIRST FEW PAGES. This is a bit controversial, because not all agents ask for pages and some get huffy if you don’t follow instructions. But I advise it anyway, because when I was an agent, if a query letter intrigued me, I’d always read a few pages; and if I liked them, I’d ask for the whole manuscript. It’s a matter of striking while the iron’s hot.
DON’T PRAISE YOUR OWN WORK, and don’t play the huckster. I can’t tell you how many letters I received as an agent informing me that I’m going to love the enclosed because it’s thrilling, heartwarming, beautifully written, and more commercial than [insert name of bestselling author.] Those letters would be passed around the office for a laugh. I do understand how it happens. Writers are told they need to sell themselves, and many misunderstand that to mean they need to hype themselves and their novel like TV gadget salesmen. More experienced writers understand that the work must speak for itself. The only acceptable comparison to other writers is in terms of the market your novel seeks to address, as in “This book, with its strong female sleuth, will appeal to readers of Sara Paretsky.”
DON’T CALL YOUR NOVEL “LITERARY FICTION.” Its literary quality is for others to judge, and anyway, in publishing lingo, the term is a synonym for “Won’t sell above 5000 copies.” Call it mainstream.
DON’T STALK. Some writers—not you, of course, but some writers—get obsessed with the hunt. Don’t send cupcakes or haunt the agent’s lobby or trap her in elevators. Don’t jump out at her from behind trees. Until you’re a client, don’t call her office. Use mail or email.
DON’T ADDRESS YOUR LETTER “Dear Agent.” Anything that looks like a mass mailing will get tossed. (Likewise “Dear Jane” letters: if you don’t know the agent, don’t call her by her first name until she calls you by yours.)
DON’T MAKE GRAMMATICAL OR SPELLING MISTAKES. If you can’t write a proper letter, agents will assume you can’t write a book, either.
DON’T SUMMARIZE THE WHOLE STORY. Summaries are inherently flat. Four or five sentences is the outermost limit of the average literary agent’s attention span.
DON’T MENTION SELF-PUBLISHED WORK as publishing credits unless you have large, verifiable sales numbers.
DON’T GET EMOTIONAL. Agents don’t need to hear that you’ve always wanted to be a writer or that you spent ten years writing this book and plan to shoot yourself if it doesn’t sell. They probably have enough neurotic clients already.
DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It’s never pleasant to be turned down, but it comes with the territory. Writing is a tough business; if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll need to develop thick skin and fanatical perseverance. When you do get turned down, bear in mind that an agent’s decision is based on many factors that are totally beyond both his and your control, including the state of the market. The right fit is also a factor; just as you need an agent who genuinely loves your work, so do agents need writers they can feel passionate about.
There’s also, always, the possibility that your work is not yet where it needs to be. But don’t rush to that conclusion after just a handful of rejections, because that’s only to be expected. Not every book speaks to every reader. There are plenty of other agents out there, and it’s good to remember that they’re as eager to find terrific new writers as writers are to find them.
If, however, you’ve been turned down by dozens of agents, it’s appropriate to consider whether the novel might not need an overhaul. At that point you might benefit from a professional evaluation or a rigorous writing class. I’ve linked to services and courses I offer, but there are many other options open to serious students of writing. Scroll down this page for a list of criteria to consider in choosing an editor or writing teacher.
Please feel free to comment! I’d love to hear about your perspectives on querying and the whole agent search; I also welcome follow-up questions and will expand on these notes at the slightest provocation.