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6 Steps to Take When Seeking a Literary Agent - Your Path to Publication

Previous posts in our Path to Publication series covered the first steps to take once you’ve finished your novel. Then we explored why you need an agent if you’re looking to find it a home at a publishing house. Next, once you’ve decided that finding an agent is the path you need to take, it’s time to get to grips with the nuts and bolts of doing just that. One thing’s for sure, you’ll need to give as much attention to researching and crafting your submissions as you gave to researching and crafting your novel. So, deep breath - we’re going in…

1. Research

You might have done a whole lot of research while writing your novel - got lost in mazes of historical detail. Explored the intricacies of, for example, French criminal proceedings, the mating habits of beavers, contemporary Nigerian politics, dress-making during WWII. You’ll have done whatever it took to get those details right, to ensure your novel was in the best shape possible. Now it’s time to devote the same level of forensic thought to approaching literary agents. 

First up, if your novel is in a similar vein (genre, style, potential market) to your favourite authors, a great place to start is to find out who represents them. That’s to say, look up who their agent is, explore their website, and add them to your list of agents to approach, if you think your novel will suit their tastes. Next step, check-out the annually-updated Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It’s a veritable treasure trove of invaluable information for creatives at every stage of their career - newcomers and old hands alike.

While researching agents, here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself:

  • What are they looking for? Do they represent books in my genre? 
  • Who’s on their current client list? Have I read any of their authors’ books? Do I like them?
  • Are they currently open to submissions?
  • Would I get on with them? (you might want to follow their social media accounts to answer this).

Now for a couple of warnings. Alarm bells should sound if an agent asks for money to represent you. Reputable agents do not ask for money upfront. That’s not how it works.

Warning number two - don’t be tempted to submit to an agent who doesn’t cover your genre. For example, even if an agent specialises in children’s books, they might never represent, say, picture book writers, or YA fiction. Ignoring an agent’s portfolio and submission wish-list comes across as poor research (at best) and arrogant (at worst) - “I know you said you don’t represent fantasy writers, but my book is so incredible, you’re bound to change your mind.”

What’s more, disregarding their specialisms and wants wastes their time - and yours.

2. Prepare 

Once you’ve identified several agents who seem well placed to consider your manuscript, it’s time to ensure everything you submit tallies with their submission guidelines (check their website). For example, some agents might want potential clients to send an outline and the first few chapters. Others might want to see a more substantial chunk of work in the first instance. They might want the document to be formatted a certain way (double-spaced, for example), so you need to check how yours is laid-out. It’s also worth numbering the pages and having your name and book title in the header of every page.

Be sure to adapt the formatting as necessary for each submission. When it comes to agents, one size doesn’t fit all - your submission should be a tailor-made piece of couture. 

3. Write 

Here’s the tricky part. Think of the submission process and accompanying documents as a job application. Your submission email (also known as a ‘query letter’) is your covering letter. Your book synopsis (part of your submission email/query letter) is a bit like the statement that headlines your CV. The sample chapters of your novel (which you’ll attach to your submission email) are your portfolio.

Get the letter right and your potential agent will want to read your sample chapters. Get it wrong and - chances are - your sample chapters document won’t be opened, let alone read. So, let’s look at that letter in detail. It needs, in essence, three elements - why, what and who.

Why?

Start with telling potential agents why you’re getting in touch with them. Do they represent some of your favourite contemporary writers? Do their tweets entertain/inform you? You’re sending your novel to them for a reason - let them know what that is.

What?

This is your chance to make your story shine. You could start with a brief overview of what your novel is about, the genre, and who it’s aimed at - your top-line elevator pitch. Then provide a synopsis of the story - where, when, who, what. You need to make this as engaging and satisfying as the story itself so agents will want to read your sample chapters, and then (hopefully) request the rest of it.

Who?

Be sure to include a few sentences about yourself. If there’s an intriguing story behind your novel, tell them. Was it inspired by uncovering unexpected family history? Was it sparked by a travel adventure? Is it based on a big life event? Are you an expert in the themes it explores? Personal passion and detail will make your query letter stand out. You could also include details of other writing credits you have - have you had short stories published? Do you write a blog?

Once you’ve done all of the above, before you hit send (and here’s another warning), check you’re addressing them correctly - no lazy use of “Dear Sir” for a female agent, or vice versa. In fact, ditch “Dear Sir/Madam” completely. Use their name, spelled correctly - not Joanna when she’s Joanne. Not Steven when he’s Stephen - you get the idea. It’s basic manners, and also reflects the attention (or lack thereof) you gave your submission. If you couldn’t be bothered to get these basic (and easily checked) facts right, why should they be bothered to read your book?

While we’re at it, here’s another tip - never say anything along the lines of “I’m the new [insert name of celebrated established writer here] and it’s your loss if you don’t take me on.” Such statements smack of arrogance. You’ll be on the wrong foot before you’ve given your book chance to be on the right one.

4. Log 

It’s important to keep track of who you’ve submitted to and when. You don’t want to inadvertently submit to the same agent twice (again, that’s a waste of time for both parties), and you’ll want to know how long you’ve been waiting for a response. So, keep a spreadsheet logging what you’ve sent to whom, and when, along with details of any responses. Also record their typical response time (usually specified on their website) so you know when to chase. Talking of which…

5. Follow-up

If you’ve logged each agent’s typical response time (as recommended above), you’ll know when it’s appropriate to follow-up with a gentle reminder. When the time has passed, send a polite (and brief) chasing email. If they haven’t specified a timeframe, it might be an idea to follow-up four to-six weeks later.

6. Relax (and resist the urge to refresh your emails every few seconds…)

Sending your book out into world is as nerve-wracking as it is exciting. So, give yourself a break from the pressure by giving yourself a round of applause and taking an actual break. Above all else, resist the urge to constantly check your emails. Even if it turns out that you have accomplished the book equivalent of bettering sliced bread, be realistic - it’s unlikely you’ll hear back from anyone for at least a couple of weeks. Agents have meetings and deadlines and schedules, just like you.

Lastly, if you need a guaranteed distraction from that overwhelming urge to refresh your messages, maybe it’s time to work on that new idea that’s been niggling away at you. As you’ll know from spending all those hours finessing the book you’ve just submitted, writing a novel is an all-absorbing diversion from pretty much everything - including worrying about agents’ responses.

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Joanne Owen is a writer and publishing professional with over twenty years’ experience of the book industry. Alongside writing and reviewing books, she hosts writing workshops and is an Editorial Expert for Love Reading.

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