Publishing- Part II: The Agent

So you’ve finished your manuscript. Great! You have revised the structure, plot, and characters and polished your prose, eliminating those pesky double prepositions and excessive adverbs. You may have cut close to 20,000 words.

Word count varies wildly and, in the grand scheme, is not all that important. Middle-grade fiction usually ranges from 40,000-60,000. Most YA falls somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 words. Adult fiction often has word counts comparable to YA and above. If your debut work is above 120,000 words, you might consider cutting and tightening.

So you’ve finished and revised your manuscript. From here, there are three possible routes: drawer, self-publishing, and traditional publication. I, personally, am fond of the drawer. Self-publishing is not my expertise and probably requires its own post.

That leaves traditional publishing.

The first step toward a book deal is finding an agent. Some new writers wonder if they really need an agent. For those interested in a book deal with a major publishing house, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Most Big 5 publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan) and large independent houses (e.g. Bloomsbury, W.W. Norton) require that all submitted material come from an agent. Material submitted by an author receives a form rejection letter. This is not meant to be cruel, but editors barely have the time to respond to submissions from agents. A letter or material directly from an author shows a lack of understanding regarding the protocol of publishing. In extremely rare instances, writers are offered a deal without an agent; in almost all of these cases, the writer is already a known personality. When an editor becomes interested in an unagented writer, he or she often refers the writer to a particular agent.

In short, if you would like a book deal, you must have an agent.

Do your research. Find a reputable agent. If an agent requires a fee to read your submission, run away. Agents earn money by receiving a commission on the monies earned by an author. The standard is about 15%. That means that 15% of any money an author earns (advance and royalties, generally) goes to the agent. You should never give money upfront to an agent. If you’re concerned about an agent’s reputation, check out Writer Beware.

Researching agents sounds daunting, I know. To start, check the acknowledgements of your favorite books or books like yours. Authors almost always thank their agents. Look up these agents online to see if they are open to submissions. Almost all reputable agencies have a website, information on the agents, and a submissions page. This will give you specific instructions on how to submit your material. These are not suggestions, but guidelines. Follow them. For example, if a particular agent is closed to submissions, that means that he or she will not consider unsolicited work. That includes yours.

The Internet, too, provides a wealth of information on agents. I always refer people to the AbsoluteWrite forums, which I believe are a great starting point. You can acquaint yourself with the larger agencies, learn about the submissions process, and narrow down your list of specific agents to query. Agent Query and Query Tracker are also great resources. You may also want to check out some industry publications and websites like Publishers Weekly, Writers Digest, and Mediabistro. For the truly serious (and for publishing geeks like yours truly), check out Publishers Marketplace. Publishers Marketplace is a subscription service for the publishing industry that costs $25 a month. Many writers use it as well. Publishers Marketplace tracks deals reported by agents and editors. They sent out two emails a day: one of all deals reported the day before and the free Publishers Lunch, which highlights a few deals and provides news on the industry. I cannot tell you how much I love Publishers Marketplace. I’ve subscribed for several years, and it is the best $25 I spend every month.

Increasingly, writers are turning to Twitter to research agents. Many use the hashtags #askagent, #pubtip, or #mswl (short for “manuscript wish list”). You should use Twitter as a supplement to your research, not as a primary source. Some agents very active on Twitter have made few sales. And a ton of amazing agents aren’t on Twitter. Do your due diligence. Remember to follow protocol; you shouldn’t approach or “pitch” agents and editors via social media. Take the time to review their submission guidelines.

The process of submitting your work to literary agents is called “querying,” which sounds delightfully old-school. Few people describe this as a delightful process; people seem more inclined to use “anxiety-inducing” and “heartrending.” I apologize in advance. If you check out the submissions page on an agency’s website, you will find that the agency will ask you to submit a query letter. A query letter is a one-page letter about your book, you, and why a particular agent might be interested in it. The components of a query letter are detailed below.

1. Salutation. “Dear Agent” will not work. In this same vein, do not send one email to every agent you want to query. Query letters should be individualized per the agent’s guidelines or preferences. Check the spelling of an agent’s name. You may not notice the misspelling, but the agent will. You don’t need to be overly formal. Either “Dear [first name]” or Dear Mr./Ms. [last name]” is fine.

2. Greeting. Agents love to know why you’ve chosen to query them. For example, if this agent represents one of your favorite authors, mention that. If you saw that they represent or enjoy your genre, mention that. In short, this section should provide a sentence or two as to why you think this agent will like your book. A little flattery never hurts here.

3. Hook. Now bring your book into it. A hook is a little like a movie tagline. It should grab the agent’s attention.

4. A short description of your book. Ever read the flaps or back cover of a book? Your description should read like that. This should take no more than a paragraph or two. Don’t give away every plot point and every character. Give just enough information that the agent will want to read the manuscript.

5. All about you. Okay, maybe not all about you. Provide the agent with a sentence or paragraph about yourself. What do you do? Where are you from? Do you have any writing credentials? Have you ever taken a creative writing class? If the answer to those last two questions is “no,” that’s okay. Keep this section brief.

6. The closing. “Thank you for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.”

For some examples of great query letters, check out these.

Read the submission guidelines carefully. Most agents and agencies accept submissions via email; this is now the preferred method. If an agent only accepts a query letter, only send a query letter. Many agents will ask for a short sample, usually the first five to ten pages or one to three chapters. Send all materials in the body of your email. Agents will not open attachments. Most importantly, only query agents you believe will be interested in your manuscript. 

If you are lucky, an agent will ask to see a partial manuscript, full manuscript, or the proposal (for non-fiction). Please see Part I for a description of a proposal. A “partial manuscript” usually means the first 50-100 pages of the manuscript; the agent will specify. If the agent reads the material and likes it, he or she will “upgrade” (i.e. request) the full manuscript. Many agents will just ask for the full manuscript. This does not mean the agent will read the full manuscript. An agent may stop wherever he or she pleases. Sometimes that’s 20 pages in, sometimes 50, sometimes 100. Agents receive a ridiculous number of queries. They must prioritize their clients’ work. They simply receive too much material to read it all. Given the volume of reading material, many agents take some time to respond. In general, if you do not receive a response to a query (many agents only respond to queries they are interested in), you can assume that the agent is not interested. If an agent requests a full manuscript, he or she will respond within one to two months. If you haven’t received a response within that time, you can “nudge.” Write a polite email asking if the agent has had the opportunity to read your manuscript. Remain polite and professional. If an agent passes on your material, accept that decline. Do not argue; do not send a nasty response.

You can query multiple agents at once. You can also have material out with multiple agents. Occasionally, an agent will ask for an “exclusive.” This rarely happens now. An exclusive means that the agent will be the only person to read the material for a certain period, often a few weeks. If an agent asks for an exclusive on a manuscript others are reading, tell him or her. The agent may ask to read the manuscript on a non-exclusive basis anyway.

If an agent enjoys your manuscript, he or she might request a phone call. The two of you will chat about you, about your manuscript, and about your expectations. If the phone call goes well, the agent may make your an offer of representation. At this point, if your manuscript is with other agents, you should notify them. Give them a week or two to read your work You may receive several offers of representation. It is then up to you to pick the agent you feel is the best fit for both your current manuscript and your career.

Increasingly, agents will ask for a “revise and resubmit.” The agent will give you notes on the manuscript and ask you to revise before taking you on as a client. As onerous as it may sound, this is often a good sign. Do not become discouraged. Keep in mind, though, that this is not a guarantee. Finding an agent is all about finding the right fit.

Querying is hard. You will probably receive more rejections than requests. Don’t query before you’re ready. Revise and refine your letter. If your manuscript isn’t ready, wait. You want to put your best foot forward.

Publishing, like many things, is a waiting game. And what do you do while you wait? Write your next manuscript.


Still have questions? Leave a comment, and I will do my best to respond.


One Response to “Publishing- Part II: The Agent”
  1. Christina says:

    Great info, Kaitlin! I assume the process is probably a bit different with a cookbook, but this is still very helpful. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: