Original Post – July 2010
I’m assuming since you clicked on the “For Writers” link that you already know something about writing and what you really want to know is “How do I find an agent?” and/or “How do I get published?”
How to Find an Agent:
Some people (I call them lucky bastards) have “connections” in the publishing industry. If you’re one of those lucky bastards, I say work ‘em baby! And if you’re one of those lucky bastards who actually feels guilty about your abundance of good fortune, don’t. At the end of the day, it’s all about the writing/book. No matter how good your connections are, if the agent doesn’t love your work AND think they can sell it, they won’t represent you (unless that agent is your mother/father/sister/brother/best friend, in which case you don’t need to be taking advice from me!)
Assuming you’re not one of those lucky bastards (and that would be 98% of us, including me), you have to find an agent the hard way—you have to query. If you’re new to this game, your next question will be “What’s a query?” (If you’re not new to this game, you can skip this section and go directly to the Buy the Book link :))
Querying is a process. Sometimes a very long process. Occasionally an exhilarating process. In many instances a heartbreaking process. Unfortunately, unless you’re one of those lucky bastards (see above), your stuck with it. Accept it as a fact of life (or at least a fact of life if you want to be published by one of the Big Six NY Publishers) and move on.
You begin the query process by writing a standout query letter. Many agents have sections on their websites and/or blogs describing what they consider to be a standout query letter (see list below). Read them. You can also find lots of books and web articles that explain how to write a query letter. Read those too. Generally speaking your query should contain the following: the title of your book, the word count (e.g., 90,000 words – round off, no one’s counting), the genre (do NOT say fictional novel, by definition a novel is fiction), a short summary of the plot (two to three succinct paragraphs preferably written in the style in which your book is written so the agent gets a sense of your “voice”), and any relevant experience (e.g., other publications).
Do NOT send the first draft of this letter to every agent you find listed on the internet. Instead, send this letter to a bunch of friends (they don’t have to be writers) and ask them to critique it for you, keeping in mind that the purpose of the letter is to pique the agent’s interest so he or she will ask to read your book. If you want to flatter the agent, well, that’s a personal choice. Most agents will tell you that they want you to personalize the letter. By personalize they don’t mean write Dear Ms./Mr. (it’s a given that you will address it to the agent personally and not write Dear Agent). By personalize agents mean state in the first paragraph (preferably the first sentence) why you are querying them as opposed to the thousands of other agents you could’ve queried. It may be because you read on their website (and you should ALWAYS read the website of every agent you query if for no other reason than they often contain their submission guidelines) that they’re looking for a regency-era steampunk romance with vampires, angels, and werewolves and you just happened to have written such a book. Or it might be because the agent represents other (read successful) writers in your genre. Or it could be because you enjoy the work of one of the agent’s clients who writes in a similar style to yours. Whatever the reason, tell them. But don’t lie. They’ll know and then they’ll reject you automatically.
Which brings us to the next question: How do you find agents to query? This is where technology has made life much easier. Back in the day (I’m talking ten years ago here) you actually had to go to the library or bookstore and spend hours and hours and hours reading thick paper books with names like “Literary Marketplace” and “Guide to Literary Agents.” Then, as you read these books with pen and paper or laptop in hand, you would compile a list of top ten, twenty, thirty, etc. agents. Then you’d have to call each of the agencies to confirm that the agent you chose still worked there and that the address you found in the guide, which had been written at least a year earlier, was still correct. Then you had to hope that the agent was still looking for the same type of work the agent said they were looking for when the author of the guide interviewed the agent two years before that. Good news! The internet has changed all that.
These days everything is online. Besides digital subscriber versions of those guides, there are many free online agent guides too. Personally, I’ve always liked Agent Query (http://www.agentquery.com/) but there are plenty of others as well. Also, many writers thank their agents in the acknowledgment section of their books and/or list their agents on their website, so you can find agents that way too (and you can use the information to personalize your query letter!)
So now you’ve made your list of top ten, twenty, thirty, one hundred agents who you think might like your book. Do you send every one of them your critiqued and revised query letter? No, you do not. You go to the Preditors & Editors website (http://pred-ed.com) and make sure every single agent on your list is legitimate. Sadly, there are a lot of scammers out there. But if you do your homework you can likely avoid them.
Okay, you’ve made your list, you’ve checked Preditors & Editors, you know all your targeted agents are legit, now can you start querying? No. Now you have to go to each agent’s website (most have them) and read in an ideal world all of their content, but at a minimum their submission guidelines. Then you have to tweak your query to conform to their guidelines. For example, some agents want sample pages with the query, some do not. Some agents only accept queries by e-mail, others want queries snail mailed. The list is endless. I’m not kidding. You need to read and follow their posted guidelines.
I’ve read all of the agents’ individual guidelines, now can I query? You can, but if you’re really neurotic (and most writers are, myself included) you should google the agent first and read everything you can find about them. Many agents blog and twitter, and often they’ve given on-line interviews. All of these sources can give you insights into both their personality and what they’re looking for (information you can then use to personalize that query letter!)
Dammit, Orsoff, I’m not getting any younger. Am I ever going to be able to send out these stupid query letters? Yes, now you can query. But don’t send them all out at once! Send them out in waves of three or five, definitely not more than ten. Why? Because even though you’ve written and rewritten and personalized and tweaked your query letter, if no agents ask to see your book, then your query letter isn’t working and you need to rewrite. Remember, the goal of the query letter is to pique an agent’s interest so the agent asks you to send them a “partial” or a “full” (more on that below). If agents aren’t asking to read your book, then you need to rewrite your query letter until they do. By not sending the query letter to all of the agents on your list at once, you give yourself an opportunity to revise if necessary.
Finally (it could take minutes or months) an agent asks to read your work. The agent will either request a “partial” (e.g., the first fifty pages or the first three chapters) or a “full” (i.e., the entire manuscript). Whatever the agent requests, send it to them. But don’t take this too literally. If an agent asks for the first three chapters and you happen to write very short chapters, send them the first thirty pages. Or if an agent asks for the first fifty pages and your chapter ends on Page 52, send them fifty-two pages. The only hard and fast rule is that you send them whatever they ask for starting with Page 1. If the agent asks for three chapters and your book doesn’t really get interesting until Chapter 6, do NOT send Chapters 6 – 8. If your book doesn’t get interesting until Chapter 6, then you need to rewrite your book. Hooking the reader from the beginning is essential. But you’re a writer, you know that.
Then one day you get The Call. This is when an agent calls and offers you representation. In my experience, this usually comes as an e-mail from the agent telling you that they love your book and want to set up a call to talk about representation. You will then speak to the agent on the phone, ask lots of questions, and hopefully like what you hear. Unless you are absolutely, positively, 100% sure this is the agent for you, you do NOT say yes on that phone call. You thank them for the offer and tell them you’ll get back to them shortly. The odds are that if you’ve written an outstanding query letter and have been sending the letter out in waves, other agents will be considering your book too. Now comes the fun part. You get to call or e-mail all those other agents (and I mean agents who requested partials or fulls, not agents you sent queries to who never responded) and tell them you have an offer of representation from another agent and ask them if they can get back to you within a week. I’ve never had an agent say no to this request, and I’ve never heard of any other writer receiving a no to this request either. I know what you devious types are thinking: This is great. I’ll just tell all the agents I have an offer and then they’ll have to get back to me quickly and I won’t have to wait another two months, or four months, or six months for them to respond. DON’T DO THIS!
Trust me, I understand the temptation. I really do. I’m on my third agent. I know this part is excruciating, and it never gets any easier. But you can’t lie about this. You have to wait it out. And not just because it’s the right thing to do, which it is. Agents are friends with other agents. They all know each other and they all talk. IF YOU LIE YOU WILL GET CAUGHT. Then your odds of finding a good agent will be nil.
You’ve played by the rules, you’ve waited it out, the week is up, you’ve heard back from all the agents who were considering your work, and you have more than one offer. At this point you need to decide which agent to sign with. Depending on who you have offers from there are all sorts of things to consider e.g., big agency vs. small agency, NY agent vs. non-NY agent, senior agent vs. junior agent, etc. No one can tell you who to choose or how to choose. You have to go with your gut then hope you made the right decision.
How to get Published by a Big Six NY Publisher:
If you’ve signed with a good agent, then the agent will send your book to editors at the major publishing houses hoping those editors will fall in love with your book too. Then you both get to start the waiting process all over again. Yup, more waiting. All I can tell you is I feel your pain.
At this point I know I’m going to get an e-mail from someone, perhaps more than one someone, who is going to tell me that I obviously know nothing about publishing since they have a friend who has a friend who didn’t have an agent and got a six-figure publishing deal. Does it happen? Yes, on very rare occasions. Sometimes writers go to writing conferences where they have an opportunity to pitch their book to editors. Sometimes these editors are so intrigued by the writer’s pitch that they ask the writer to send them the full manuscript. Occasionally such an editor actually reads and falls in love with one of those manuscripts. If that happens, the editor will call the author and offer to buy the book. What do most authors do when that happens? They call the agents they queried or were thinking about querying, tell them they have an offer on the table, and ask them if they’re interested in representing them. Seriously people, you will be signing a contract, a legally binding document. Unless you’re very familiar with publishing deal terms (and if you are you probably wouldn’t be reading this) you need someone who is to negotiate for you. If you don’t want to sign with an agent, then hire a good publishing attorney (no, not me). But you need to have someone who is knowledgeable about the industry advocating on your behalf. The editor who makes you an offer may love your book, but the editor works for the publisher, not for you.
How to get Published Outside of the Big Six Publishers:
There are lots of small niche publishers out there (both print and digital) who accept submissions from writers directly, no agent necessary. This is not a path I’ve ever followed so I cannot offer any advice.
I know these days a lot of writers (myself included) are considering skipping the Big Six and going the self-publishing route. There are many options out there, including Amazon’s DTP and B&N’s Pub It for digital-only, and Smashwords and Lulu for digital and print. So far I’ve only tried Amazon’s DTP and I’ve been happy with the results.
There are pros and cons to going the self-publishing route and a lot depends on your goals. J.A. Konrath has strong opinions and many blog posts on this subject. If you’re interested in self-publishing and haven’t read Konrath, check him out (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/).
One word of caution—there is a big difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing. When you self-publish your book, you might pay someone to design a cover and format it for you, but you do NOT pay someone to publish it. Legitimate publishers pay the author for the right to publish the author’s book. If a publisher is asking you for money, then they are a vanity publisher. Don’t just walk away, run away!
Agents Who Blog:
Many agents have blogs. Below is merely a list of three I routinely read. There are many, many more.
Nathan Bransford – http://blog.nathanbransford.com/. I especially like his Friday “This Week in Publishing” posts.
Jessica Faust – http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/. A great index of helpful posts.
Kristin Nelson – http://pubrants.blogspot.com/. Sometimes she really gets into contract details, which can be very enlightening.
Best of luck in your publishing endeavors.