Chasing stars and literary agents

You’ve written your novel and now you need to get is published, but what is the best way to go about it? Well, if you’re a fiction writer your best bet is to hire a literary agent. Literary agents form a bridge between writers and publishers. Their primary task is to help writers navigate the tricky publishing process, but before they make your life easier they can complicate it significantly.

According to Valerie Peterson, literary agents are a boon because they have established relationships with editors and publishing houses. They know who to contact to give your book a fighting chance in the dog-eat-dog world of publishing. Agents also tend to be genre-specific, which narrows down your field of contacts somewhat. This also means that they will approach publishers and editors that are most likely to consider your book, saving you time and frustration.

Furthermore, literary agents help writers with all the legalese that accompanies contract negotiations, including issues such printing rights, copyrights, royalties, advances and potential film rights. These days they also manage electronic rights, so you don’t have to worry about suddenly seeing your hard work splattered all over the net without any financial reimbursement.

How to attract an agent’s attention

The bad news is that it can be almost as difficult to get an agent interested in you and your work as it is to enthrall a publisher.

For starters you need to think about your approach. Agents get thousands of book proposals a year, so you have to make sure that yours stands out. Published authors and agents themselves say that one of the best ways to approach an agent is meet them face-to-face or via referral.

Both of these are relatively tricky and require a little homework.

  • Join a writers’ club or community where you can mingle with your peers, learn from their successes as well as their mistakes and leverage their contacts. If you can get a referral from someone the agent already represents you’ll get a foot in the door.Another advantage of joining these clubs is that you’re among the first to know about seminars, talks, presentations and discussions held by agents. You can pop along for a little schmoozing. Introduce yourself to the agent you’ve got in mind and strike up a rapport. Don’t punt your book straightway. First build up a bit of a relationship and then send them your query letter or book proposal.

    If you’re not confident of your covert schmoozing abilities then just pay attention to their talk and if they provide guidelines on how best to submit queries and then do exactly as they say.

  • Research various agents before you approach them. Look online or in niche publications for agents that specialise in your genre. Find books that are similar to yours in terms of subject matter and read the acknowledgements to find out which agents are likely to help you.Todd James Pierce recommends that you avoid agents who already have high-profile writers on their books. The reason for this is simple: most of their time and energy will be taken up by their stars and you might be denied the attention you deserve. Instead Pierce says that you should try and choose an agent whose experience matches your own.
  • Have a writing resume; this includes all your previously published work and awards.
  • Follow their submission guidelines to a T. If they only want a brief synopsis don’t send them the first three chapters. If they only want the first three chapters don’t send them the entire manuscript. Use the correct format. Generally this includes double spacing in easy-to-read font such as Times New Roman. Find out if they want everything emailed or whether they want it in hard copy. If they want it in hard copy don’t forget to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope so that they can return it if necessary. Ensure that you have enough stamps to cover the postage.

The query letter

Your query letter needs to make the agent want to find out more about your work. It’s vital that it is well written and contains as few mistakes as possible. Choose your words carefully and proofread it again and again to eliminate incorrect spelling. Don’t churn it out in a half an hour, spend time working on it, polishing it and refining it until it’s almost perfect.

The letter should be short and to the point (no more than 350 – 400 words). Don’t waffle on about the intricacies of the plot, delve deeply into character motivation and don’t go into detail about other projects that you have lined up. The aim is to sell them the idea of one book. When this has been successfully dealt with you can move onto other things.

Nathan Bransford recommends that you write your letter in the same tone as your book. Obviously you don’t want to treat it as a joke and if your book is written in a self-deprecating style you may want to keep the cynicism to a minimum. But there is nothing wrong with some dry humour, so long as your book isn’t a tragedy.

It’s also a good idea to include your connection to the agent, or, as Bransford says, a personalised titbit to show why you’re contacting them – like who the referral came from, which seminar you attended or how their area of expertise just happens to encompass your genre.

Don’t limit yourself to one agent, but don’t spam everyone one you come across either.

Getting published is an exercise in dedication and patience. It takes time to finish writing a book and it takes time to find an agent. This means that you shouldn’t get dejected if you haven’t heard back after four weeks. Give it a couple of months and then follow up.

Prepare for rejection because it will happen. Almost no one gets signed up after only one letter to one agent. Take criticism on the chin, learn from it and move on.

When you finally get a request for additional material don’t sit on it, respond immediately. Agents appreciate enthusiasm from their authors.

As always, keep on trying. You never know when that important break through will come.


(image by Zsuzsanna Kilian, Pencil Pusher, stock.xchng)

2 Responses to “Chasing stars and literary agents”

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