I’m going to be be real with you here: As of this writing, I don’t yet have an agent, so take everything that I’m about to tell you with a couple tablespoons of salt, then call your doctor because you’ve probably just done something terrible to your body.
Now that you’re back and chewing fistfuls of hypertension medication (did I mention that I’m not a doctor?), here’s my simple guide to finding a literary agent, submitting your book to them, and joining the club of authors who collect rejections as a hobby (my latest novel just got its tenth rejection e-mail last night).
Decide whether you need an agent
Seriously. Do you? If you haven’t finished writing your novel yet, stop putting the pod before the racer and finish your damn book. Unless you’re the next literary superstar (you’re probably not), nobody is going to pick up your unfinished novel. Nope. Just not going to happen.
Finish the book. Revise the book. Strap your best friend into a chair, pry their eyes open, and force-fed the book into their brain via the Ludovico technique. Edit your book mercilessly based on feedback from your friends, and don’t worry about how long it takes because you’ll have nothing else to do while you’re in prison.
Subscribe to Locus and check the sales lists
I’m stealing this suggestion from N.K. Jemisin, who’s probably worthy of your attention considering that she just pulled off the feat of being the first writer in history to win the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row for the three books of a trilogy.
Additionally, a thing I did was subscribe to @locusmag for a while and follow its Deals & Deliveries column. I paid attention to authors like me selling stuff like what I write to publishers I was interested in. Then I queried those agents.
— N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin) June 2, 2018
I know that I’ve previously encouraged you to follow Yog’s Law, but subscribing to an industry journal for a few months isn’t the same as paying a scammer $200 to send you $15 worth of print on demand books and a packet of poorly photoshopped promotional fliers built on a template he’s been using since 1997.
Read This Article
Yep, I’m telling you to open a new browser tab and read about three pages of advice from the guild that represents science fiction and fantasy authors. Even if you don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, it’s worth reading. Maybe reading three times.
The essence of this article is: Remember Yog’s Law, watch out for scammers, and present yourself well.
But really, you should go read it now.
Get an account at Writer’s Market
The SFWA told you to do it and I’m going to re-iterate it. Trust me, after spending dozens of hours submitting to agents who actually work in my genres (adventure, sci-fi, fantasy), I don’t want to waste any time submitting to agents who actively dislike my genre. That just makes agents angry and writers tired.
So spend $40 and start trawling through the lists of agents on Writer’s Market for agents who actually represent your genre.
Create a list of the agents you are querying. You’re going to be sending a lot of highly specific documents to a lot of different people, so don’t trust your brain to hold everything.
My list has nine columns:
- Query sent
The date of when I sent the query.
- Expect Response By…
Many agents will say something like, “If you don’t hear back in 8 weeks, it’s a no”, but some will tell you to resubmit every 5 weeks until you hear back.
- Response Received
The date of when I hear back from the agent.
- Response Type
Did they reject you, forward you to another agent, ask you to send more?
- Agent / Agency
Many agents work for agencies. It’s important to keep track of both, because some agencies insist on you submitting to only one agent, while others encourage sending to multiple at once, or one at a time within the agency.
- E-mail address
Agency websites range from brilliantly designed to utter crap. I’ve even found some that appear to still be hosted on a PowerMac in somebody’s basement (that’s not an exaggeration). List the e-mail address so you don’t have to go find it a second (or third) time. If the agent uses a webform instead of e-mail for submissions, I just write “use the form” here.
About 1/3 of the agents I submit to use web forms instead of e-mail to manage submissions, and all of them have very picky requirements to simplify their life and weed out the lazy authors. Link to the webform here, or put the agent’s profile page here if they don’t use a webform.
- Query Requirements
Copy-Paste the agent’s specific instructions here, if they will fit. If not (some are very long), just note “read carefully!” and move on.
- Other Notes
Here’s where I note things like “If Agent A doesn’t like it, send to Agent B at same firm” or “resubmit every 6 weeks if I don’t get rejected”. Remember to only resubmit or send to multiple agents at an agency if they allow it, otherwise you’ll just come off as desperate and unwilling to follow the rules.
You’ll probably make a long list of agents.
I submitted my latest novel (A Cold Day to Drown) to over thirty agents over the course of a week in the summer of 2018. It’s worth noting that some authors think this is a bad strategy. There are many authors who will send a book to five or ten agents, give it and/or the submission packet another revision, then send to another round of agents. This is up to you, but I felt confident in my novel and decided it was better to get it in front of a lot of different agents, then self-publish if it is rejected by everyone.
Write your synopsis, query, and biography
You’re going to be sending these to a lot of different agents, and you’re going to have to customize them a little for every agent, but that’s a lot easier if you have a solid base to work from. So sit down, open up a document, and start working on these (I’ll post advice on each one later, but for now you’re probably best advised to follow the guides in the SFWA article, since I haven’t actually sold anything yet.)
Once you’ve got a solid set of documents created, take a breath and realize you’ll still have a lot of work to do.
See that picture up there? That’s an email I sent to an agent last month. Behind it, you can see (starting at top left) my long-form synopsis, my short synopsis, the first 50 pages of my novel, my template query letter, and one of several biographies and subject lines. I kept all of these files open on my screen for a week straight as I submitted my book to thirty different agents.
Start writing your next book
You’re not going to make a living from one book. Hell, you’re probably not going to make a living purely from writing. Once you’ve sent your book off to agents, it’s time to put it in the metaphorical desk drawer, put a fresh sheet of electronic paper in the digital typewriter, and start pecking away at your next story.