So you’ve completed your book. Congratulations! This is a humongous achievement, and you should give yourself a pat on the back for even making it this far. Well done, you.
I get asked a lot about tips for approaching literary agents – the oh-so-scary query process – so I thought I’d compile some useful things here.
So, without further ado:
Finish your book. Yes, I know – I just congratulated you above for finishing. But did you really? You’ve written the whole thing, not just a sample to show agents? Did you send the whole thing out to beta readers? Did you edit for content, structure, grammar, and punctuation? Did you let it sit for a period of time and come back to it again? Almost universally speaking, first drafts are never your best effort. (Even John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, says he throws away about 90% of his first drafts.) Polish, polish, polish.
Draft your query letter. A query letter is not simply a summary of your book. Its goal is to hook the agent, so they will request your partial or full manuscript. AgentQuery Connect was an invaluable resource for me, as was Query Shark and #querytip on Twitter. Don’t be afraid to have other people critique your query – 99% of the time, it can only help! Just know that EVERYONE finds the query drafting process difficult and stressful – you are not alone. And again, do not send your first draft! Immediate turn-offs for agents include: spelling his or her name wrong, bad grammar, books that sound waytoo similar to books they already represent, ridiculously high word counts (130k words for a YA contemporary, for example), and an obvious lack of knowledge for the industry.
Do your research. Who represents the books that you like to read? In the acknowledgements, authors often thank their literary agents, and that’s a good place to begin. In the UK, The Writers and Artists Yearbook is also a fantastic source, as is Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog. Create a short list of agents who you want to approach – based on what they represent and if they’re accepting submissions – and then follow their submissions policies.
Keep organized. I was a complete nerd about this, but I actually made a color-coded spreadsheet with agents, submissions guidelines, when I sent off my manuscript, what the result was, etc. Whatever your system is, keep track of your submissions. If a particular agent has a six week response time, for example, note it; that way, you won’t accidentally (and rather embarrassingly) send them a follow-up email four weeks in.
Tailor your query letter. Every agent is looking for specific things. For example, some really want diverse voices, others are particularly interested in humor. Find out a bit about their literary tastes, and try to shape your query letter to those specifications. Because you are looking for diverse voices in foreign settings, I hope you will consider representing me. Also, do you have any personal connections to the agent? Did you meet at a conference, another literary function? This is also good to note, as it shows that you are actively involved in the business of being a writer.
Send off your query. Again, some agents want just a query letter, others a query letter + 10 pages. Every agent is unique, so make sure to follow the guidelines. Send a dry-run email to yourself to see how your letter appears. Sometimes if you copy and paste from Word into Google mail, funky things happen. Also, I didn’t follow this while querying, but it’s not a good idea to approach more than ten agents at a time. If you query your top thirty agents and everyone comes back with a no, you’re stuck. Always give yourself the opportunity to revise and have another go at it.
Don’t be disheartened by rejections. I got rejections, all my writer friends have gotten rejections, and when you get your first one, it’s tough, but also – congrats! You’re in a club now. Rejection is part of being a writer. Don’t worry if you don’t get an agent with your first book. Even if it’s a perfectly good book, this happens, and this happens a lot. If you believe in your writing, don’t give up!
But if an agent offers representation, rejoice!
For anyone interested in my stats/specifics, I re-drafted my query an ungodly amount of times, and it took over a month to get it to the sending-out stage. I sent it out to 32 agents all at once (not recommended!), got 15 requests for the full manuscript, and 5 offers of representation.
So good luck…