After spending some time at www.absolutewrite.com/forums
and meeting other newbies to the writing craft, I'm finding that a lot of you fledgling writers desire to learn more about the craft of writing, and specifically how to get an agent. I, like you, scoured the internet searching for clues that would help me further myself in this business. I live by a number of mantras, and one is that A professional is an amateur who didn't quit. However, in the search for success in the difficult business of being a writer, one must also remember that Every decision you make changes your future, so make your decisions well. In other words, a poor decision could damage the chance for a good decision later. My run-in with a bad agent taught me that one. Okay, so I am ready to give you the 411 as I know it. By the way, if you want to check out the "becoming a writer" page on my website, feel free to click the title above. It will take you there in a jiffy.
"Now, I will be honest with you, I don't think I'm an expert, or anything, but I am a lot farther along than some in the process, and I have been failing for a long time, so I know exactly what not to do. In short, I've already learned a few things the hard way. Still, since I have this blog, I figure it's the least I can do to help out a few people more green than me. Most of my research, and that's what it takes, a lot of research, came as a result of my subscription to Writer's Digest Magazine
, not only because of all of the articles, but because of the publications available such as the Guide to Literary Agents, Writer's Market, and various books from the book club. Another source for information, as well as inspiration, came from another writer. He published his journal in an issue of Writer's Digest, and after reading it, I began to believe that it could happen for me too. After years of rejection letters, the light came on at the end of the tunnel, as far as I was concerned. Joe Konrath's website also has a wonderful section called, "How to Find an Agent and Sell Your Writing," as well as numerous other "Writing Tips" sections. He's been a lot of help, and you can visit his website at www.jakonrath.com
. For me, most of the changes in my luck happened when I altered my attitude. I spent most of my life wishing and hoping for publication, and treated publication like it was winning the lottery. Hoping and praying and wishing and setting goals is wonderful, as long as action and attitude follows. My attitude was all wrong. Every time I was rejected I imagined the editors laughing hysterically at the unbelievable junk they'd just received. Besides, one editor told me that they received 800 shortstories a week from unpublished writers, and they were only allowed to publish one each month in their magazine from unprovens. That meant I was battling with 3,200 other hopefuls per month. As far as I was concerned, there was a conspiracy against new writers. I could not be farther from the truth. In fact, publishers love new writers. They are looking for the next untapped talent that will skyrocket their publication into the ranks with the big boys. Problem is, there are a lot of writers out there, and most of the manuscripts are junk. People think they can just sit down and write something and the editor will do all the corrections. My first mistake as a newbie was going straight to the publishers. Don't get me wrong. There are many success stories of people who hit it without an agent, but compared to those with agents, they are very few stories, indeed. Besides, an agent can negotiate better contracts, and protect your interests in ways that you would never have thought of. It's sort of like having a lawyer. You may not need one, but you're a lot better off with one. Agents, like publishers, are being bombarded with stories that shouldn't see the light of day, or works that are in genres they don't even represent. That's where some of the research comes in. Agents and publishers that represent horror are not going to accept romance novels. Christian editors want nothing to do with Mainstream Adult Fiction, and so on. Figure out what genre your completed (that's right, completed, edited, and the best product you can put out) manuscript falls under, and then find the agent that specializes in that. You don't want just any agent. You want the right agent. Someone who's been in the business long enough that they have the connections, yet someone new enough that they love new writers. And disregard that "No Simultaneous Submissions" rule. If you sent one at a time, you'd be in your grave before you found somebody. I researched like crazy and sent seven queries out. Joe, I believe, sent out twenty at a time. Another writer I've talked to sent 40 at a time. Some writers get a 40% to 60% favorable response rate, some find one in a hundred. It all depends upon the genre, the demand for work similar to yours, and your research. I sent out seven and got an agent (the one I wanted the most because they best fit my novel) out of that first group. Be warned, though, not all agents are what they seem. The first agent that picked me up was small cookies and not capable of representing me as I desired. Click at Preditors and Editors
for a list of some of the problem children in the agency business. As an added note, I have written a number of articles regarding acquiring agents further down on this blog.
When it comes to querying an agent, your first query letter must be written with this in mind: The first impression is a lasting impression. You want to come across professional, and original. When I say original, that does not necessarily mean a bunch of gimmicks, and don't tell them that this is their next blockbuster, or part of a series, or it'll make a great movie. Let them decide that for themselves. My letter begins with my full name, address, phone number, and website (optional). Then I skip a line and put the date. Under that is the name of the agent (spelled correctly) and then the name and address of the agency. Then I skipped a line, and begin Dear (agent's full name spelled correctly). In the first paragraph you can start right off with a description of the work, or give them a quick bio that shows them why you are qualified to write the manuscript. My query letter changes with each book, each experience, and with each agent. I research my agents thoroughly and detail the letter with them in mind, rather than send a letter that is obviously a part of a mass mailing. Send the first five pages of your manuscript if they don't ask for more, even if the agent indicates that they want a query letter only, or synopsis only with the letter -- how are they going to know if you can write if you don't send an example? Agents won't tell you, but they would like to see a little bit of your work.
In a post on this blog on April 5, 2006 I wrote that Literary Agents remind me of creditors. Nobody wants you until someone has you, and then they all want you. Literary agents have been burned so many times by writers that write like the rejects on American Idol sing that they don't even want to see a manuscript anymore. They search for reasons to reject the unpublished writer. Don't get me wrong, literary agents want nothing more than to find the next blockbuster novelist, but after opening hundreds of letters by frogs all day, it's hard to convince them to accept you when you're a prince. Okay, let's back up a step. An agent is needed for a number of reasons. Sure, there are a few unique cases out there of authors that gain publication through unorthodox methods, but the odds are stacked against such avenues being open to you. Publishers more often look at manuscripts presented to them by an agent they trust. That is a cold hard fact. Besides, wouldn't you want a seasoned professional in your corner that knows who is buying what? An agent can also handle the money matters, negotiate for you the best deal, has connections in the industry you don't have, and can help well beyond the point of publication. Unless you are one of those rarities out there that somehow hits it big because you were in the right place at the right time with the right manuscript in your hand, you need an agent. My queries began like any other author's, a strictly carved statue that went clearly by the rules. Don't get me wrong, the rules are good and should be followed, but your query needs to have something special. Something that stands out. Something that gets an agent's attention, but it best not be a gimmick. Original, quality writing stands out. One agent indicated to me that a letter that also details a marketing plan catches their attention.
Now for the query rules: state your work's primary feature, its category/genre, credentials you have to write the book if its non-fiction, plotline or subject, and keep it concise and professional. It's your 15 second pitch. If you can't convince someone that your book is worthy in 15 seconds, or six lines of print, it may not be the blockbuster that you think it is. Oh, and thank them for reading your query, and tell them that you look forward to their response. Cordial niceties go a long way. Personally handpick the agents that you plan to query. Do your research. Otherwise your rejections will read something like, "Your manuscript is not right for our agency," or "We are not the right agent for your work." Most agencies reject 98% of what they receive. They are not being mean spirited, they are in business to make money, and a literary agent does not earn a penny until they make you a penny (hence, if they ask for money, get a different agent/some legitimate literary agents may charge duplicating costs, etc., but most postpone payment until you make money, and then take the charges from that). If they are going to stick their neck out, then they only want to represent what they believe has the best chance at publication, and a good chance at bringing in a high dollar. It's all about business, and until you treat your writing like a business, it will remain nothing more than a hobby. Don't do anything that will burn bridges with any literary agent, and don't get a bad agent that is capable of soiling your reputation before you build one. As I stated earlier, I had a bad agent, an experience of which you can read the details of in one of my past posts, and it was a year of wasted time and effort. Also, I don't know what damage it caused me in the publishing industry. Hopefully, the damage was minimal. Research, research, research. Remember: A professional is an amateur who didn't quit. Stay the course, and finish the race.