There’s an old writer’s saying that goes, “A bad agent is worse than no agent.” And it’s true, but it’s hard to believe that when you’ve just spent hours researching the publishing houses you’d most like to see your work done through only to find them all stating that they won’t take un-agented submissions.
Remember that it’s not absolutely essential to have an agent in order to be successfully published. There are still a few publishing companies out there who will happily receive queries from authors without an agent. For the most part, though, it’s a much better idea to try for having agent representation.
Who Needs an Agent & How to Find One
More and more book publishers are closing their doors on submissions done any way but through an agent. The reason behind it is simple: if your work has caught the eye of a literary agent the publisher trusts, then you’ve obviously written something right. In other words, the publisher is using the agent as a filter, a pre-screening process that weeds out writing they probably wouldn’t be interested in.
An agent’s entire purpose is to make a happy marriage between your writing and the perfect publishing house. To do this, they’ve developed relationships with editors and know exactly which editors are seeking what submissions.
To make a long story short, if you’re hoping to have a book published – especially if you’re not a previously published author – you’ll have much better luck (and save a lot in postage) going through an agent.
Which leaves us with one important question … how do I find a good one?
There are essentially three places to start your quest: Writer’s Digest Books’ Guide to Literary Agents (you should be able to find a copy at your local library), the Writer’s Market (again, check your library), or the Association of Authors’ Representatives website.
Using at least one of these tools, start looking for agents that specialize in the genre your book falls under. You’ll probably want to make a list containing the agency name, agent’s name, contact information, and any notes they’ve offered for writers thinking of making a submission to them. Aim for a list of about ten agents who really, really match your genre.
With your list in hand, hit the Internet. Check out what books the agents you’ve noted have recently represented to publication. You’re looking for titles that match your subject – closely. For example, if you write paranormal romance novels and find an agent who represents romance writers but has represented almost entirely historical romances, you might want to keep looking. It’s not that the agent can’t handle your work – they very well may – but it’s more that they’ve obviously developed successful relationships with editors seeking historical romance novels.
This process will probably whittle your list down to about half what you started with. That’s perfectly fine – it means that you’re targeting specific agents who fit your specific needs.
With this smaller list ready, type up a letter that describes your novel clearly and quickly. You’ll want to list your qualifications for writing the book you’ve written (if necessary) and any writing awards you’ve won, your publishing history, education, or anything else that is relevant to your writing. If you found the editor through one of their clients or an associate, let them know. And remember the “quick” part? The letter should be no more than two pages max. If you can really describe your project well in one page, all the better.
Be sure to make the letter professional with the agency’s name and address in the top left corner, and include your contact info (including email) at the bottom. When you mail the letter, include a self-addressed stamped envelope so they can respond easily.
You’ll have to be patient when waiting for a response. Successful agents routinely receive a thousand queries every month, so the bigger the agent, the longer you can expect to wait. It’s for this reason that many new authors specifically look for established-but-small agencies who have the time to work closely with an author, offering advice and following up on submissions.
While you wait, don’t be idle! Go ahead and jump into an outline of your book, and really tightly work those first three chapters. When you snag an agent’s interest, these are the most common things they’ll ask for. By working on them beforehand, you’re ready with polished work instead of sweating and stressing for a week after you get over the jump-for-joy-the-agent-liked-my-idea thing.