Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What I didn’t know – and what you should – before querying literary agents

Just that you know literary agents exist puts you far ahead of where I was when I started submitting manuscripts for publication.

In theory, this is how the process of getting an agent works. (In theory. More on that later.)

1. You select a handful of agents you think you would be interested in and send them a query letter. (Don’t worry, I’m going to expand on all of this.)

2. You wait for the agent to respond. If they say no, you find another agent you’re interested in and send a query to them. If they say yes, they will most likely ask to see the first three chapters of your manuscript and a synopsis, also known as a book proposal.

3. You send your book proposal and wait some more. If the agent says no, hopefully they will give you a helpful reason. (The beginning was slow, the idea isn’t fresh enough, I don’t think I could sell this, etc.) If the agent says yes, they usually ask for the full manuscript at this point.

4. You send your full manuscript and wait some more. Again, if the agent says no, you hope for some kind of advice that can help you get a yes in the future. If the agent likes what they read, they usually want to set up a time that you can talk on the phone. From there they either offer you representation, in which you agree to pay them 15% of whatever you earn, or one or both of you decides this isn’t the right business relationship.

That is a very, very, very simplified version of how you get an agent. Two other ways are through a referral (where a writing friend of yours refers you to their agent), or through a writing conference. Most writers I know acquired agents through these two methods, including myself. I met my first agent at a conference, and my current agent and I were referred to each other by the lovely and talented Jenny B. Jones.

But I’m guessing if you’re like me in high school, you don’t have author friends or a thousandish bucks to spend on a conference, so we’ll start with the basic query letter method.

I’m going to break this topic down into several posts. Today we’ll just talk about how you find these agents.

One way that you can find out about agents is to join a writing community. Pretty much every genre has one, and you can find free ones on Yahoo Groups just by doing a search, or you can Google whatever genre it is you write. Like, “Resources for romance writers.” A few examples are:

If you write for children or teens, you can join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

If you write Christian fiction, head to the American Christian Fiction Writers' page.

Or if you write romance, check out Romance Writers of America.

There are many, many others. I’m positive that every genre has a group these days.

By joining groups like these, you network with other writers and gain knowledge. You learn who has an agent they love, what agent just left their agency and is starting up their own thing, etc. So something like that is an excellent place to start.

Another option, and what’s more along the route I took, is to check out AgentQuery where you can get a list of agents who represent your genre or authors you admire. You can also see who’s interested in taking on new clients, what they’re looking for, and what they’re NOT looking for.

You can also buy a book like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Agents. It’s been ages since I looked for a literary agent like this, so I’m not sure what advantages and disadvantages there are to a book versus AgentQuery. You’ll have to let me know.

If you have more agent questions like why you need an agent, what are an agent's responsibilities, and what questions should I ask a prospective agent, check out Chip MacGregor's answers here. (Click on "Resources" tab, then on the left the thingy where it says "Choosing an agent." Not sure why it won't let me do a direct link - aargh.)

Come back on Thursday and we’ll talk about query letters! In the meantime, if you have questions, shoot me an e-mail.


  1. And if you're writing Christian fiction, the go-to source all major pubs and agents recommend is Sally Stuart's "Christian Writers Market Guide." (A new version comes out each year, and it's relatively inexpensive.) At your library you can take a gander through the daunting LMP (Literary Market Place) which is so complete it's just scary. Literally. I never knew where to begin with that, LOL.

  2. Oh, I totally forgot about both of those! Thanks, Ro. There are just soooo many details involved in this subject...