Friday, August 28, 2009

Approaching Literary Agents

An aspiring writer asked if I had any hints at approaching an agent.

Yes, I have a few routes I've taken on the path to eventually landing a literary agent.

Plan A: The best way I would approach agents is send them a one-page query letter, synopsis, and the first twenty pages of your manuscript. When I was first trying to publish my novel, SHADOWS IN THE MIST, I submitted to several agents. I offer a sample template of one of my query letters at this link:

Essentially, a query letter should briefly describe your book, why you have chosen this particular agency, describe you as a writer, and any publishing accomplishments you have. Or if you have a good marketing platform--like you are a TV personality or have a blog with 5,000 readers. Or if you are an expert in a niche field that relates to your book include that information.

If you are where I started, which was totally unknown with no platform, then your book has to be good enough to grab an agent's interest. So, first write the best damn book you can, and get lots of feedback on it from friends, a writer's group, and even hire a professional editor to clean up the grammar and work out any kinks in the book's structure. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, the book needs to flow nicely and engage the reader. It used to be that you had to mail query letters through snail mail. These days many agencies accept email. If that's the case, take check out the sample query template letter I included at the link above.

Do your research. Not all agents represent the same types of books. Every year Literary Market Place publishes a book (LMP) that lists all current information about agents, their contact info, and details about what types of books they represent. You can also search for agents at Literary Marketplace online.

In my case, I searched for every agency that represented horror fiction. I narrowed several hundred agents down to about twenty. Then I went to each of their websites to gain more insight into what they are looking for. This helped me narrow down the list to around fifteen. I wrote each of them and played the waiting game. Expect anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks for a response. If you haven't heard back in 6 weeks, send a brief, polite email saying you are just following up to see if they received your query letter.

Expect a good number of your submissions to be answered back with rejection letters. Any rejections only mean you've eliminated the agents who are not a good fit for your book and you've narrowed down your search. So what happens if every agent on your list rejects your manuscript? This actually happened to me! First, don't panic. Take a few deep breaths. Once calm, ask yourself this question: "Where's the opportunity?"

Plan B: Another alternative to querying an agent is to go to a writer's convention and pitch your story to one. Every year, agents attend conferences in hopes of finding fresh talent. The Hawaii Writers conference (Every Labor Day weekend) is a perfect venue for this. They have a set up there that's kind of like speed dating with agents and editors. You sit down with the agent/editor face to face, and you have 15 minutes to pitch your story. If they like the idea, they'll tell you to mail them the manuscript. That's how I got an agent to finally read a copy of SHADOWS IN THE MIST. If you can find a way to afford the trip, I highly recommend the Hawaii Writers Conference. You get to meet other aspiring writers, celebrity authors, attend workshops about writing, publishing, and promoting, and pitch your stories to agents. It's well worth the investment.

Plan C: Enter your manuscript or self-published book into a contest and win an award. This is a long shot, but I've met writers who won awards and landed a book deal afterwards. Self-published books can enter into the Independent Book Publishers Awards ( For unpublished writers, there are countless contests. Just Google writing contests. If you win an award, resubmit to agents and tell them the good news. They may take more interest this time.

So to recap:

1. Write a damn good book or have a unique idea that's marketable

2. Get friends, writers, and hire an editor to provide constructive feedback - polish the manuscript until it's the best you can deliver

3. Read up on how to write a great query letter or book proposal. Feel free to use my sample query letter as a template.

4. Research literary agencies on the web or in the Literary Market Book and see who's publishing your kind of book

5. Contact them with a query letter. Check their guidelines on their site to see if they prefer email or snail mail submissions

6. Submit to several agents at once, unless one specifically asks you to give them the first chance to look at your work

7. Wait patiently. It may take a few weeks or months for them to get back with you.

8. When you receive rejection letters - and you may get a few - keep having faith - not every agent is right for you. You want to cherry pick the agent that has the most passion for your book. Remember, they are your rep. They are selling your book. You want an agent who's fired up about pitching your story to publishing houses. So be willing to see rejection letters as only a sign that they aren't the right fit for you. It's nothing personal.

9. If the agents provide any constructive feedback, seriously consider it and get second opinions from any writers you know. Your manuscript may need a little tweeking. Some of my earlier manuscripts weren't good enough to be published yet, and some agents gave me so valuable advice on how to improve my manuscript and as a writer.

10. Attend the Hawaii Writers Conference or one closer to home - there's nothing like getting face to face with an agent and getting instant feedback. It might be what saves you from months of waiting in the slush pile. I know people who have signed with agents on the spot. It can be very exciting.

11. Shop for a literary agent for a year or so. Finding the right one takes time. While you wait, keep writing on your next manuscript. Keep churning out manuscripts. An agent may like your writing, but not the story you submitted. They might ask if you have anything else you can read.

12. If after a couple years pass without landing an agent, explore self-publishing. That's the route I took and finally landed my literary agent and first book deal a year after I self-published.

Dream big and make it happen!

1 comment:

  1. Brian,
    I appreciate the work you've gone to in making this information available to aspiring writers. You provided several links I intend to visit as I prepare to take the next step in publishing my book. Thanks for the great work!