Getting a literary agent may be the most important thing a writer can do in their quest to secure a traditional publishing deal. Agents are notoriously difficult to reach, much less getting them to review your work. Collectively they have a rather mean reputation, but this is founded on their need to be absolutely tough in the way that they judge work. It is also based on the tremendous volume of submissions they may be receiving. Individually they are as human as the rest of us, lovely creatures and almost always fiercely loyal and highly intelligent.
But the question is HOW do you secure a literary agent?
1. Write a great piece of work.
Seriously, that may sound trite, but it is THE primary reason you will get signed by an agent. They are looking for quality. Bring them your best. Not your maybe, or your sort of good. Bring your top shelf stuff.
2. Have your manuscript edited
The best and most experienced authors we have dealt with almost always have their work edited developmentally (line edit) and also grammatically (copy edit). They do this because they know the cleaner it is the better the chances of it getting read and considered. A sloppy manuscript is guaranteed to be rejected, regardless of how great the story.
3. Research the perfect agent for your work
Study the agents out there and ask around. Seek agents who publish your kind of work. If you have a mystery you don’t want to send it to an agent who only takes southern gothic. Look for a good fit for your work.
4. Write a gorgeous, well-edited query letter
Be personal and say something nice about the agent. Tell them you read their blog and love the books they have represented. Something to build a personal connection without being smarmy. Edit your query! I have heard so many horror stories from agents about well-written superior work being rejected based on typos in the query letter. Don’t do that.
5. Make simultaneous submissions
Some agents may insist on you giving them an exclusive to consider your work for months on end. Don’t do that unless you already have some kind of inside expectation that they are seriously considering your work. Instead send out to multiple agents simultaneously.
6. Follow their guidelines
Most literary agents or houses have particular guidelines for how they want to receive submissions. Follow them explicitly. Don’t cut corners.
7. Follow up with a nice email
Keep it short and light. You are simply checking to make sure they received your submission. Ask for an estimated time for review.
8. Prepare to wait
And wait. And wait. Some agents will take many months. Others may reject you quickly with the famous “this is not the type of work we are looking for” line. It is a kinder way of saying you did not make the cut.
9. Don’t take it personally
Not bloody likely, eh? As artists it is impossible to not take rejection personally. Our work is part of who we are as a person. The best thing you can do is to consider rejections and acceptance in a business-like manner. That will help you to grow thicker skin and keep forging ahead. When rejection stops hurting you should probably stop writing.
10. Keep writing
The only way you will improve your craft is to keep crafting your work. Keep writing. Continuous incremental improvement is a buzzword in business and in writing. Remember that success is often built on a series of failures. Learn what works and what does not work. Keep writing and good luck!
AUTHOR 101 is a series of articles that answer typical questions posed by writers and authors. Some of the answers comes from the Pocket Guide to Publishing, by Joe Coccaro and John Koehler. The book is available as a free download at KoehlerBooks.com. This material was written to help writers and may be used, shared and copied as it is useful.
John Köehler is the author of seven books, an award-winning graphic designer, 1991 Boomerang World Champ, and is the founder and publisher at Köehler Books.