Authors of completed novels should seek agents. Authors of poems, short stories, novellas, and children’s picture books will probably do better (or, at least, just as well) without an agent.
If you want a major publishing house to publish your manuscript, you’ll likely need an agent. The vast majority of publishing houses rely on agents to filter the flow of unsolicited materials and, generally, won’t accept un-agented submissions. However, you will have more luck in finding a small press publisher who will accept a submission directly from an author. There are always exceptions to the rule, but don’t count on your work being that exception. In most cases, you need an agent to get your work onto the desk of a publishing house editor and to negotiate a favorable deal.
Even if you are one of the lucky few who get their work directly picked up by a publisher, it is still a good idea to secure an agent. An agent’s primary job is to sell your book, but a good agent will do a lot more.
Experienced agents know more about the publishing industry than just about anyone else. They can help negotiate subsidiary rights, promote and market your novel, and handle the publisher’s requests to change the title and text of your work. An agent has both the incentive and the knowledge to monitor the disbursement of advances and royalties, and can guide you in your future writing and literary career.
First, an agent must find the handful of promising manuscripts in a sea of query letters. Since a single agent may receive between 5,000 and 20,000 query letters each year, this is akin to finding a few needles in a sizeable haystack.
To get through, for example, 10,000 query letters per year, an agent needs to evaluate nearly 200 letters each week. Only one or two of these weekly 200 letters might compel the agent to request a full or partial manuscript from the author, resulting in about 50 solicited manuscripts per year. After evaluation, only a handful of those 50 manuscripts may eventually be accepted by the agent and forwarded to a publisher.
Agents use several criteria in their selection process, including the quality of the writing, publisher demand for certain genres, the agent’s own genre preferences, and the author’s personality and likelihood of establishing a mutually beneficial, productive working relationship.
Once an agent decides that your work is potentially marketable, his or her focus shifts to making your work actually marketable. In the past, the bulk of manuscript editing was traditionally done by the publishing house. However, in the current economy, a manuscript must be practically perfect before a publishing house editor will consider it. Thus, if your agent thinks your work shows promise, he or she may help you to polish and revise your manuscript to meet initial publisher expectations.
Next, the agent will begin shopping your work around to editors. An agent keeps abreast of the shifting industry and knows which publishing houses print certain types of books, and which editors gravitate toward certain types of writers. They know what trends are hot and what type, length, and genre of books are selling. They network, keep up with industry news, and cultivate relationships with potential editors.
Once a publisher makes an offer, the agent becomes your advocate, much like a trusted lawyer with a thorough knowledge of the publishing industry. The agent will negotiate with the publisher over terms, rights, and payments. He or she will know which contract terms are typically fixed and which are not. Given the opportunity, the agent may even foster an informal auction among multiple editors to get you the best possible deal. Most importantly, your agent will clearly explain the terms to you.
Once the agreement is finalized, the agent serves as a link between the publisher and the author, running interference during the publishing and marketing processes. The agent ensures that the author is timely paid and communicates good and bad news between the publisher and author.
Once the initial project is underway, your agent should be willing to guide your future writing career.
Publishers do not pay you, they pay your agent. Your agent will take an agreed-upon percentage and forward the remainder to you. An agent’s percentage is usually 15% for domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales (foreign earnings are usually split with a foreign agent).
Your agent only gets paid when you do, and only takes a cut of what you make (plus costs for things like copies and postage). It is therefore in the agent’s direct interest to make sure that you get paid well and on time. Unless you have authorized some extraordinary expense, your agent or publisher should never ask you to pay for anything out of pocket. Money flows to the author, never away.
Agents will sometimes take personal referrals from trusted associates. They may request a manuscript from an author they meet at a conference or convention. However, the majority of previously unpublished authors rely on query letters in their search for representation.
There are two ways to approach a search by query letter: 1) send query letters to every agent under the sun in the hopes that one will reply, or 2) research and target query letters to specific, reputable agents, who specialize in your genre.
Blanketing the market with query letters may feel like a surefire way to generate interest. However, this method can result in high postage and printing costs and an equally high rejection rate. It should be noted that many agents now accept electronic submissions, which greatly cuts down the cost of mass submissions.
Carefully selecting and targeting agents is the more sensible method. Browse through books that list agents and publishers. Your favorite novels will usually contain the author’s acknowledgments, where they may mention their agent by name. The latest editions of Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace are good places to find lists of agents and publishers. Peruse agents’ websites, where you can often find information about their preferred genres and types of work. Make use of excellent websites such as QueryTracker.net and AgentQuery.com to select agents that appear the best fit for you.
Ideally, agents should be members of AAR (Association of Author Representatives). Double-check agents’ reputations through Google searches and though sites such as Predators & Editors (Pred-Ed.com), Writer Beware (sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/), and Agent Research (AgentResearch.com). Never choose an agent who charges a fee (often called a “reading fee”) or directs you to their “preferred freelance editor” (from whom they may be receiving a kick-back).
You should not call agents who do not already represent you. Communication with potential agents should be limited to writing. Many agents require paper correspondence, although email communication is quickly gaining acceptance. Refer to each agent’s website to determine their individual preferences.
There are many reasons that agents do not like phone calls. However, the most compelling reason for a writer to stick to written correspondence is that agents are in the business of evaluating writing. It is, therefore, in your own best interest to present them with as much of your writing as you can.
Now that your novel is completed, the first thing you need to write is a one-page query letter. This letter is how you will introduce and sell yourself and your work to a potential agent. In your letter, you should explain that you have a completed book and are in need of representation. You must then persuasively describe your book without resorting to a simple recounting of its plot. You should conclude by briefly describing your previous publishing history (if any), relevant expertise, and other relevant qualifications.
If you are submitting by mail, you must include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for a reply. Even if you do not want to receive a negative reply, include a SASE anyway. The absence of a SASE appears unprofessional and the agent will assume you were sloppy and simply forgot to include it. Additionally, do not clarify in your query letter that you intentionally omitted the SASE to save on the postage, or because you can’t handle rejection, or whatever other reason. Simply include the SASE.
If you are submitting your query letter by email or other authorized electronic means, be sure to address your correspondence directly to the agent (not mass emails) as you would in the printed version of your query letter. Only submit query letters electronically if the agent’s submission rules allow it. Generally, you should not attach any files to your emailed query letters (agents will likely not open attached files for fear of viruses, and may simply delete your submission). Therefore, if an agent’s submission rules request things like a synopsis or the first five pages of your novel, you should cut and paste those documents into the email body. However, any particular submission rules of the agent supersede this advice.
Do not send a synopsis unless it is requested. A synopsis should be between two and five pages long for a novel and describe the main plot arc of the story. Subplots and minor characters can be omitted in the interest of space economy. Try to write your synopsis with the same feel and in the same style as the work itself. Many writers begin with an outline, which they then condense into a synopsis. It is also a good idea to prepare both a longer synopsis (4-5 pages) and a shorter synopsis (1-2 pages), which can be expanded upon or shortened to fit particular agent requests.
Do not send an outline unless it is requested. An outline is a more detailed version of your synopsis. It can run anywhere from 10 to 30 pages and should describe both the major plots arcs and most minor plot arcs. Try to write your outline with the same feel and in the same style as the work itself.
Do not send a sample chapter or a partial manuscript unless it is requested. A sample chapter should be the first chapter of the book. Follow the guidelines of the agent’s request regarding how much of your novel to submit. If the request is vague, send the first three chapters or, if you write fairly short chapters, send around thirty pages (find a natural break, rather than simply cutting off at page thirty).
Do not send a full manuscript unless it is requested. In the first stage of evaluation, agents will typically request only a partial manuscript.
If you are sending a paper copy of your manuscript, you should be aware that there are special industry formatting standards for manuscripts, which should be followed unless the agent requests otherwise. The agent is not likely to mention the existence of these standards. Failure to adhere to them will not mean the agent will ignore your work, but it can mark you as an amateur who didn’t take the time to research the basic rules of the profession.
Some agents will request an “exclusive.” This means they want to be the only agent looking at your manuscript for a designated period of time. This is done because agents are very busy and do not want to invest the time to read a novel that another agent has already decided to represent.
A request for an exclusive is not great news for an author, although it isn’t bad news either. Granting an exclusive means taking your manuscript out of circulation to accommodate an agent who may ask for exclusives from everyone as a matter of course.
The best course is to politely avoid granting exclusives. If it cannot be avoided, set strict time limits on the exclusivity (say, three or four weeks).
It could take as long as six months for an agent to reply to a query letter. Typically, if an agent is going to reply to you at all, it will usually be within two months. If you have not received a response within two months, assume a rejection.
If an agent has requested a full or partial manuscript, do not expect to hear back from them regarding your work for up to six months (though sending a polite reminder letter, or even a generally frowned-upon phone call, after four months is appropriate).
Writing follow-up query letters is usually futile. However, if a significant development has occurred—such as a competing representation offer from another agent—a follow-up letter may be worth the effort.