I work as a literary agent intern. I evaluate queries, manuscripts, and partials, as well as do other daily lit agent task (such as writing edit letters or pitches). It’s a lot of writing and a lot of reading, and a lot of money given to my local Starbucks. But what is a literary agent, and why are they important?
Literary agents are the middle man between the author and the publisher. Most big-name publishers won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have an agent. In a sense, we’re the gatekeepers. But we’re a lot more than that. Your literary agent is your first advocate. They’re there to campaign for you and your book, get the best deals and argue with editors when need be. A literary agent doesn’t just want to sell your book; they want to jump-start your career because your success is their success. So, how do you get one? Below is a list of seven things you need to get a literary agent.
A Polished Manuscript
Now, I’m not saying you need your manuscript professionally edited to get an agent. Some people do, but most don’t. However, you do want to put your best foot forward. The manuscript you submit shouldn’t be your first draft…or your second, for that matter. Make sure it is as polished as possible. Get beta readers to look over your work. Put it away for a week, then reread. Put it through a grammar checker. Most agents don’t accept re-submissions after a rejection. You don’t want to lose your shot because you sent your manuscript out before it was ready.
A Good Query Letter
Now, I know query letters are the bane of every author’s existence. But they serve an important purpose. A good query tells me three things: you followed the guidelines, you know how to pitch your book, and you write it well. While there are bad queries followed by good manuscripts, a query grabs the agent’s interest and puts you at the top of their list. Plus, if I'm honest, I can usually tell if I will like a manuscript based on the query. A well-written query is usually followed by great sample pages. Before you start querying, make sure you know the standard query structure. For the basics of writing a query, you can click here. For more detailed examples, check out Query Shark or my blog post on How Not to Query.
A Good Synopsis
While a query gives agents a taste of your book, synopses give them a bite. A synopsis is a one page summary of your manuscript. It should tell me who the important characters are and what happens at the beginning, the middle, and the end. I’m working on a more detailed synopsis post now, but for the basics of writing a synopsis, you can click here.
Knowledge of your Future Agent
It is SO important that you do your research before querying, especially at agencies where you’re only allowed to query one agent. If you send an amazing YA mystery about a girl who is killed in a fire to an agent that hates novels that use fire as a plot device, you’re going to run into problems. You can find reputable agents through Manuscript Wish List and the Association of Authors Representatives, but I wouldn’t stop there. See if they’ve done any interviews. Look at Publisher’s Marketplace and Twitter. What are they asking for right now? What do they hate? Most agents will tell you exactly what they’re looking for. Don’t miss out because you didn’t try.
Knowledge of the Industry
While it is important to know what your agent likes, it’s essential to know what readers like. Are you pitching a Hunger Games-esc post-apocalyptic dystopian in 2019? You may have a hard time. I believe you should write for yourself, not for the industry. But if you want to get published, it’s important to know how things are going. Knowing what is in and what is out will help you understand your odds.
A Way to Track Submissions
Some people use QueryTracker. Some people keep an excel spreadsheet. I prefer google docs. However, you do it, keeping track of your submissions is important. If you send two queries to the same agent, or query different agents in the same agency simultaneously, it screams amateur. Find a way to keep track of your queries. I suggest you write the name of the agent, name of the agency, date sent, and leave a blank space for comments. In this space, you can write if they gave any feedback, or where it is in the submission process. This will not only help you keep track of everything, but see if there are any underlying issues with your book. If agents keep giving the same feedback and rejection, you may want to take another look at your manuscript.
A Way to Combat Rejection
You will be rejected. This isn’t the exception; it’s the rule. Every writer you can think of has been rejected. C.S.Lewis was rejected 800 times before he was ever published. It’s a tough industry, so you have to be tougher. The best advice I can give for this is to repeat this: It is not about you. It is not about you. It is not about you. Because most of the time, it isn’t. Rejection doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It means you’re brave enough to put yourself out there. So, edit your novels, sit down with your favorite animal, maybe sacrifice a virgin, and hunker down in the query trenches. Good luck and welcome to war.