Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Once the writing is done and the painful editing process is complete on your book, it’s only natural that you want your book published for all the world to see. I’ve been in that very same spot, poring over Writer’s Digest books at Barnes & Noble and reading internet articles about how to get my book published. The publishing process is, and has always been, complicated. Nowadays, it’s even harder to get your book published by the Big 5 Publishing Houses (and their imprints): Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachete.
Some of you may have heard of the “literary agent”, a person who has so much influence over acquisition editors, that they can get your book sold to a publishing house. This post is going to be your guide on obtaining a literary agent. Do you really need one? If you want to get published by the Big 5, you HAVE TO have an agent. They won’t read your manuscript without agent backing.
However, there is an exception to this rule. Some imprints of the Big 5 don’t require agented manuscripts, but then you’re competing against a much larger pool of writers. So, it depends on how you want to publish your work. I suggest that you research which publishing houses (and their imprints) do and don’t require agented manuscripts.
How do you get the attention of an agent, you ask? Well, you gotta write a great query letter. For the sake of this post, I’m only focusing on works of fiction. Nonfiction book sales are handled differently.
“The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.” – Ernest Hemingway
So, let’s say you’ve decided to pursue a literary agent. She (most agents are women) will be the champion for your book if you can get her attention. Just make sure that you’ve finished the manuscript. Don’t send her a query for an incomplete novel. She won’t hear of it. Oh, and make sure the book has been edited many times over. No errors. No plot holes. A complete, polished novel. If you haven’t done this. Do it before you consider querying a literary agent.
It also might be pertinent to understand what a literary agent does. She doesn’t edit your book. She doesn’t stroke your ego. And she most certainly won’t stand for mediocre work. You’ve submitted a clean, polished query letter. You’ve got her pumped to read your sample. And after she’s read the entire book, beginning to end, she LOVES the work. So, you two strike a deal. She gets 15% off the top of your royalties (20% for foreign sales) if she can sell your book to a publisher.
Her job is to bring money for the both of you. She doesn’t make any if you don’t, so… she’s only going to represent the writer who gives her something she’s excited about. She’s going to pitch that work to acquisition editors that she knows at a publishing house who might like your work. If a publishing house decides to purchase your work, she negotiates a good deal for you (royalties, advances, subsidiary rights, etc.). She accepts your royalty checks, takes her 15% fee and then sends you the rest. Agents represent the writer, not the book. So, keep giving her good books to sell and your relationship will be great.
Do your research before you query. Understand the following terms. This list is not exhaustive, and some terms have different meanings depending on the agent or publisher.
Your book document
Your submitted book document (not requested by agent)
Your submitted query letter (not requested by agent)
Fantasy, Sci-fi, horror (and their subgenres)
A brief overview of the major points, including the ending of your story
Cover letter for your manuscript addressed and catered to the agent you are querying
A simple template sent to all writers of rejected queries
Literary, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, thriller…
Middle Grade (MG)
Manuscripts written for Middle Grade readers (ages 8 to 12)
Young Adult (YA)
Manuscripts written for Young Adult Audience (ages 12 to 25)
New Adult (NA)
Manuscripts written for New Adult Audience (ages 18 to 30)
A 1-3 sentence description of your manuscript
A small publishing house that takes a limited number of queries and publishes fewer books.
Queries or manuscript submissions not requested by agent from author at a convention or in close contact with agent
IMPORTANT: Understand that each agent/agency has their own set of rules and guidelines that they expect writers to follow. Read those rules and understand them.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to be aware of scams. There are lots of scammers out there these days. Just keep in mind that literary agents don’t charge “reading fees”, and they don’t make “promises”. Agents should not be asking for any money upfront or goading you in anyway. The legitimate agents and agencies ONLY make money when you do, and that’s why it’s so hard to land one. They must be able to sell and market your book.
“Write the story that’s in your heart and not the one you think will make you the most money.” – Brenda Jackson
Get An Agent’s attention
Write A Strong Query Letter
A query letter is essentially a cover letter for your manuscript. It tells the agent who you are and what your work is about. The agent, based on the query, will decide whether or not to go forward with you. Inserted above is a sample query letter that contains a formal salutation and a paragraph including the genre, word count, and comparable titles. The body of the letter is the longest part, and it lays out the premise and story idea of the manuscript. Use the second to last paragraph to tell the agent a bit more about you and then deliver a fond farewell. Don’t forget to leave your name and contact information. A strong query letter is the first step to getting the agents attention.
Typically, the query letter will run from 200-300 words. Do not write more than that as agents sometimes read hundreds of queries a week. Keep them short.
Write A Strong Manuscript
Sometimes agents will take a sample along with your query letter (it depends on the agent). And a lot of agents only take the query letter—at first. After the agent has seen your strong query and wants to read part of your work, they’ll ask for a sample of the actual pages, usually the first few pages or chapters (or a full manuscript). When you submit those pages, make sure they are FREE of errors and formatted to the agent's liking. Remember, these agents read thousands of samples a year. They will ask for samples if your letter is strong, sometimes.
Generally, agents will want your book delivered in manuscript format which is 12pt Times New Roman and double-spaced with 1-inch margins. Make sure to indent new paragraphs as well.
With samples, agents typically don't like attachments (for fear of viruses), and you may be asked to paste your sample in the body of the email.
Prepare Other Materials
Some agents or agencies want a bit more from you when you submit that query. It might be a good idea to prepare a synopsis, marketing plan, and author bio as well. And, of course, have sample pages/chapters ready. Some agents want those pages right along with your query.
Know The Agent
If you’ve done your research, you KNOW the agent. Read their listing in the Guide To Literary Agents or another reputable source and know what that agent is looking for. Follow them on Twitter and read their bio on their agency’s site. Know the agent well enough to know whether or not your work is for them.
Getting an agent is a subjective process. Not every agent out there will represent your paranormal romance. Look at their previous sales. Know these things about the agent you are querying beforehand. Otherwise you’re wasting your time and theirs.
Here’s a snippet of what Eddie Schneider from Jabberwocky Literary Agency is looking for…
“Literary fiction: I’m an avid reader of literary fiction, and what lights up my cerebral cortex here are more plot-driven novels with a strong emotional core, which engage in areas beyond and outside the middle-class concerns endemic to a large swath of books published in this genre. Two examples of (non-client) novels from the last few years that I particularly enjoyed are Ruth Ozeki’s A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING and Louise Erdrich’s ROUND HOUSE.
Science fiction: I love science fiction, especially SF set in the near future, often with social or cultural commentary, as well as the occasional space opera. Two examples of (non-client) novels that I enjoyed in this vein are Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and Octavia Butler’s PARABLE OF THE SOWER. I am very much interested in SF written from non-Western cultural perspectives, and one good non-client example of that is G. Willow Wilson’s ALIF THE UNSEEN.
Fantasy: With fantasy, my favorite novels have tended to be those that toe both the real world and the fantastic. In any case, I go for stories with intricate, imaginative settings that are internally consistent, address political and social concerns, and have often found myself preferring tight writing to florid. I’m especially interested in fantasy novels set outside the Northern European milieu from which the genre originated. Two examples of (non-client) novels that I particularly enjoyed like this are Octavia Butler’s KINDRED and Susanna Clarke’s JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL.
Young Adult: My favorite YA novels tend to be both character- and concept-driven, while embracing the intensity of emotion that characterizes a lot of the best YA fiction. A couple (non-client) favorites published in recent years include Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE and AMERICAN STREET by Ibi Zoboi.
Middle Grade: Middle grade novels have a special resonance for me, because the genre has such breadth. Here, I’m also interested in both realistic/contemporary and sf/fantasy. Two examples of (non-client) novels that I really enjoyed are Dianna Wynne Jones’ classic HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME.”
Also, read the agent’s guidelines. They may want only a query, or they may ask for additional materials with your query. Know and respect their guidelines. Not following them could land your submission into the trash can.
Here’s an example of what that might look like from Eddie Schneider…
“Email queries to queryeddie [at] awfulagent.com. Please include the first five pages of your manuscript, and paste them below your query letter, in the body of your email. 1-3 page synopses may also be included at the very bottom, but aren’t mandatory.
When querying, please don’t send any attachments, as these queries are deleted unread.”
Wait A Long Time
Agents move slowly. They take their time to read your book and they don’t make decisions without much consideration. So, expect to wait weeks or months (depending on how busy that agent is) to find out if the agent is willing to represent you. Don’t email them for follow up (unless they specify a time in which you should do so). Don’t show up at their office. These rules apply for times when the agent is reading your sample and if you’ve landed representation and your agent is actively shopping your manuscript around. It’s a slow process. Be patient.
Sometimes The Agent Can’t Make It Happen
Unfortunately, even if your book is great and your agent loves it, no publisher will purchase your book. It’s happened before. In that case, you might be asked to write something else for your agent to sell.
“The Road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” – Philip Roth
Getting an agent is a very hard process. I’ll be honest. It’s only worth it if you want your book to published by the Big 5 publishing houses. If not, then take the shorter and easier route of self-publishing with Kindle Direct or Smashwords or another self publishing entity. And sometimes your agent may not be able to sell your book. The industry is very subjective and sometimes things don’t happen the way you want them to.
Nevertheless, getting an agent is a great idea. The agent will become a friend and confidant and will champion your writing and be around throughout your entire career.
If you have any other questions about getting an agent, let me know! I’m always happy to help. Shoot me an email if you need to reach me.
Query Tracker – Find literary agents and track query letters
Publishers Weekly – Learn more about the publishing industry and get updates on major book deals
Writer’s Market – An all-inclusive guide to publishing, even including a list of publishing houses that take solicited and unsolicited manuscripts