Ask the Editor: How Do I Get an Agent?
So, you’re moving into the finishing stages of writing your book and you’re beginning to think about acquiring an agent. At TEC, we work with non-fiction writers, academic and business writers, and recently I worked with an author on her memoir to help her shape her manuscript before sending to an agent.
Finding yourself an agent can be a huge step forward in getting your book published, but it is not necessarily an easy process. You need to have a good story that’s going to stand out. However, I’ve laid out the steps you should be taking to create a strong proposal that could get you noticed!
Finish the Book (and Know When to Stop)
The first step is fairly straightforward: finish your book, of course! Once your book is complete, you can look at it as a whole for other parts of the submission process.
One part of this step you may struggle with is “not finishing” your book in that you may have the whole story written out, but you find yourself tweaking and tuning, removing and adding the same comma over and over again perhaps, or agonizing over a choice of phrase in chapter seven. Reviewing what you’ve written and making it better is a good thing, but becoming unable to move on once the writing is done is a hindrance that should be avoided. We often advise writers that once their writing is done, they should take a step back from it for a period of time, whether that’s a few days or a few weeks, then come back to it with fresh eyes.
Have It Edited
Having your work edited will help it be the absolute best it can be before you send it off to an agent for review. An editor can help point out issues with flow, structure, clarity, and cohesiveness, and help you arrange your book to make it top notch.
For example, on a recent manuscript written as a memoir, I did several things to make it better. Here are the steps I followed.
1. Assessment to see what level of editing is needed: I assessed the manuscript to see what its strengths and weaknesses were, and what may need correcting before sending to agents.
2. Substantive edit: the manuscript required a substantive edit to move chunks of the storyline around, making it easier for the reader to follow the narrative.
3. Copy edit for style and consistency: I copy edited the manuscript to correct for sentence-level errors and flow, such as typos, grammar, sentence structure, clarity, et cetera.
This could take several weeks or months: give yourself the time needed and plan a budget for this process.
Research Your Agents
While your editor is editing your manuscript, now is the time to come up with a list of agents who you want to submit to. Try googling agents + your city, or agents + your country, look on industry listings, et cetera. Make sure the agents you choose have the following qualities:
a) They represent your genre: their preferences should be stated in their submission guidelines, or perhaps on their social media accounts (such as Twitter). They may also have a manuscript wish list of sorts.
b) You think they would enjoy your book: Have they accepted books by authors with tastes and writing styles similar to yours?
c) Regardless of whether or not you are looking at an individual agent or an agency, they should be reputable. Look for client testimonials and reviews on Google.
Write a Synopsis
A synopsis: this is the part of the submission process that many a writer dreads. The synopsis doesn’t have to be so complicated, though! Usually, the best way to craft a synopsis is to include the main plot arc (whether or not you spoil the ending or not is up to you), any major themes you include, and some titillating teases at what the book will do for the reader. Will it intrigue them with knowledge or inspiration that they haven’t seen anywhere else? Will it captivate the reader with a twisting and turning narrative or an uplifting message? Of course, these are just examples – find ways to get across how your readers would love the book.
Keep in mind that a synopsis should be about a page, no longer! Think along the lines of book jacket copy – short, to the point, and gets all the information the reader needs to both know what is going on in the book, but still be intrigued enough to get hooked.
Write a Query Letter
The internet is filled with advice on how authors can write the best query letters, and sometimes, all that information can just make the task seem more confusing and daunting than it has to be. Remember: this is just a professional letter that details what your book is about, in order to “grab” the agent’s attention. Make sure you open and close formally as well.
My favourite way to go about the writing of a query letter is to open with a short paragraph about why you’re excited to work with the agency (this works for publishing houses also) – has the agent worked with authors you admire, or agented some books you loved? Include that then! You chose this agent for a reason, make sure you tell them what that reason is beyond simply “I want to be published.” Maybe they were referred to you, or you heard them speak somewhere, or read an article they wrote. Be specific and be personal.
Next, include the elevator pitch you have for your book. Use an intriguing opening, known as a “hook.” The hook should be the first sentence or two of your opening, and it should really grab the reader and intrigue them right off the bat. A great hook is really what gets an author’s proposal noticed. Next, add some text about where exactly the book will be going (this can include a teaser as well, if it works), and end with an explanation of the book’s genre and word count. I also include here if the book has already been professionally edited.
Lastly, include a bit about you as the author – who you are, what you do, where you live, and if applicable, what makes you qualified to write this subject matter (more for nonfiction books).
This does not mean you can’t switch up the order of these paragraphs – for a self-help book I worked on, I introduced the author and her life story right after the first paragraph, as it was integral to the book and why she was so passionate about the subject matter. Use your best judgement as to what order to involve the information you need.
Evaluate Other Information You May Need
This is more common with publishers, but agents may ask you for extra information too, such as marketing plans and information, author bios, or chapter outlines. Marketing plans are simply your plan for how the book, and yourself as the author, might be marketed. Social media campaigns, readings, and plans for how to promote your book would all be included here. Chapter outlines include one to two sentences that describe what happens in each chapter, so the agent can see the whole book’s narrative at a glance.
Make sure you have all the information you need ready to go – and make sure it is proofread and clean of errors!
Look at Your Chapters
Most agents will request a writing sample of some kind, and this can be as short as twenty pages to as long as three chapters. Make sure you know what sections you would like to include with your submission, and make sure they are in the absolute best shape possible (again, the importance of editing).
Pull It All Together
So, now that you’ve got your synopsis, query letter, and writing sample, you’re most likely ready to go! I advise sending your submission packages out to maybe three or four agents at a time. That way, you know exactly who has your work and who you’re waiting to hear back from. Once you do, you can move on to the next set of agents – or not, if your book is accepted! Keeping a list may help you – the agents, the date you sent the submission, and their self-reported evaluation time (agents may often list this in their submission requirements). This will tell you what dates you can begin following up, or moving on.
Remember to address each agent personally in your emails (no Bcc’ing all the agents at once!) and include the query letter in the body of the email if you feel comfortable with doing it that way. If the agent requests mailed submissions, make sure you follow their wishes.
When an Agent Wants to Talk …
You may get a variety of responses, including:
a) No response at all, a.k.a. a rejection. This is actually very normal – try not to let it bother you, and move on to the next agent on your list!
b) A request for a partial manuscript and possibly more materials as discussed above.
c) A request for the full manuscript.
In follow-up correspondence with the agent, make sure you remain professional, and reply quickly and courteously. It may be disheartening not to get any responses at all to any of your queries, but don’t let it get you down for long – revisit your manuscript and read it through. Perhaps you’ll notice some things you didn’t notice before such as gaps in continuity, untied ends, or issues with your synopsis or cover letter.
Take the Next Step
If you feel like you need more advice and guidance in the process, give us a call – we can help advise you as to where your manuscript or proposal might need strengthening.
Most importantly, don’t give up! You may not succeed with your very first round of agent submissions, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an agent ready to take on your book out there somewhere. Keep crafting your proposal, keep improving it, and you may find you have an agent in no time.