But you have to do your homework
For an unpublished writer (I’m referring to published as in ‘national media that pays’), finding a legit agent to represent your work can look like an impossible challenge. Add in the fact that most major book publishers no longer even accept unsolicited manuscripts, and getting on their radar looks more and more impossible. And I’m not going to pretend it will be easy. But there are a number of things you can do that will get your foot in the door and help get your manuscript read. First, about that manuscript. The advice in this article focuses on selling a novel, not non-fiction.
Don’t bother if you haven’t prepped and polished
You’ve completed a draft. You rewritten multiple times and spent extra time on the first paragraph and the first chapter. Remember, if anything gets read, this is the part that is your audition, the place where you have to establish momentum, the momentum that keeps a reader turning the pages. That momentum is the primary thing any agent or editor is looking for.
It should go without saying that your novel must be completed before you even think about publishing. What is completed? These days it means a lot more than a pile of dog-eared paper wrapped in a rubber band and stuffed into a box. This is the stage it should be at:
- Laid out in the exact format your agent(s) of choice have specified. They will have guidelines on their site. Follow them exactly or you’ll end up at the bottom of the pile or in the trash can (literally or digitally).
- You should have had three readers go through the story and give you notes. Details on this process can be found in Stephen King’s On Writing. If you haven’t read it, stop right now, get a copy, and inhale it.
- You need a professional edit done by a full time editor for both content and a copy/edit to correct things like typos and grammar, places where you lose the POV, storylines that go nowhere, etc. You cannot do this yourself. That’s not negotiable. Any legitimate agent (more on legitimacy in a minute) will know within minutes if you have skipped this step. Yes, it will cost you money but the investment will pay off and you will immediately be a better writer. Btw, you’ve already invested a lot into this, don’t cheap out now!
- Look at best selling novels in your genre (more on genre below). How long are they? If you’re wildly outside the averages you’re going to need to do some work. Length matters.
- You’ve defined the genre you’re working in. I realize a lot of us would rather not get pegged as a genre writer but these days there is a label for everything, usually more than one. Is it adult dystopian sci-fi or adult dystopian fantasy? Agents specialize, as do publishers. This genre stuff is going to help you find the right agent. It’s marketing.
Now, finding the right match
You can’t just grab a literary marketplace pub or web site and carpet bomb the agents in there with your book. You’re going to need to do your homework. Your first filter is money. If the ‘agent’ wants to charge you anything at all they are not legit. They make money by selling your book, not from charging writers reading fees, etc.Just don’t do it. Don’t be that pitiful desperate writer. It stinks and a legit agent will not do it. Be a pro.
Consider the location and background of the agents. If they’re in a small town, they may not have the connections to get you in front of bigger publishers. An exception might be if they have developed a specialized practice in a genre like romance novels, that has its own subculture where most of the players know each other. That subculture is their ‘location’, not the small town they may live in.
Finding agents’ names in your genre: a simple trick
Get the ten most recently published books in your genre that you like and that sell. If you don’t know what they are, you don’t know your market. You need to start reading and not stop until you’re an expert. One trick for finding them is to find one popular one and search it on Amazon. Then look at the ‘readers who bought this, bought these’ section. Take those ten books and turn to the Acknowledgements page (You can often find this in the Look Inside view on Amazon). Look for a reference to the writer’s agent and jot the name down. These agents are likely specialists in your genre, with good connections to publishers. Speaking of publishers, look at who published those ten books. Those are your target market. Go to their sites and study the entire site, including their entire catalog of titles.
Look up the agents you find on LinkedIn, then visit their websites, and look for their submission guidelines. If they accept submissions that is. If they don’t, the only way you get in the door is via a referral. Move on unless your uncle is a best selling writer and offers an intro. In that case why are you reading this article?
Once you’ve narrowed your list, read every page of their site, do searches on their name, and look for their specific instructions for submissions. Then follow them to a tee. They are likely to only want to see a small portion of your manuscript, enough to tell them whether you can write and whether you can tell a story (not necessarily the same thing!). If they, or the intern they assign your stuff to, sees something interesting and marketable, they will get back to you. But don’t cry if they don’t. Just move on to your next choice.
Should you do multiple submissions at the same time? This is debatable and most agents aren’t crazy about it. I recommend letting the agent know that if they don’t respond within a certain time-frame you are going to send your work to another agent, say four to six weeks. If you’re ever been in an agent’s office where they accept physical manuscripts (printed), you’ll likely see piles of things they need to get through, so don’t take it personally if they take their time or fail to acknowledge your submission. Just move on. And if they offer encouragement but no deal, be encouraged- most have no time to take this step unless they see something interesting.
What if you can’t get any traction? You may need to go back to the drawing board and try again with a new book project. Or do the small literary magazine route, building up a reputation over time. This usually involves going to book fairs and writer retreats where you may meet agents. This can be a rough road, especially if you are not an academic, who seem to make up most of the writers in that world.
There is another important piece to this puzzle. Can you show your ability to market yourself once you are published? Do you have a large list of followers, blog readers, or social media connections? These are tools that help agents sell manuscripts because publishers do not do much, if any, marketing these days. If you’re not building up a presence while you’re writing, you’re missing a big factor in getting attention. This does not, in my opinion, mean focusing on this instead of writing the book. Write the book first and worry about publishing later. But when you send out a query make sure you note any substantial marketing assets you may have. It can tip the scales.