Getting an Agent

By Kathy Hurley

For any aspiring author, perhaps one of the more mysterious parts of the writing experience is that of getting an agent. When are you ready for an agent? Once you are ready, how do you go about getting one? Is there a secret club? A password? A handshake? It begins to sound almost as daunting as the prospect of entering the dating pool, and in a sense, you are. You're looking for a person who is enthusiastic about your manuscript—a person who will have the knowledge and the power to get your foot in the door at a publishing house. You're looking for someone understanding and supportive, but also someone smart, professional and charismatic enough to get the job done. It's a tall order.

When are you ready?

In general, a new author should finish the book before seeking an agent. I've had a few friends who accompanied me to writers' conferences, pitched their novels-in-progress to agents, and then were asked to submit the complete manuscripts, which, of course, weren't complete at all! That makes for quite a bit of stress and pressure, especially when it's your first manuscript. Most agents advise that the writer * pitch or * query (we'll define these shortly) complete works of fiction. After you're already represented by an agent or under contract to a publisher, that “rule” changes. But when you're just starting out, the agent needs to know that you can actually finish the story you started, and whether your completed manuscript will deliver what the first few chapters promised.

So you finish your first novel, making sure to polish it so it makes as smooth and exciting a read as possible. (It usually takes more than one draft to get it all spruced up and into its final form, even for published authors.) It's like dressing for the job you want—you'll want that manuscript to be as professional as you can make it, so it...ah...interviews well. Now you're ready to find an agent, which you can do in a couple of different ways.

How do you go about it?

One way is to go to writers' conferences and pitch to agents in person. The process is a lot like speed dating. It gives you both a chance to meet, talk for fifteen minutes or less, and see whether you'll likely get along, and it saves a lot of time by bypassing the standard query process. Before you sign up for an agent or editor appointment, read the agent's bio to see whether he represents what you write, and request the appointment with the person(s) you think would be the best fit for your work. If an agent likes your pitch—which is a very brief description of what your book is about—then he or she will ask you to send in a *partial submission. Occasionally, he will ask for the whole manuscript, as mentioned above. Unless the agent indicates otherwise, always expect to send your work in by postal mail, include a cover letter referencing the conference, so the agent will know your submission is requested material.

Another way to find an agent is to look in books like the “2008 Guide to Literary Agents” or the “Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents”. These can sometimes be found in libraries, but they're also at Barnes and Noble or most of the large bookstores, and they update their information and publish a new volume every year. They will give you the names, agency names and addresses, and lists of things the agents are looking for. Pay special attention to these lists; you don't want to submit fantasy to an agent who states that she only does non-fiction, for example. When people submit queries or pitch to agents who don't represent what they write, the agent immediately knows the writer hasn't done her homework.

Hooking up with the wrong agent can be a disaster for an author's career, so it's important to choose wisely when figuring out which agent you want to query. Ideally, your relationship with your agent should be long term and mutually beneficial. Look at the Predators and Editors web site to make sure your potential agent is reputable. Another good resource is Don't even think of submitting to fee-charging agents; there are plenty of great agents who are willing to wait for their money until they actually sell your work. Look at the dedication and acknowledgements sections of novels in your genre—often the author will credit his agent. The e-newsletter Publisher's Lunch and online Publisher's Marketplace cites recent deals made in the industry, including the publishers, authors and agents involved. Be willing to pay attention, look things up, and take your time; a little homework now will pay off later.

What's in a submission, anyway?

Query: A query letter is a professional letter that states briefly (in one page, no more) who you are and what your book is about. It's kind of like a one-page job application, so it needs to hook the agent's interest and make him want to read a sample of your book. Be polite and professional. Don't tell the agent you're the best thing since sliced bread and she hasn't lived until she's read your manuscript. In's a link to a wonderful archived blog written by an agent who calls herself Miss Snark. She has pages of manuscript samples and query samples that you can read, so you can see what kinds of things work in hooking an agent and what kinds of things fall flat. Anyway, you are welcome to query several agents at one time; it's possible to wait months for a response to a query, so sending them out one at a time might take years and years. Most agents make an effort to respond in less than three months, but some are just so frantically busy that it could take longer. When an agent sends you a rejection, don't take it personally; it's just business. They have to pick projects they're passionate about and really believe in, and one agent's reasons for rejecting your stuff might be totally different from another's reasons. If your query is interesting enough, eventually someone will request a partial submission.

Partial: The partial submission is a synopsis of the novel and usually either the first chapter or the first three. Check individual agents' guidelines to be sure what they want. Some have websites; most will mention what they want in their reply to your query. “Please send your synopsis and first three chapters with SASE,” for example. (A SASE is a self-addressed, stamped envelope.) Others may want the complete manuscript right away. Some will request and read the partial, and then based on their impressions of those first three chapters will either ask for the complete manuscript or send a rejection at that point.

A point of etiquette

When someone requests the partial or complete manuscript, it's polite and professional to tell them if someone else has also requested it or if someone's currently reading it. Some agents want to have time to consider the manuscript on an exclusive basis, meaning that they don't want anyone else reading it at the same time. If that's the case, simply tell the second agent that another agent is already considering the manuscript, so Agent 2 will know whether he'll have to wait while Agent 1 finishes reading it, or whether he'll be reading it at the same time as Agent 1.

If an agent who has read the complete manuscript then wishes to represent you, he will either call or write to tell you so. Some agents are fine with email, some prefer the phone...but anyone who is interested in representing you will be happy to work with you to determine the best means of contact. Above all, act like a professional and you'll be treated like one.

Choices, choices

Many authors aren't sure whether to go for the agent first, or try for an editor at a publishing house, which can be an interesting conundrum. Most publishers don't accept unagented, unrequested submissions, but there are exceptions to this rule. If you speak to an editor at a conference, that editor may choose to invite you to submit your work to her directly. If this is the case, get the editor's business card and send that in with your partial or manuscript, or reference your meeting at the conference in your cover letter. You may also be able to gain a publisher's interest by going through the same query process described above...and the writers' guides usually list publishers as well as agents.

That brings us to a tricky question: if you get an offer from a publisher on your own, do you really need an agent? At the outset, technically, no. You can go through the process alone, with the right contacts and no small amount of luck and good planning. But somewhere along the line, you'll probably discover that you want or need an agent. There's a lot to be said for avoiding contract pitfalls, not to mention having a strong advocate for your book other than yourself--someone with a vested interest in getting you the best contract possible and seeing that you don't sell yourself short. In fact, when unpublished authors do manage to make it to the offer stage, publishers will often ask them to go and find an agent to negotiate the contract. It's just easier for all concerned. The agent will also handle royalty issues and send out 1099 forms.

So, which do you go for first—agent or editor? On the one hand, agents can function like a first screening for the editor. Chances are, if the manuscript was good enough to hook an agent, it's a cut above your average slush, and the publisher will be much more likely to take a serious look. On the other hand, an offer from a publisher can help to net you a higher-caliber agent who otherwise might not be interested in looking at work from an unpublished author. There's no “right” way to go about this. Figure out which method sounds most feasible for you, and take your chances. The surest way to fail is not to try at all, and ultimately, the writers who make it are the ones who don't give up.

One last word of caution: please understand that not every writer gets representation or a publisher's contract right away, no matter how you choose to go about it. Some (if not most) writers rack up quite a pile of rejections before they get an offer. (Took me...hmm...five years to get an agent from the time I really got serious about polishing and honing my craft enough to put out marketable work. But I wrote for years and racked up more rejections even before that. It takes more time for some and less for others. I sometimes joke that it's taking me a really long time to become an overnight success! But if you keep at it and stay professional, you will get that offer at some point. Ultimately, we write because we love it, and no matter how long or short the journey, it's surprising and amazing and well worth the effort.