And now for the post I wish I could have stumbled across on someone else’s blog some time early last fall:
Here, for your convenience, in one single, centralized location, I have gathered everything I learned over the three months (two in preparation, one in actual outreach) that I invested in seeking representation. As I mentioned in my previous post, I can now happily say that I am one of the fortunate ones, having recently signed with a literary agent, and while luck no doubt played its role – so, I sincerely hope, did the quality of my work – none of it would have mattered if I hadn’t figured out whom to contact, and how to go about it. That is what this entry is about. For those of you who are not writers yourselves, this may seem like something of a boring topic (unless of course you are the tinkering type who likes to understand how things work, in which case it may be of interest, and may even provide useful analogs to your own vocation/avocation), but for any aspiring authors in the audience… trust me, this piece may be a bit long, but it’s one you definitely want to read.
Before I discuss the hows of the process, however, let’s take a brief moment to talk about the whens. At what point is it time to start looking for a literary agent? The harsh truth of the matter is that if you’re a first-time novelist like myself, you shouldn’t even think about contacting agents until you have produced a finished manuscript. And when I say that,
I mean a polished, beta-read, proofread, good-as-you-can-make-it, final draft of a book – no ifs, ands or buts. To any of you who may be just starting out, this may sound like a bit of an undertaking. And I hate to break it to you, but… it is. If you don’t feel a true pull to begin working on a manuscript simply for its own sake, you should probably reconsider the idea. Writing a novel is a long and arduous exercise even when you love the craft, and there is absolutely no guarantee you’ll receive any kind of reward at the end; as a consequence, if you don’t have a story inside bursting to come out, my advice is that you hold off on sitting down at the keyboard until you do.
Ah, but you are a fellow soul afflicted with that irresistible need, you say!
Well then, here is why you need a completed draft before you can begin your outreach: even though literary agencies typically request that you submit no more than the first three chapters of your work (note that most actually ask for far less), if you are lucky enough to grab an agent’s attention with your query, the next step will be to provide the finished product. And if you don’t have it ready to produce upon request, you will lose both that individual’s interest and goodwill. At which point you will be done with that particular agent for the foreseeable future. Obviously, not a result you want.
Regarding non-fiction, while it’s not my field, I have spoken to enough people in the industry and perused enough agency websites to know that here the rules are a bit different: if you have some kind of verifiable, established credibility as an expert on a given subject, you can solicit agents with just the first few chapters (to prove you have the wordsmithing chops) and a treatment describing where you intend to take the project. Of course, I should mention that this only applies to your particular area of expertise; if you are a long-standing professor of 19th century German literature at a prestigious university, four chapters plus a treatment are not going to convince an agent to take on your proposal for a book describing the best practices of startup finance, no matter how good your writing.
(Short stories? Poetry? These I know even less about, but I can only imagine it would be a good idea to have a backlog of completed works – likely significantly more than will make it into your first volume – before you begin your outreach.)
So, now that we have that out of the way, on to the tools and techniques I recommend. From my perspective, they are best grouped into four general categories, summarized by the easy-to-remember acronym, ORCS. (Fitting for a fantasy author, right?) They are:
- Organize & optimize
- Research & review
- Craft & contact
- Socialize & social-ize.
Organize & Optimize
Once you have a completed manuscript, you still have a fair bit of preparatory work you should do before you can start querying. To begin with, I highly recommend that you sign up for an account at QueryTracker to coordinate your campaign. The site provides an extremely comprehensive database of nearly every active literary agent in the U.S., U.K., and Canada (I believe it is the best out there, but you should be aware that, due to the fragmentation in the industry and the fact that agents are constantly entering and leaving the field, no list is 100% complete), as well as wonderfully intuitive tools for organizing,
researching, tracking, and analyzing your querying efforts. Also, the other members are very good about sharing their experiences, thus providing you with anecdotal data to go along with the statistical (while at the same time reminding you that you’re not alone out there). Best of all, the service even offers a free account to get started!
NOTE: Though the majority of the services I mention in this post are free to use, I strongly suggest you sign up for some version of premium account (most of which are not very expensive) for those you do decide to employ. These people work very hard to provide you with tools that make the incredibly painful process of querying that much easier; the least you can do is give them a few dollars to reward them for their efforts (and allow them to keep fighting the good fight on your behalf).
Unfortunately, setting up an account to organize your search is by far the easiest aspect of preparing to query; next, you’ll need to draft the two additional documents necessary for your outreach (you didn’t think you could simply send in your manuscript with a “hey, how are you?” and a return email address, did you?) – to wit, the synopsis and the query letter.
If querying is ever writer’s least favorite subject, composing the synopsis and query letter are, in turn, every writer’s least favorite elements of said subject. The idea of boiling your masterpiece of five years’ work into a pithy little summary is understandably stomach-turning, and if you wanted to write product pitches, you would’ve become a copywriter, not a fiction writer. But remember what I’ve posted several times elsewhere: literary agents receive scores, if not hundreds, of submissions each day; much as they might like to read every manuscript in its entirety, they simply do not have the time. Consequently, they need tools to help them triage which books they should read through to completion, and which they should reject up front. That’s where these two documents come into play.
The synopsis is exactly what it sounds like: a high-level overview that describes your novel from start to finish. In years past, it appears that agents and editors (up until a decade or so ago you could still solicit publishers directly)* would accept synopses as long as 10-12 pages, and as a result they were no doubt easier (though still extremely tedious) to draft: you simply condensed each chapter into a paragraph, thus producing a complete, highly detailed summary of the entire plot. Now, however, agents invariably request 1-2 pages, and no more. This can be incredibly difficult to do, especially in a genre like fantasy, which tends to be plot-heavy and feature a plethora of characters. So, how do you go about it? Iteration, my friends, iteration. You run through multiple drafts, trimming a little more each time, until you have finally brought the document down to the proper length. Yes, you’ll wind up excising all but the most central characters, and yes, many of your most delicious scenes will not receive mention, but if you go through the process diligently – and with much wincing – it can be done. In my case, I started with a traditional nine-page synopsis and went through multiple revisions until I got it down to two pages exactly. (You can find the initial draft here, and the final product here. By the way, I should mention that, as much as I despised the bloody thing while I was writing it, in the end my synopsis actually served as a fairly useful editing tool, as it helped me identify several overly-long chapters that needed to be chopped into two, or even three, smaller sections in order to improve the novel’s pacing.)
NOTE: Do not get cute and hold back the ending out of some misplaced desire to generate a feeling of suspense in the literary agents you’re querying in the hopes that this will prompt them to want to read your full manuscript. Once again, remember they see hundreds of synopses each week, and once again, remember that their primary goal in reviewing a submission is to make a determination as to whether or not they think they can sell the book. You will only anger them by holding back the denouement.
The query letter, on the other hand, is a tool specific to the publishing industry: a cover letter similar to what you might include with a resume when seeking a job, except instead of selling yourself, you’re selling your book. There are many specific dos and don’ts in writing query letters, and as I did my own prep work I discovered quite a few sites that offered good examples/instruction (here is one, here is another, and there are many, many more out there if you search “successful query letter” or the like), so I won’t repeat the excellent words of wisdom others have already provided. Read those sites, do a bit of sleuthing yourself – and then base your own query letter on what worked best for you. The only kernel of advice I’ll add is as follows: don’t get so caught up in sounding like someone else’s letter, or following the prescribed form, that you lose your own voice. Sure, there are key components that you need to include, but there’s no magic formula; the most important aspect of any query letter is that it conveys your passion for, and paints a compelling picture of, your book. (If you’re curious, here is what worked for me. And also what didn’t.)
Got a synopsis and a query letter? Good! Once again, I’m afraid I must be the bearer of bad news: unfortunately you’re still not done with this phase. These two documents are the first impressions that you’ll make on the vast majority of literary agents you query, and as such they require as much review and editing as any chapter in your manuscript. Write them, set them aside, and then look at them again; get someone else to review them and offer comments; edit each one multiple times until they both sparkle (and are error-free). You don’t necessarily need to take a week preparing each one, but if you’ve written both your synopsis and your query letter in the space of a single morning, and then fired them off to a dozen agents that same afternoon, I’m telling you now: they weren’t as good as they could – or should – have been.
Research & Review
So, you’ve now got your manuscript, a tool for managing your campaign, and the two marketing documents you’ll need. But how do you go about finding these literary agents? Well, if you’ve already looked at QueryTracker, then you know it is a highly valuable tool for research as well as organization – not only does it provide a database of the names, agencies, preferred genres, client lists, response rates, response times, and tons of other important information about each agent, it also contains links to many of the various other places you can read more detailed information on them all. BUT, even if you use the site’s various filters to narrow your search, that would still leave you with hundreds of agents to research (in my case, filtering for only those interested in fantasy took the potential pool from 1,407 potential leads down to 205). As a result, I don’t recommend that you start your research on QueryTracker – you are going to want to use it, no doubt, but better to cull your list a bit before you dig in to the meaty trove of data that the site offers.
If you research the subject of researching (how meta!), you’ll read varying advice on how to choose the right literary agent: in any given genre, you should 1) check who reps the authors you like, or 2) check who reps the authors who write most like you do, or 3) check who reps the bestselling authors, or 4) check for new agents hungry to make their mark. In my opinion, following any one of these approaches exclusively is a mistake; rather, I think the best solution is to mix and match. After all, you don’t really want the list of agents who rep the authors you like/bestsellers/whatever – you want the list that best fits you and your book.
In my case, I knew I was taking on a bit of a challenge with my return to the traditional fantasy epic, and – rightly or wrongly – I was confident in the quality of my prose, so I decided to proceed as follows:
- start with the list of the most successful authors in my genre;
- determine which agents represented them;
- eliminate those agents whose clients’ work was obviously very different from mine (i.e. those that were more Twilight than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn);
- expand the list to include the agents who repped some of the long-time, well-respected fantasy authors who may not have had a recent bestseller.
My thought process in pursuing this approach was that if I could attract a leading agent with the quality of my manuscript, then his/her advocacy would be helpful (instrumental?) in bucking the prevailing trend (bias?) against the traditional fantasy epic when it came time to approach prospective publishers. (Failing that, Plan B would have been do an about-face and focus on the younger agents hoping that hunger, hard work, and enthusiasm might serve in place of connections, standing, and experience.) Of course, this was my particular thinking for my particular novel; the same may not apply to you/yours. I share it, because hopefully it is at least representative of how to go about developing a strategy of your own.
So, now that I had a plan of attack, next came the hard part: putting it into practice. Compiling my list of prospects was a LOT harder than you might imagine. I couldn’t just google “who are the best agents for my fantasy novel” and get the results I needed; each step required significant work.
Step 1: who are the bestsellers? Contrary to what you might think, this is not as simple as clicking over to the nytimes.com to review the weekly charts. The Times data is extremely broad-based, with very little differentiation between genres – and I’m sure you can understand why a survey that groups Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and George R. R. Martin together on one list is of very little use for this purpose. Amazon, on the other hand, is a bit better at separating genres, but its categories still aren’t wonderfully defined, and there’s not much in the way of a historical database, or tools for filtering (also, importantly, Amazon only reports on books sold through Amazon itself). As a consequence, I finally wound up ponying up for Publisher’s Weekly membership in order to gain access to the publication’s genre-specific bestseller lists. This finally provided what I had needed: a complete database of all the monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) top-10 (sometimes top-20) fantasy bestsellers for 2012, 2014, and 2015. (Apparently PW either didn’t compile lists for the fantasy genre in 2013, or they never made into the site’s archive).
NOTE: If any of you stumble upon other reliable resources for genre-specific bestseller lists, don’t keep them to yourself! Be a mensch and share them in the comments section below so that others may also reference them. Like most other sites mentioned in this post, Publisher’s Weekly does offer a free option, but unfortunately it does not include the ability to review the bestseller list archives. And while I by no means begrudge PW its membership fee, $225 per year is more appropriate for the industry professionals who are the publication’s primary audience; such an amount can represent a significant expenditure for many aspiring authors.
Step 2: when I was done compiling the three (out of four) years’ worth of bestseller charts, I had before me a spreadsheet with several hundred novels, written by somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred novelists (as you might imagine, folks like Martin and Patrick Rothfuss had multiple titles appear over the years, often within a few rankings of each other on a given month’s list). Now, to take those 100+ names and find their agents. *rubs hands together vigorously* THIS, my friends, is where the real legwork begins…
First I went back to QueryTracker. The site’s “who reps whom” function is a good place to start, and using it I was able to find about 80% of the agent names I sought. From there, it became something of an online safari to hunt down those that were missing; I consulted a host of sources including AgentQuery.com, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, and Publishers Marketplace, and eventually, pulling one name here and another name there, I upped that figure to about 90-95%. But there were still several names I could not locate. Time to go old school! As a last step, I checked the Acknowledgments pages for the most recent books of the missing authors. And when all was said and done, by combining these methodologies as described, I was able to obtain the names of the literary agents for all the authors on the list, but for one single, solitary holdout (who apparently had once employed an agent, but was currently without representation or was repping himself).
NOTE: If your strategy happens to be more focused on finding the agents who represent the authors you like, or the authors who write most like you do, you can obviously skip researching the bestsellers in your genre – you already have your starting point. (Congratulations!) From there, the same resources mentioned above should allow you to identify which agents represent the writers on your list. As to the fourth category, hungry young agents eager to make their mark, I never went down that route, but I can say that Writer’s Digest is another good resource for agent research, and the site’s twitter handle, @WritersDigest, regularly tweets announcements of new agents looking for clients (including which genres they’re seeking) – were I to pursue this strategy, that’s where I would start.
Step 3: time for more elbow grease. I went through the list and investigated the novels that appeared (many of which I did not know), title by title. Obviously, I did not expect any of them to be exact comparables for my novel (that is, after all, why I wrote it), but I did want to be certain that I wasn’t querying agents who were blatantly inappropriate for my manuscript. As literary agents tend to represent a fairly wide range of clients and material (frequently spanning across genres), I was careful to keep an open mind, but even so, I did find a handful of romance-crossover and YA (young adult) novels that seemed suspiciously far afield – and sure enough, upon further research I discovered that their agents repped primarily romance and YA, respectively, not fantasy. Out they went, and my list shrank by another five or so names.
Step 4: the last step was the easiest of them all. I compared the data I had compiled to my bookshelves, just to be sure I hadn’t missed anyone, and… Wait just one second! Where was Ursula K. Le Guin? Neil Gaiman? Tad Williams? How was it possible that these great, long-time, multi-bestselling fantasy authors had not made my list? The answer was, of course, that none of their books had charted as a bestseller recently. And so, a few more minutes spent on QueryTracker and Publishers Marketplace later, I had my last few names.
When I was done, I had a roster of 40-odd prospects (why only 40-odd? well, remember how there were novelists who had accounted for more than one bestseller? needless to say, there were likewise agents who had accounted for more than one bestselling author). All I had left to do was to determine which of them to contact first…
My goal was to separate the 40-odd into three or four tiers, based on priority. Therefore, for each candidate, I consulted:
- QueryTracker – to check the agent’s querying statistics, and the comments other authors had shared regarding their experiences soliciting him/her;
- Publishers Marketplace – to review the agent’s overall dealmaker ranking, as well as recent deals closed;
- Twitter – to read the agent’s most recent updates, in case he/she had included any advice on querying; and last but certainly not least,
- The agent’s profile on his/her agency website – to discover what other authors the candidate represented, what subgenres he/she might prefer, and of course, what the agency’s guidelines were for querying.
If any of those was missing/lacking, I would then supplement what I had with whatever additional information I could find on AgentQuery.com, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or LiteraryAgentUndercover.
As I conducted this review, several interesting trends began to emerge:
- Right off the bat, I saw that QueryTracker had somewhere between one quarter and one third of the agents on my list marked as “not currently open to queries”. Well, there ya go, that was easy: the bottom tier already had their hands in the air, asking to be excused.
- In digging through Publishers Marketplace’s SciFi/Fantasy (by the way, why are these two still grouped in one category when Mystery, Thriller, and Horror all stand alone?) Dealmaker Rankings, I discovered that there were a good many agents (perhaps 10 out of the top 50) who had not made my roster – folks who had closed meaningful deals over the last twelve months for books that were mostly not yet out in the market. Apparently I had a few more names to add to that original group of 40-odd.
- Perusing agency websites revealed that in some cases, a colleague of the prospect I had originally identified was actually (based on stated preferences) the better candidate for my manuscript. As such, agent #1 dropped to the middle tier while agent #2 moved to the top (in case it’s not obvious, it’s generally not a good idea to query multiple agents from the same firm simultaneously).
Taking this information, and combining it with a few other factors such as geography (as I live in the publishing/literary agency capital of the world, I dropped all but a few non-NYC-based agents into my second tier), I was done with this portion of the process. I had a final list (well, almost final – as you will see, I added a few more during the last stage), divided into a top tier, a bottom tier, and a middle spectrum that I left undifferentiated pending the results of my first wave of queries. It was time to start my outreach.
Craft & Contact
I’ve read articles on querying that suggest you should actually begin by contacting your second or even third tier choices first. The idea behind this strategy is that if your letter isn’t yet right, you will a) have an opportunity to adjust it before sharing with those in the tiers above and b) if you’re lucky, you’ll get feedback as to what about it was lacking that you can use to improve it before you embark on your second round. (Note that these articles seem to take it for granted that your letter will be bad – I mean, what happens if the offers come rolling in? Do you try to get second/third tier agents to wait a month while you go back to tier one?) In my case, however, I was confident in the quality of my work, and already knew that no amount of tweaking my query letter would mitigate the biggest hurdle my manuscript was likely to face, so I decided to forgo this approach, and started with those in the top rank.
There are only two things you really need to know about this aspect of the process (I mean, unless you want me to devote a paragraph or two to the finer points of sending emails and filling out web forms…?):
First, make certain that you personalize each note you send. I know you’ve already done a ton of work at this point, and perhaps it feels like you shouldn’t need to do this as well, because of course you’ve researched these prospects inside-out and are only querying those who you believe are genuinely a good fit. Do it anyway. Apparently, there are a fair number of people who spam literary agents – and you need to prove that you’re not one of them. Besides, no one likes form letters! So, take a moment and compose an introduction for each agent that explains why you think he/she might like your work; it’s not that difficult (you’ve already done the research), and it can make the difference between your submission receiving serious consideration and receiving a swift kick to the trash can.
Second, and I can’t emphasize this enough, FOLLOW SUBMISSION GUIDELINES! Every single agency I’ve ever researched states very clearly, and very specifically how they prefer to receive unsolicited queries – and they’re all different. Some want the first three chapters of your manuscript, and some no more than the first ten pages; some want your writing sample, synopsis, etc. in the body of your submission, and some want them as attachments; some want you to email each agent directly, and some want you to send to a general submission address (and some want you to use a form on their website). Pay attention, and give them what they want. They’ve laid out guidelines for a reason; ignoring what they’ve requested is only going to irk them – and why on earth would you provide them with the ammunition to shoot your query down?
I know, I know – that second point is particularly frustrating. After all, your manuscript is good! Not like that other crap they receive. But the really awesome scene that you just know will convince Anna Advocate to offer you representation begins two pages after the selection she’s requested. Surely given the quality of your work, it’s okay if you send just a few extra pages… WRONG. Whatever you do, you need to resist that temptation. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the following:
Like I said – give ’em what they want.
Socialize & Social-ize
Now that you’ve sent out your first batch of submissions, it’s time to sit back and wait – in some cases for as long as two whole months – and then, if necessary, try again. There’s not much else you can do at this point, right? Well, no; actually that’s not right. There are several things you can, and should be actively doing while you are awaiting responses.
Most important is to network. In fact, you should probably have begun networking right after you finished your synopsis and query letter, just around the time you were embarking on your research. (I’ve organized the process into four distinct phases to make it easy to follow, but obviously there will be overlap, especially between the latter three stages.) Reach out to everyone you know who might have even a remote association with the publishing industry to let them know you’ve finished your book, and are about to begin seeking representation. Ask for any connections they can make – and follow up on all of them, even if they’re tenuous, or one to two degrees of separation from your eventual target. Everything I’ve laid out up until this point assumes that you’re cold querying, because that is likely how you will submit to most agents, but like everything else in life, obtaining representation is that much easier if you can approach the task with qualified introductions. A warm (or even lukewarm) intro ensures that your manuscript will be given a serious look, and that even if you are turned down, you’ll get some kind of feedback beyond the not-very-helpful form rejection. It is in your best interest to obtain as many of them as you can.
And don’t just limit yourself to your immediate social circle; get creative. If, like me, you’ve spent the last ten years half-heartedly amassing connections on LinkedIn on the off chance that you might someday need them to find a new job/client/vendor, that collection now has another, infinitely more meaningful use! Find out if you have any links to the publishing industry that you don’t know about – even if none of them are direct, you’ll probably be able to run down anything one or two connections off (the vast majority of folks will be willing to help, as they themselves may need a similar favor someday). What about everywhere you’ve ever gone to school? Have fellow alums gone into publishing, become agents, or written books themselves? Contact them! I continued to network like this throughout the process (which is why my list continued to grow even after I was “done” with my researching & reviewing), and when all was said and done, it was a connection through a former publisher I met through my parents who had once, years ago, worked on a book with my agent that finally led to my offer. Had my query come in to his agency via “normal” channels, his assistant would have read my manuscript first – and who’s to say whether she would have been sufficiently intrigued to pass it along for him to review?
Meanwhile, you should also get more active on social media. Unless you’re the one-in-a-million author whose career will take off to superstardom from day one, you’re going to need to build your online brand anyway (if you go the traditional route, a strong social presence will help you grow your fanbase, and if you wind up self-publishing, it will be absolutely vital for marketing), and of more immediate importance, following the blogs/Twitter accounts of the agents you’ve targeted will provide you with invaluable information: you will learn what projects they’re currently working on, what they’re looking for in submissions, what good and bad moves other queriers have made… you get the idea. Social media is an investment that can take some time to pay off, but in the end it’s worth it: if you can successfully grow your own followers you’ll be building a distribution base; and if you are diligent in following literary agents (and other industry professionals), you’ll be improving your chances of obtaining representation.
That’s it! What you see above is everything I learned while querying. In the end, I may never find a publisher, and for all I know, Matt could email me with his 30-day notice tomorrow, but I’ve made it this far – I’m through the gauntlet and have signed with the agent who was my absolute top choice. In that regard, at least, I have been successful. And so, with ORCS (I am fond of that name), I’ve laid out everything I could think of that might help others do the same. If you know a would-be writer, please be sure to share – goodness knows I wish someone had sent something similar to me a few months back…
NOTE: One other thing before I end this entry – once you’ve sent out your first batch of queries, you’re going to want to unsubscribe from a lot of email lists. There’s nothing worse than continually receiving emails from a hotel chain you visited three years ago, or an appliance website where you bought a microwave two apartments back, or an overly aggressive political campaign where you once signed an online petition, when all you really want is a reply from the agents you’ve contacted…
*I should point out that this is the general rule with established publishers. You will find some smaller presses that continue to accept direct submissions, and (very) occasionally imprints at the larger houses will hold brief promotional windows wherein they will take them as well. Even so, I still HIGHLY recommend you seek out the services of an agent. Agents have unique industry knowledge, developed over decades of work on behalf of dozens of clients, that is invaluable for purposes of finding the right fits and negotiating the best deals (and besides, you want to spend your time writing your next book, not notes on a contract).