I’ve been in a number of conversations recently where I explain to people what I do. I think a lot of people think I’m sitting around my house reading books and eating bonbons. (Maybe that’s just my family… ) Anyway, I’ve explained it a bunch of times now, and that’s forced me to go through the “how publishing works” spiel, to get to the part where I explain what a literary agent does. Then a friend of mine sent a friend of hers to me, because her friend was writing a book and she figured I’d be able to help her figure out the whole publishing thing. After writing the friend’s friend a big old e-mail, beginning to explain how the whole process works, I figured I’d put up a blog post for folks just getting started down this road. So this one’s for you, newbies!
#1. Write a kick-ass manuscript. If you’re writing for kids, you’d better have read a lot of kids’ books. You need to know what Middle Grade (or MG) means. You need to know what YA (Young Adult) means. If you’re writing for adults, you need to know what genre to call your writing. Is it a thriller, scifi, mystery, literary, upscale commercial women’s fiction, self-help, spiritual, romance, fantasy, western, Christian, erotica? You’ll need to know this for when you write a query letter. (see #4)
#2. When you’ve finished writing your kick-ass manuscript, go back and re-write it. That’s called revision. There are special groups called “critique groups” that you should seek out. Or sometimes people have what they call a “critique partner.” That’s someone who’s (usually) not related to you, who’s not afraid of hurting your feelings, who will give you the truth about your writing. Even if that makes you cry, these people are the key to improving your writing. Re-write your manuscript until it sings to you, until it’s shiny and beautiful, and there’s nothing to improve. You’ll probably still have to revise it after this, but you need to at least think you’re done (for a while).
#3. In order to have an editor at a publishing house want to buy your manuscript (which is how it gets published), you’ll need a literary agent. Some publishing houses accept “unsolicited manuscripts,” which means you can send it directly to them. But most don’t. A literary agent is someone who sells your manuscript for you. You don’t just hire a literary agent though, like a plumber or accountant or something. You see, the literary agent picks you. So in order for you to get picked, you do something called “querying.”
#4. With all your masterful writing skills, you will need to craft a letter (usually an e-mail) that performs a few functions. It’s called a query letter. It a. tells about who you are, as a writer; b. tells about your manuscript in such a way that the agent wants to read the manuscript, piques the interest of the agent, tells enough so the agent requests to read more; and c. conveys information about how to get in touch with you via e-mail and telephone. It does not explain how happy or honored or lucky or miserable you are to be a writer. It does not share that you’re recently off your meds. It does not blow smoke up the agent’s skirt with flattery. It does not tell the whole story (even in a synopsis) of your manuscript. It just does a. b. and c. There are books about query letters. Classes about query letters. Magazine articles about query letters. Places online with information about query letters. Make sure you write a kick-ass query letter. Otherwise nobody will want to look at your kick-ass manuscript.
#5. You will need to research literary agents to figure out which ones are the right ones for your work. There are many ways to do that. There’s Publisher’s Marketplace. There’s Query Tracker. There’s Agent Query. There’s Jeff Herman’s Guide. And there are forums like Verla Kay’s Blue Boards (for kid lit authors) or chats on Twitter (e.g. #MGLitChat, #SteamPunkChat, #AskAgent, etc…). And there are tons more places for figuring out which agents are appropriate for you. But Do. Your. Research. Most agents I know get pretty peeved when they receive query letters for genre they clearly don’t represent. You will increase your chances of getting a response from an agent when you do focused querying.
#6. When you have a nice long list of agents to whom you plan on querying, a beautiful query letter, and a totally complete manuscript, you are ready to begin! You’ll want to make some kind of system for keeping track of where you’re querying. And make sure to FOLLOW THE AGENT’S GUIDELINES FOR SUBMISSIONS. Different agents require different things. Some agents ask for the first 10 pages, the first 20 pages, the first 50 pages, no pages unless requested, the whole manuscript immediately, a detailed synopsis, a full non-fiction book proposal. Because you’ve done your research, you’ll know what the agents that you are querying require. And you’ll follow their guidelines. Because, guess what? You’re not special and the rules do apply to you. (I know. I’m harsh. But it’s true.)
#7. So after you’ve sent out your query letters, you wait. And wait. And wait. And you’ll get a lot of rejections. And a lot of no answers. And you might obsessively check your e-mail and go on all the forums and chats and Twitter to see what is usual and ordinary for those agents. And eventually, someone will ask to see more of your work. Because you queried the right agent. Because you wrote a truly kick-ass query letter and a fantastically kick-ass manuscript. Because you made sure to read so much in your chosen genre. And your writing was vetted by your peers. And you revised like crazy and even took a writing course when you couldn’t afford it. And maybe went to some writing conferences to learn stuff and to network and meet other writers and agents and editors.
#8. When an agent asks to see your full manuscript you’ll send it (making sure to follow their guidelines!) and wait some more. And after a while, maybe the first time an agent asks for your full manuscript or maybe the tenth, an agent will send you an e-mail asking if they can give you a call. The technical name for when this happens in the book world is getting “The Call.” They’re usually calling to offer representation. Sometimes they want to talk to you about a revise/resubmit though. That means they like your manuscript enough that they want to give you feedback (sometimes in an e-mail, sometimes in a phone call) and have you re-submit to them. That’s still a very good thing. But if they’re offering you representation, you’ll want to send an e-mail to the other agents to whom you’ve submitted and let them know you have an offer. Read my blog post about the feeding frenzy that ensues, and what you should/shouldn’t do (from an agent’s perspective, of course).
#9. I can write another blog post about “Once you’ve nabbed that perfect agent,” and what that journey looks like. Or maybe one of my clients will write it for me! (Any takers?!) Because getting an agent isn’t the end, but just the beginning of your journey!
Ok, newbies! Talk amongst yourselves. Or better yet, ask me some questions!
What else do you want to know?