I know you’re feeling really optimistic about your work and excited about the possibility of becoming a published author. I’m excited for you. The passion you bring to your work makes it a real pleasure to work with you and others like you.
I hate to sound a negative note, but I feel I must be realistic and warn you that the path to publication is, as they say, a bumpy ride. You are about to face a big challenge, and a lot of rejection. Is your skin toughened? Are you ready to persevere, and not to take rejection personally? OK, then, let’s begin.
I ran my own literary agency for eight years. Over that time, I received hundreds (maybe thousands) of queries from writers like you, people who want to get a book published, be it a first book or just a new book. You’ve been instructed that you need an agent to help you. And while once I would have told you that an enterprising author could go it alone, now I would say that obtaining the representation of an agent is the wisest course. A good agent will make the process easier, and most publishers prefer to work with agents.
Step 1: Educate Yourself
Before you even begin to contact agents, you should know something about the process of getting published. The more informed you are, the better you will be able to negotiate this course, and the better an impression you will make.
There’s nothing I appreciated more than an intelligent query letter and a knowledgeable potential client. There are many good books available about getting published. Familiarize yourself with some of these books and learn the steps a book takes from manuscript to publication. You’ll find some of my favorite books in the WriteDirections.com book store: http://www.WriteDirections.com/bookstore_wd.html.
Step 2: Prepare a Proposal
This step takes a lot of time and work. What you submit to an agent has to be good. Once I received a query letter that said: “I know my book needs more editing, but I wanted to show it to you and see what you thought.” Not! If you know your book needs more work, do the work before you take up an agent’s time. Send it out when you think it’s perfect. Which is not to say you won’t then receive editorial critiques, but at least the agent will be reading a polished work.
If you are submitting fiction, your proposal is your manuscript, or several sample chapters, along with a good cover letter and perhaps a synopsis. If you are submitting nonfiction, your proposal includes an overview; a section on marketing and competition; a section on you, the author; a brief chapter-by-chapter outline; and some sample chapters. Again, consult some of the many good books on proposal writing, as you’ll find in the WriteDirections.com bookstore (http://www.WriteDirections.com/bookstore_wd.html).
Step 3: Compile a List of Agents
How do you classify what you are writing? Is it genre fiction: romance, mystery, science fiction? Is it narrative journalism? Self-help? Try and fit your work into a general category for the purpose of identifying the appropriate agents to approach.
Start by taking a careful look through several of the books that list agents. In most of these books, the listings include a description of the type of book agents are seeking. Pay attention to this, and only send them what they say they want. I rejected 50 percent of the proposals I received because they were for types of books I didn’t represent. You could be the next Julia Child, but I’d probably have rejected you because I didn’t represent cookbooks.
Add to your list of possible agents by networking. Ask for referrals from other writers you know, or find names from other sources like writers’ conferences and Web sites. Another great technique—look at published books that are in your category and that you admire. Check the acknowledgments page and see who the agent is—they’re usually thanked! When you write to them, be sure to mention the book in which you found their name and why you admire it.
Step 4: Send out your submission
You’ve got your proposal ready, along with your list of agents. Time to get it in the mail!
Most agents prefer mail queries. Most also strongly dislike telephone queries. (My least favorite were authors who deliberately called after hours, so that I would have to call them back on my dime. I didn’t!) I liked to sit down on my own schedule with a pile of queries, and a letter gave me an immediate sense of how a potential client wrote.
There’s some question about whether a query letter should go alone or with a proposal/writing sample. A letter alone is quicker and saves postage. That way, if the agent isn’t interested, he or she can tell you immediately not to bother shipping a whole lot of paper. But if I liked an idea, I wanted to see the proposal immediately. If I had to wait for it in return mail, I sometimes lost my enthusiasm. Therefore, I always preferred getting a proposal and samples as part of the initial query.
In any case, always write an intelligent, realistic cover letter. Tell concisely what you are writing and what your qualifications are in relation to your topic. Don’t tell an agent you’re sending me “a guaranteed bestseller” (spare them!), or tell me that all your family and friends think you’re a great writer (of course they do!). Just be straightforward, and tell the agent what you think is distinct about the book.
And always, always, include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). If agents are giving you their time and trained editorial judgment for free, the least you can do is pay the postage!
Of course you don’t have to be concerned about postage and SASEs if you are planning an electronic submission. I think e-mail query letters are a good thing—faster and more efficient. No paper and less time wasted. And an agent can write you back quickly with an informal note, making it a friendlier exchange.
However, I know many people who are unwilling to download anything from strangers because of fears of viruses. Because of this, I’d still recommend, when it comes to submitting your lengthy proposal or manuscript, going the old-fashioned snail mail route.
A note on simultaneous submissions: I didn’t object to this—I think it’s more realistic. Just be sure to tell the agents that you are doing this. Say something in your query letter like: “Several other agents are also considering this proposal.”
Step 5: Follow Up
After a period of time has passed after submission (1 month to 6 weeks), I think a follow-up phone call is appropriate. Keep it brief and polite. Call to say you’re following up to find out the status of your submission. A polite call from an author often caused me to elevate a proposal to the top of the stack (and do keep in mind how tall this stack was!).
Step 6: Persevere
Unless you’re very lucky, it’s going to take a while. You’ll get a bunch of rejections and maybe some agents won’t respond at all. Many who are considering your submission may take longer to do so than you would like. But if you believe in yourself and your work, and persevere, you will ultimately prevail.
Once you’ve succeeded in finding an agent, the process will begin all over again when your agent makes submissions to publishers. However, you’ll then have your agent as your advocate, to guide you successfully through to publication.
(c) 2001 Lynn Rosen
Lynn Rosen is a book producer with The Stonesong Press in New York. A former agent, she has also worked as an editor and creative director for several Big Apple publishing houses. She can be contacted via admin@WriteDirections.com.