When should you start looking for an agent? That answer is simple:
As soon as your novel is ready for the world to see; at least, the world of agents and editors.
Fair warning: the process won’t be easy. If you’re lucky, it will take weeks. But it also may take many long months.
Don't get discouraged! Here’s what you can do to speed this process along:
Research agents who buy what you sell.
Your agent will be your manuscript's biggest cheerleader. But remember this: agents work on commission. That said, they don’t just want to feel comfortable talking up your novel; they want to feel a true sense of excitement about it.
Finding agents who sell what you write (say, mystery; or up-market contemporary female literature; or commercial lit; or romance; or thrillers, or cozies or whatever) will bring you both closer to the essential goal: a successful client/agent relationship.
And yes, you should start researching agents even prior to when your manuscript is ready to go.
Two wonderful online entities to do so are www.AgentQuery.com and www.PublishersMarketplace.com. Although the latter charges a monthly fee, it’s worth the subscription because the site is enhanced with listings of manuscript sales that are made, listing the authors, agents and acquiring editors.
Your final hit list should have at least fifteen – if not twenty – agents on it, all from different literary agencies. More on this later…
Send out a kick-butt query letter.
The query letter is the publishing industry's version of online dating: putting you in front of those agents you believe match up with you. As in dating, there are certain factors that make you desirable. For example:
As previously discussed, you're a good fit with a particular agent because you write what they sell.
(a) Sell them on your story with a quick “hook.” You should be able to do this in one line, or at the most two, that sums up the story’s key premise.
For example: “In my international thriller entitled The Sleeper, the wife of a professor learns that her husband is in fact a terrorist whose mission is to kill the president of the United States while he visits the campus, and has planted evidence against a campus activist who is her former lover.”
(b) Include any pertinent information which demonstrates that you know your subject matter. In regard to the sample hook above, I might say: “As a journalist who has covered international stories, my national security sources have lent my novel the sort of true-to-life details that make it stranger than fiction…”
(c) Follow the directions of the agent as to what s/he wants included with the query letter, be that the first three chapters, or 50 – 100 pages, or the whole manuscript, or to wait to hear back from them as to whether they want to see anything at all.
The query letter itself should be no more than one page.
Make sure that query letter goes to your first five must-have agents.
Most agents know that you’ve submitted to other agents as well.
Yes, there are a few who require that they are the only ones who see your work at any given time. That is for their convenience, not yours. Remember: you are a brand with a product in hand (and, hopefully, more to come). You should not have to sit on the shelf while this one agent takes a month (or two, or three) to decide s/he wants to work with you.
You’ve done your homework as to the quality of agents you’d be willing to work with. At this point focus on quantity: making sure you put your work in as many hands as possible, so that you get more than one agent interested in representing you.
Four weeks later, make sure it goes out to your next five must-have agents.
At the same time your query letter hit the agent’s desk, so did several manuscripts from his/her clients. Guess which ones takes precedent?
You got it: their current clients—because these clients are proven commodities to that agent. Either s/he has sold their previous novels, or they already have an editor waiting to see their latest manuscript. And since the agent’s job is to read it, too, time is of the essence.
Sorry, that’s just the way it is. And if that agent becomes yours as well, you’ll want that same priority.
In the meantime, start filling your dance card. Better to have two – or three, or more – agents to choose from than just one.
Eight weeks after you sent out the first agent letters, send it to another five must-have agents.
By now you will have gotten a few rejections. Don’t take it personally. Remember: publishing is a business. Agents are looking for manuscripts which fit their comfort zones: those they feel they can sell to the editors they know, and what they know these editors are seeking.
The worst thing that can happen is for an agent to take you on – and then do nothing to sell you. If they don’t truly believe in your manuscript, it won’t leave their desk. The time wasted is yours—all the more reason you need to broaden your agent search.
Before it goes to any agent, make sure your manuscript is as great as it can possibly be.
While there are exceptions (for example, an encouraging letter that asks to see other manuscripts you’ve written) for the most part you’ll only have one shot to woo any particular agent. More than your query letter, they are judging you on your manuscript.
Remember, don’t take it personally! They reject the majority of submissions, choosing only those writers whose manuscripts they feel they have a chance to sell now, or that this author is one whom they want to work with, over the long run.
All the more reason to heed my previous tips, which have emphasized the need to join a critique group, so that you have others with whom to work through any plot holes. I’ve also mentioned the importance of doing several reads of your manuscript, to gauge it for flow, to catch typos, and to work through any plot holes you may have missed, and to smooth out any stilted dialogue.
A clean manuscript often leads to more agents interested in representing you. The more agents who are interested, the more choices you have to choose the right agent to sell your manuscript–
Which is the ultimate end game.
Picture: Back in the day, this was what an agent's desk or credenza looked like. Now most of them read the manuscripts as Word Doc files, on an eReader. It's the way we live now….
I've got a question for you: Have you already tried to get an agent? How did that go?
Let your fingers do the talking during National Novel Writing Month,