PGW has asked me to chat about agents this week, and I'm really glad to have the opportunity to do so. Getting an agent is the first stepping stone to getting published, so it's a pretty damn important topic.
First of all, I'm going to be honest: my experience of finally getting an agent was not totally normal. I sent
The Bone Season to just one agent and he signed me up within a few days. I was lucky, and I've never taken that luck for granted. I did, however, experience the whole process with Aurora. Writing to agents, getting rejected, trying again, getting a sparkle of interest but then losing it –
I know how it feels.
world of agents can be terrifying, especially to a new writer. I've
been there, guys. Trying to get an agent on your side can be a
frustrating, hair-pulling, heart-crushing process. Like banging on a
door that will never open.You have to send an SASE
if you want your MS returned, which means double postage, and the first
three chapters can make for a reasonably heavy package. So you're
throwing cash at agents, giving them a glimpse of your work, and they're turning you down. It's shit. I can't think of any other word to describe how miserable it can make you feel.
So here's hoping I can help you out. There are four sections to this blog post; do skip as appropriate.
1. What is an agent?
2. Rejection and waiting
3. The query letter
4. Sample letter
What is an agent?
literary agent is someone who provides services to an author, most notably in representing their work to publishing houses and film/stage producers. They also protect an author's rights when their work goes to the publishing stage and beyond.
The agent takes his or her payment as
commission – 15% is standard. So don't approach an agent and ask if they take credit cards.
Most publishing houses will not look at your work without a referral from an agent.
Rejection and waiting
There are a number of different responses you might receive from an agent. This
guide is great in working out how to deal with each one. Most rejections are the standard rejection, which normally reads something like "Thank you for submitting your work. Unfortunately it's not right for our lists at this time", or similar. Basically "thanks, but no thanks". It's a polite response, but it still hurts like hell when you've poured years of your life into this novel. You might respond with anger, or even hatred towards the agent. You might think they're being hard-hearted or snobbish, or that you deserved a more personalised response to your manuscript. Agents would love to give that response – they just don't have the time.
When I first got rejections for
Aurora, people suggested persistence – the kind of persistence that involves sleeping outside the agent's office until you get a positive response. Don't do this. Agents do not appreciate being approached in person if they've rejected you. Only go to their office in person if they ask you to see them. You;ll come across as intrusive and will not enamour them to your cause. There was a nasty incident recently when agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg was attacked by a rejected author. Ms van Hylckama Vlieg made a great comment on it:
"It's hard to be rejected – just as it's hard for agents to be rejected
by publishers on the books we've acquired."
Agents are human, too. They didn't reject your manuscript to be nasty (though sometimes those rejection letters seem unbelievably callous). They run a business and they have to keep it going. They also have to feel true passion for your book, or they won't be able to support you. Remember, they have to sell this book on your behalf, sometimes in more than one territory. You need your agent to be pretty damn obsessed with your work. That's why some agents will say "no" even if they liked your manuscript. They have to love it, not just like it.
I can't speak for all of them, but my agent, David, is a truly fantastic man. He's supportive, welcoming and works extremely hard for his clients. His agency, DGA, receives several manuscripts every day. That's a big stack by the end of the week. Inevitably they go on the dreaded
slush pile, a kind of limbo for the humble manuscript. I was on slush pile duty a few times during my internship.
Different agencies work at different rates, but the average agent will be flooded with queries and may not have enough staff to get through them. That's why the waiting time can be
6 weeks or more.
Of course, you guys know this. You've read it everywhere and you appreciate that agents are busy, but you still want an answer. So how do you make them want to read more?
The Query Letter
All agents require you to write a query letter, usually accompanied by 1-3 chapters of your manuscript, when you approach them. Some agents accept email queries; others want a hard copy. Play by their rules and you're one step closer to being in their good books.
At David's agency I read many queries, but there are three that still stick in my mind. One was depressed, lamenting the state of the publishing industry. One was impassioned and frustrated, with the author almost begging for representation. And one – the best one – was quirky. The author offered me a packet of digestive biscuits if I'd take a look at his manuscript, which he briefly described as "lad-lit". I was intrigued and read it. It was a hilarious book. It wasn't David's cup of tea, so I had to let the author down, but I let him know how much I'd loved it. He thanked me for reading and emailed me a few days later to update me on the MS. He ended up getting invited to the US by an agency there, so here's hoping he did well.
Quirky queries don't always work. Depends what you call "quirky". Some queries were downright creepy
– I'll never forget the Cambridge student who included an A4 picture of his face as his query letter. Don't try to stand out by writing from a character's perspective or writing in Pig Latin or terza rima. It's usually best to play it safe.
I just discovered a Tumblr called
SlushPile Hell. Shows some of the creepy ones that you should absolutely definitely avoid.
Do read the submission guidelines. They might be different for each agent. Some agents want email submissions, some don't take sci-fi or fantasy. Don't start your email by saying "I know you don't take romance novels, but you'll change your mind about mine".
Do be confident. Not arrogant. Confident. Don't lick the agent's boots in your query, or sound depressed because of previous queries (i.e. don't start by saying "You'll probably hate this" or "It's not very good"). Don't sound obsessed. Don't blow your own trumpet. Go for CCC: Calm, Confident and Courteous. It will do wonders.
Do give information about the book – but not too much. Don't go on. State the title, the word count, the genre, and give a short synopsis. Most agents will ask you to include a page-long synopsis as an attachment, in any case.
Do give information about yourself – but again, not too much. Your occupation, how you came to write the book, and where you live should suffice. It shouldn't take up more than 1-2 sentences.
Do be unique. Don't, for example, say "I know Stephenie Meyer's books are really popular so I've written a book about a girl falling in love with a vampire". Books do get published because they fit a popular genre – tonnes of vampire romances have appeared since Twilight – but this isn't likely to thrill an agent. If you must write within a popular genre, make it clear why it differs from other books.
Do be polite. Don't use the agent's first name – you're not their friend and it's not professional. On the flip side, don't just say "Dear Agent" or "Dear Sir/Madam". Use their title and surname.
Don't submit more than one piece of work. Remember, agents are short on time. Just submit your magnum opus.
Don't act like you're God's gift to literature. You'll come across as arrogant and demanding. The agent will assume you need an ego check and is unlikely to want to work with you. The same applies to comparing your work to literary giants like Shakespeare and James Joyce.
Don't do a standard "one size fits all" query letter. All agents are different. Just including their name shows you've made an effort.
Don't pull the copyright card. Agents are not going to steal your work, and most will raise their heckles if you assume they will. You don't need to apply for copyright at this stage. Under the terms of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, you have automatic copyright over your work. So don't panic.
Don't ask the agent to give you advice. That's a job for manuscript appraisal services or a hired editor, not the agent. Also, don't ask them what you should write. It's tempting to discover what the market wants, but you can do that yourself – just check out the bookshelves.
Don't get angry. Ever. It won't help.
7. Don't query before you're finished. If the agent asks to see your MS and it's not complete, they're not going to be happy.
My sample letter
I didn't actually write a letter to David for
The Bone Season – I just emailed him with the manuscript and asked if he'd mind checking it out. That was because I already knew him and the need for formality was gone. I do, however, have my old query letter for Aurora. This might seem a bit useless, as I never got an agent for Aurora, but I did get some positive responses (i.e. "yes, I'd like to see a bit more"). So here's the skeleton of a half-decent query.
Dear [agent's title and surname],
My name is [name]. I'm a [profession] from [place] and currently work for [company].
For the last [number of years] I've been working on a [genre] novel called [title].
It follows [protagonist], [something about the protagonist], as she [something the character does]. The novel is set in [year/time period] and is [word count] long.
I attach the first three chapters and a short synopsis for your consideration.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
It's short, polite, and gives the necessary info about the book. Voilà. Do include any interesting, relevant information about how you came to write it – for example, if you're a single mother juggling three toddlers alongside your writing, mention it.
Remember that agents and publishers take huge risks on
behalf of authors. A vast number of books make a loss, but they still
get published because their publisher – and their agent – thought their story deserved to be heard. They do it for passion as well as profit.
They're not all smug, money-grubbing, literary hygiene machines. They've
chosen to work with books because they love books. You just have to make
them love yours.
A final note: it is hard to get an agent, and sometimes it's just about luck. You might have written a fantastic book, but the agent can't see any way to market it
– or maybe you're just querying the wrong agents. Keep sending. Never stop trying. And do not give up at the first hurdle.