How To Get A Literary Agent- 3 Things You NEED
Editor's note: this article was first published in March, 2022 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
The publishing industry is notoriously competitive and a good agent is often the gatekeeper and therefore the first thing aspiring authors look for. However, we've all heard the stories through social media about now-famous books which were rejected multiple times.
Audrey Niffenegger submitted her full manuscript for The Time Traveler’s Wife to 25 agents and every one of them turned it down.
The Help by Katheryn Stockett was rejected by 60 literary agents.
Even Stephen King, one of the most successful authors of all time, faced rejection from 30 publishers for Carrie.
We now know that these books went on to be hugely successful thanks to a good literary agent but rejection is very much a part of the author journey.
The good news is that with a well-thought out submission strategy, you can maximize your chances of getting the right agent.
To get you started, I’m sharing my tips about how to write a winning literary agent submission that stands out from the competition and showcases your writing style, characters and plot points, and genre in an impactful and memorable way. Depending on whether you're writing commercial or literary fiction and the type of genre (science fiction, historical fiction etc) these tips will be a good fit for most new writers to take the next step in their writing career. (Side note, if you're a writer of short stories, be aware that different agents may be required.)
How easy is it to get a literary agent?
Submitting your novel to literary agents might feel daunting however, if traditional publishing is your chosen path - and the benefits of this route are significant including getting you the best deal (for more information on the different types of publishing and the best way for you, check out this post) - then crafting a winning submission is certainly worth investing a long time in, especially as agents can receive up to 6,000 manuscript queries a year but only take on a handful of new authors.
It's also worth noting that as the publishing world adapts to today's technological advances, new agents and literary houses are opening up as well as helpful platforms such as Manuscript Wish List and Query Tracker.
How did you get your literary agent?
When I was thinking about working with a traditional publisher (this is where a major publishing house such as Harper Collins or Penguin Random House receive submissions through a reputable agent), writing a solid book proposal was my focus when my first book submission, The Good Mother, was selected (out of hundreds of entries) by a renowned literary agent who then went to secure me a three-book deal with a major UK publishing house.
Below is my own synopsis for The Good Mother so you can see exactly what part of an award-winning submission looks like.
Do I need to finish my book before submitting?
Absolutely! Make sure you have a finished book before querying. Nothing is more frustrating to an agent than requesting the rest of the manuscript and it’s not available. This is an opportunity you don't want to lose!
How do I find the right agent for my book?
Before sending anything to anyone though, do make sure you have a researched list of the best agents whose client list fits your genre. A great way to get rejection letters is submitting to the wrong people! A good relationship is so important so it's critical to find the right literary agent.
I would also advise sending your submission to your list of agents one at a time. A mistake that a lot of people make is the blanket approach which immediately signals a lazy copy and paste submission.
To find your ideal agent, make sure you understand your genre and then research agents who represent those books. You can do this online or if you read a lot of the genre you're writing in, check the acknowledgements page in the book - most authors will thank their agent.
What do I send in a submission?
Most agents require three documents; a synopsis, a cover letter, and the first few chapters of your novel so I’ve covered these three areas with the techniques I used when securing representation with my literary agent which you can then apply to your own submissions.
If you feel like your book only gets going in chapter five or the best bit is in chapter ten, you need to re-write your first few chapters to the best of your ability. This is where you will be judged on the quality of your writing so it needs to be exceptional. Good writing is always going to capture attention so make sure yours is visible from the very first line of your novel. If your opening scene starts with a dream, the weather, or a long, rambling description, you may want to revisit them. If you want to know more about writing a brilliant opening, check out last week’s post, How To Write A Great First Page or you can watch my latest video on how to write a powerful opening line.
When I’m writing a synopsis, I imagine I’m telling the story to young children, keeping it as clear and concise as possible. The synopsis is a factual statement of the key information of your book - the setting, the main characters, conflicts, and plot points (including the ending) - and shouldn’t be confused with the sales copy. Neither should it be a detailed account of each chapter and scene - limit your synopsis to one page (or two pages at the most) and edit ruthlessly. The aim is to create a summary of your book; a quick tip is to check out some of the top book reviewers on Amazon. Many of them do a great job of summarising to give context to their book review. Other tips are to write in third person and include the category of your book (thriller, crime, historical fiction etc.) To give you a better idea, you can download my own synopsis below which won me agency representation.
3. One-page query letter
After doing your research about which agents you would like to pitch to, check their company submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. If the guidelines state Calibri font, double spacing, size 12, don’t deviate and only submit what they ask for.
Address your identified agent personally by name (not: To Whom It May Concern) and share knowledge of the agent’s existing list (be sure to spell author names correctly.) There is lots of information out there about what to include in a querying letter but again, I would advise keeping it clear and concise.
If the submission guidelines don't dictate, start with why you want to work with the agent, information about the book such as your elevator pitch and hook, and some brief personal information. You should also include the genre, title and word count of your manuscript.
In the past year or two, book publishers have also been keen to learn about an author's social media platforms so if you think it's relevant you may want to include this data as this is a built in audience for your book.
Remember, your main goal with a query letter is to get them to request the rest of your manuscript, so focus on the elevator pitch to sell your book.
Don’t forget to download my synopsis for The Good Mother to give you an idea and if you know of any writers who would find this information useful, then please feel free to share using the icons below.
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