how tro query literary agents

Looking for a Literary Agent?

After I posted my query letters on Word Painting, several of you ask me how I was going about looking for an agent. So, here is the process I have used.

The first thing I did was determine the marketing environment for my novel. Who would read it? What age audience would be most receptive to it? And, how could it be marketed? Many literary agents will ask you to answer these questions to find out how competent you are in the process, so be prepared.

The second thing I did was research the actual writing of query letters. I found out what the experts were saying about the standard ways to formulate query letters, and I did the opposite. Don’t misunderstand me here. I kept the general rules: Use the agents name, detail the book via a short synopsis (like the blurb on the back of any book that tries to catch the potential buyer’s attention), give my background, education, experience in the publishing industry etc. What I did different was to put a twist on my query letter, and wrote it as if it where a personal letter to the agent. In other words, I put them in my story. I engaged the agent. There is no formula for this, I just geared my letters to mold into what my story was about, as if I was telling the agent the story like it really happened. With this approach, you have to be creative and figure out how to personalize the letter to match your story. That’s the easiest way I know how to describe it. If, no WHEN, my novel gets published, I will post the query letter I used to get it to that point.

The third thing I did was research, research, research. I researched agents that fit the marketing scope of my story. This is very time consuming, but extremely crucial. I have beaten the odds by doing this one thing (in 45-50 query letter sent, I have had three agents request my manuscript - the third request just came to me yesterday from an agency around Chicago).

This is how I did my research. I first purchased a copy of the 2010 Guide to Literary Agents (I bought my copy last year). I read the entire book and marked all the agents that fit my market criteria. Now, let me warn you about the Guide to Literary Agents. An edition of this guide comes out every year, and it is a fairly descent place to start. However, I do not think they update it as thoroughly as they claim. There were agents in the guide who had moved, or no longer existed, or who had shifted in their interests. So, I also used various internet sights to help match and confirm the guides information. Many of the agents listed in the guide had web addresses. If their web site was legit, I used only the info on their web site. In other words, I researched every single agent on the website and found the one that fit my story - what they were looking for.

Lastly, I individualized each of my query letters. No two agents received the same letter. The synopsis in each letter was the same, since my story has not changed, and my bio remained the same. What I changed was the way I approached the agent based on their bio from their website. If they declared they were looking for stories that dealt with certain issues, and those issues were in my novel, then I pointed those things out. Also, I followed their submission guidelines exactly as they requested (e.g. if they requested the first ten pages, I sent the first ten pages, etc.).

This has been my process for finding an agent. In the 45 to 50 query letters I’ve sent, so far this approach has worked (I’ve had requests to send out my full manuscript). Oh, and this is important. Grow thick skin because rejection happens, and happens, until you find that one agent that is just the right fit for your story. How I wade through the negative (i.e. the rejections) is with two quotes hanging on my desk. I read them everyday before I submit. Here they are:

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you are working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success—but only if you persist.” —Isaac Asimov

“If a publisher [or agent] declines your manuscript, remember it is merely the decision of one fallible human being, and try another.” —Sir Stanley Unwin

I hope the above helps those who asked, as well as those who didn’t. Keep at it, the world can always use a few more stories with a few more interesting voices. Cheers!