I’ve decided to document my current pursuit of a literary agent, as I find the process interesting. To be honest, I have zero idea of my chances of actually landing an agent. But, at least in principle, I seem to have all of the necessary requirements.
- My manuscript is complete. I mention this because, apparently (based on my research), many novelist newbies make the mistake of querying before their manuscripts are complete. (I’m speaking of fiction manuscripts here, of course, as it’s apparently more common to query nonfiction books on ideas alone.)
- My manuscript falls within accepted length parameters. This seems like another common mistake — namely that a person’s novel is either too short or too long. I suspect NaNoWriMo (one of the best annual activities anyone can do!) is partially responsible for this, as they define a novel as 50,000 words. But, upon research, it seems like 80–100k is more in line with industry standards and expectations (again, for normal adult fiction novels). (Other genres, like YA, have their own norms. So, check this if you’re authoring something in another category.)
- My manuscript is super-clean. From my research, it’s generally advisable to have your manuscript professionally edited. Fortunately for me, I spent decades as a professional editor, so I self-edited the heck out of my own work. It’s shiny-clean!
- *I* think it’s an entertaining read. (Or … Maybe I should be more assertive here and just state — no, exclaim: It’s an entertaining read!) So, here we get into the subjective side, right? You could have all of your other ducks in a row, but you still have to have produced a good read. I suspect this is where many authors fail, to be honest. But, I’m no agent, so I’d leave it to them to opine on this one.
The above covers most of the important manuscript-related stuff. Let’s look at the query side of things:
- First, I had to understand what a good query letter looks like. Oddly, that’s not always easy to answer. One pretty good link I found, though, is from an old blog called GuideToLiteraryAgents, which now goes to a dead link at WritersMarket.com. Still, this is the internet, where it’s tough to completely kill information. So, I hunted it down on the Way Back Machine. You can see a copy of that now-dead page here. (Another cool site was a blog called Query Shark. And, many agencies have blog posts on this topic. There’s an abundance of guidance out there, really.)
- Next, I put together a document I called my “Agent Kit.” In it, I wrote up a basic cover letter, a plot synopsis, a blurb about the potential market, a bio, and even a list of comparable titles. (There are probably entire articles about each of those topics, so you should definitely research further.)
- I then put together text-based sample chapter documents of various lengths. This may sound weird to those who haven’t queried agents yet. But, 99% of agencies want to see a few chapters pasted as text into the body of your email. (Makes sense, as they don’t want to have to manage thousands of incoming PDF or Word documents, and it’s also probably 10x safer, as attachments can come in with viruses.) The only issue is that pasting text into an email can be messy; it removes any formatting such as italics, and generally wreaks havoc on spacing (especially if you’re pasting from MS Word). Most agencies want 5–10 pages or so. So, I had a 5-page, a 10-page, a 25-page, and a 50-page sample ready to go.
Next, I started researching literary agents / agencies by reading agent profiles on Publishers Marketplace, looking on AgentQuery.com, reading listings on the Writing Cooperative site (a Medium pub I’ve written for), and just normal Googling. That helped me build out a list of the ones I thought seemed fitting for either the upmarket / literary space or the upmarket / speculative space. (I did have some trouble honing in on my genre, to be honest. That’s all documented here.) For any writers in the upmarket / literaryspace, here’s the list of agencies I came up with (so far). I’d be super-happy to hear from anyone about relevant additions to this list!
- Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency
- Andrea Brown Literary Agency
- Barbara Braun Associates
- Bent Agency, The
- Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises
- Book Ends Literary
- Cheney Associates
- Cornerstone Literary
- Curtis Brown
- DeFiore & Company
- Denise Shannon Literary Agency
- Don Congdon Associates
- Donald Maass Literary Agency
- Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency
- Dystel, Goderich & Bourret
- Fletcher & Company
- Folio Lit
- Foundry Literary + Media
- Gernert Company, The
- Harvey Klinger Literary Agency
- Hill Nadell Literary Agency
- InkWell Management
- Irene Goodman Literary
- JABberwocky Literary Agency
- Jane Rotrosen Agency
- Janklow & Nesbit
- Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency
- Julia Livshin Literary Agency
- Karpfinger Agency, The
- Knight Agency
- L. Perkins Agency
- Levine Greenberg Rostan
- Liza Dawson Associates
- McCormick Literary
- Nelson Agency
- New Leaf Literary & Media
- Park & Fine Literary
- PS Literary
- Rights Factory, The
- Root Literary
- Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
- Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency
- Sterling Lord Literistic
- Tessler Literary Agency
- The Friedrich Agency
- The Joy Harris Literary Agency
- Transatlantic Agency
- Trident Media Group
- Union Literary
- Veritas Literary Agency
- Victoria Sanders
- Wendy Sherman Associates
- William Morris Endeavor
- Writer’s House
So… yeah, in the past three weeks, I queried all of those. It wasn’t easy, as I tried to personalize each one, at least a bit. And, of course, you need to go to each agency’s site and find who you think will be the appropriate agent for your novel (well, the most appropriate and one who’s also open to queries at the moment). This takes a lot of time, but produces valuable, targeted information for you. So, keep your info well-organized as you go. (I have the above in a spreadsheet, along with the agent name, email, date I submitted, and a few other columns.)
BTW: It’s kind of funny (and frustrating), as there is actually a lot of conflicting advice out there regarding what makes a great query letter. One example that stands out was advice from an agent that said something like: Look, don’t do anything weird like send me a query in the voice of your main character. Just give me the facts straight. But, in that Archive.com (Way Back Machine) link above, there’s actually a successful example of just that!
Still, for my purposes, I came up with about three different approaches, which I mixed a bit when sending to the above list. They were:
- Playing it straight. I mean, I tried to not be boring! But, I kept things more business-like and professional on these. I guess I sent about half out this way.
- Being a bit more marketing-oriented. I put together a more attention-grabbing version at one point, when I came to think maybe I needed to A/B test this stuff more. This version had some dust-jacket-type “What if…” language that hopefully would intrigue them.
- Hybrid / 100% custom approach. Often, with the list, you simply can’t tell whether an agent would love your idea. You simply can’t know this, although hopefully you’ve identified some who at least represent your genre and who seem like they’d like your book. But sometimes, I found myself thinking that an agent seemed absolutely perfect. So, I’d usually invest time into a 100% custom letter for this group. (I mean, I tried to customize nearly all of them, if/when possible. But, this is a different “level” of customization.) Sorry, I’m hiding the ball a little but here, as I’m not yet going to show examples. But, they’ll come out later in other articles for sure.
Besides those, I’d say about 20% of the above agencies (or, at least the individual agents at the ones listed) use a site called QueryManager.com, which is a 3rd-party site that helps agents and publishers manage queries. For those, your queries are form submissions instead of emails. Those are a little more rigid. They do allow for a cover letter, of course. But, they break up the various parts, usually, asking for your plot synopsis in one box and your bio in another (and a bunch of other stuff). So, those can really throw off your flow a good bit, to be honest.
In all cases, I really tried to pay attention to their query guidelines. It seems the #1 complaint agents seem to bring up is that authors disregard these things. So, I stuck to any guidelines I saw!
Will It Work?
After all of that … I have no clue! I was surprisingly affirmed at first, as the very first email I sent out came back with a request for 50 pages. So, that seemed to indicate that it *could* work and that at least my query letter wasn’t scaring anyone off. But, I’m mainly in waiting mode, with of course a number of rejections already returned (some come quite fast — not the 4–6 weeks many state on their sites). Many were form letters, a few brief notes. We’ll see in time, I suppose.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
Obviously, I really would like to traditionally publish this novel! But, if it doesn’t work, I’ll do these two things:
- I’ll self-publish this novel. I already have a cover artist lined up just in case (and a stunning cover concept!), and a marketing plan that I’m prepared to invest in. (I’m a web developer by day, so I’m familiar w/ online marketing platforms like Facebook, etc.)
- I’ll move on to the next book. :-)
📚 ✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog, “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He also contributes to various Medium.com publications. Find him at JPDbooks.com, his Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or via email at Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest novel, CHROO, is available on Amazon.com. If you enjoy humorous literary tales, please grab a copy!