This is an older post, but it's evergreen. Read on (and on . . .) for an in-depth look at the hows and whys of getting an agent (or not).
1. How do I get an agent?
Several years ago, I had my first novel idea and felt sure it was going to get published and I was going to be become world famous. That novel didn't get published, and nor did the one I wrote after that, but the one I wrote after that did; I’m now published in eleven countries and about to release my third novel, which is why when people ask me what the secret to getting published is, I always say, “Perseverance”.
Back then, I decided I was going to need an agent. I took one of my closest friends, Chantel Guertin (who was already a bestselling author), to lunch. (Fun fact: if you're asking for career advice from someone, even if she's a dear friend, you should offer to take her to lunch.) She handed me a printout -- it was the early aughts, we didn’t have smartphones—of this:
Chantel instructed me to carefully peruse this list of literary agents, decide which ones were right for me to query, carefully read the submission guidelines for each agent I wanted to query, and follow those guidelines as I pitched.
So, that’s what I did. I pitched almost all the agents in Canada**. And almost all of them turned me down. In fact, my agent (Samantha Haywood, of Transatlantic Agency; she's fantastic) turned me down on my first try. But I persevered.
**I'm a Canadian author and was pitching in Canada only, where there are a fairly limited number of agents. I have many author friends who started out pitching in the US and ended up with a US agent.
Some useful links for finding an agent that apply to both the US and Canada:
2. What happens if an agent turns me down? Does that mean he or she is never going to read anything I’ve written, ever again?
No, that's definitely not what it means. If the first agent you query says no, you should keep trying with other agents.
If the agent you have decided is your dream agent turns you down, you should not be afraid to query that agent again with a different project.
You should also try, especially in the early days of your publishing career, not to focus on only one agent being The Dream and one book being The Only Book You Will Ever Publish. Search widely, write courageously, and be open to possibility.
3. Really? If an agent turns me down once, I can try again with another book?
Yes! In fact, you absolutely should. I like to say that the publishing industry is a marathon, not a race. When I got my first publishing offer and spoke to my potential editor on the phone for the first time, the first question she asked me was what my next book idea was. In fact, I have never not been asked that question by a potential publisher or editor. My offer hinged in part on what my answer to that question was. (I did have another idea, which did not end up being the next book I published -- but the fact that I didn't answer the question with, "How the heck should I know?! I can only focus on one book at a time!" was a good thing.)
Ideally for publishers -- and for you, if you truly want to make a living as a writer -- your first hit book will be followed by another hit book, and then another. That means you need to be thinking ahead to your next project, constantly be generating ideas, and constantly be writing.
Agents who turn down manuscripts do not immediately write that author off. Unless that author is rude in response to the rejection. And you would never be rude in response to a rejection, would you?
I believe most agents will notice and be impressed by perseverance. I know mine was. (If you ever meet her, you should ask her how many times and with how many different books and scenarios I queried her. Actually, don’t bother asking that; she probably can’t remember. Let’s just say it was a lot. And I never gave up -- or at least, not for too long.)
Consider this: writing more makes writers stronger at their craft. Putting your first novel in a drawer and starting something new isn’t a failure. It’s one of the steps that may be necessary for you to become a successful writer.
4. Can I query more than one agent at the same time?
I would. But be clear when you query that you are not offering an exclusive submission at this time, and be sure to double check the submission guidelines of the agent (s) you are querying for further information on this. If you are asked for an exclusive, make sure there is a reasonable timeline attached to it. Three weeks, maybe even four, is a reasonable timeline. Two is better. You have to remember that while your project is on exclusive submission, you can’t query anyone else. Your word is your bond.
5. But should I get an agent? Is that the only way I’ll ever get published?
No. There are lots of published authors who don’t have an agent, and I’m sure there are lots of published authors who might tell you that not having an agent hasn’t hampered their career one bit. I’m not one of those authors. At the start of my career, I would have signed away my first born child just for the joy of seeing my name in print on a book spine. Having a reputable agent on my side meant that if “give us your first born child in exchange for the joy of seeing your name in print on a book spine” had ever been in the fine print of a contract, my agent would have caught that detail and had it removed before I went and signed the contract.
Having an agent has also been the key to my novels selling in so many different countries and that has been the key to me being able to make a living as an author.
Agents are also good for providing support and advice during every step of the publishing journey — from the editorial process, to marketing and publicity, to strategizing about which project to focus on next. If you feel you can do all that alone, by all means, go for it! But I’ve always benefited from having a literary agent in my corner, which is why I employ one.
(*And yes, the reality is that most publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. There’s an exception to every rule, I suppose—but I highly recommend attempting to get an agent if you want your manuscript to be read by major publishers. If you don’t want your manuscript to be read, or published, by major publishers, you probably don't need an agent. Smaller publishers are more likely to accept an unsolicited manuscript, and there's always self-publishing. I'll write a post in the coming weeks about self-publishing versus traditional.)
6. I heard that publishing is really all about who you know — that agents are only reading books written by their author clients or their friends, and publishers are only publishing books written by people they’re already familiar with, or whose mom they golfed with last Friday afternoon. Is this true?
This has not been true in my experience, or the experience of anyone I know. This is the type of statement that is useful if you’re trying to think of reasons to sabotage your own eventual success by giving up on trying because what’s the point, I'm never going to succeed anyway, the odds are stacked against me! But it’s not useful for any other purpose, so I would cut this thought off at its source and throw it away.
Publishers are always looking for the next big thing — for the big, runaway bestselling book everyone is going to want to buy, and talk about, and buy for everyone they know, and talk about some more, and then watch the Netflix adaptation of. Sure, this big book may end up being written by the kid whose mom golfed with the publisher last Friday afternoon — but, more likely, this book is going to be written by someone out there who has written a great book and who has not been discovered yet.
This person somewhere out there is likely going to work very hard on this book, and may perhaps suffer some rejection along the way — or a ton of rejection, the whole entire way. But, importantly, this person is not going to give up. This person is going to persevere. Perseverance is more important than who you know, or who your mom knows, or who you wish you knew.
That’s not to say networking isn’t a valuable tool in your quest to getting published. When my friend Chantel and I were trying to make it in the publishing world, we accepted every single book launch invitation that came our way — and a great many more that didn’t. We went to every book and publishing-related event we could, for years, until our faces and names became familiar to the people we wanted to know us. Did it work? Absolutely not. The editor who first offered me a contract for my debut novel, Mating for Life, works for a multinational publisher in New York City and had never heard of me when she first read my manuscript. Nor had she been to a single one of the many Toronto-based literary events Chantel and I either got invited to or -- more likely -- snuck into.
However, when I did get published, the benefit of all the networking I had already done was that a lot of people in publishing already knew me; it was as I had always been there, lurking weirdly in the corner. Plus, going to all those book launches and events gave me something to do while I was waiting for the 257,902 rejections I received from agents and editors before I got a publishing contract. (No, I did not actually count them. Perhaps I should gather then up some day and put them in a binder. Except I’m too busy actually writing to look back on my early disappointments and count my many, many rejections.)
7. If I do not hear back from an agent does that mean that he or she is not interested in my book?
The painful truth is, probably. The hopeful truth is, maybe not. Wait three weeks (or a month, or whatever amount of time your mind or heart tells you is reasonable) and follow up. If you do not hear back from the agent again, do not pester her with increasing anger and desperation. Move on. Pitch more agents. Most agents and agencies do respond to all queries, but often need time to work through their submission pile.
Importantly, don’t lose hope. Remember what I said about the marathon and perseverance. Here's a story to give you hope: my friend Jennifer Robson, the internationally bestselling superstar author of five novels, including the recently published US Today-bestselling The Gown queried dozens of agents, years ago, with the manuscript of her first novel, Somewhere in France. All the agents said no. Then Downtown Abbey came out, and Jen’s sister marched her over to her computer, years after all these rejections had broken her spirit, and forced her to re-query, changing nothing about the manuscript or her query letter except to add the following sentence: “This novel is perfect for fans of Downton Abbey.”
She sent out those queries, and went to the park with her young children. When she got home, dozens of agents had called. Like, on the actual telephone. This is the stuff publishing dreams are made of, people. This is why you need to persevere.
8. Is my query letter important?
You want to be a writer. Your query letter is your first chance at proving how good you are at writing to your potential agent. Work very hard on your query letter, and on writing a synopsis of your book that will catch an agent’s eye and immediately make her able to envision how it might be sold or marketed. And, if I haven't said this before (I have. Twice.) make sure you follow the instructions for submission your potential agent will likely have been very clear about in her online bio.
For example, agent Carolyn Forde of Transatlantic Agency has the following to say in her online submission guidelines: “There are a few things she’s not keen on – medical/disease related memoirs, military or CIA fiction, cozy mysteries, books about film and tv behind the scenes.”
I just love how specific she is — and you should, too, because now you know that if you have written a cozy mystery, or a behind-the-scenes book about TV or film, you should not query Carolyn. There. You just saved yourself some time.
9. What if I’ve queried and queried and queried no one wants my book? Should I give up on my dream? Or, should I self-publish?
I’m not in the habit of telling anyone, ever, to give up on her dream. But I do sometimes think books need to be put away for a while. Perhaps when you put that book away in a drawer —an actual drawer, or a metaphorical one, you choose — all the pressure you’ve been putting on it will ease up and you’ll be able to see it for what it really is. You’ll be able to see its greatness, maybe, but also the parts of it that really aren’t working. You might realize that it wasn't working at all, and that perhaps it never will.
Or, perhaps you’ll put that book away in that drawer and it will keep you up at night, screaming to be let out of the drawer and unleashed upon the world. In that case, you should do what you feel you need to do. This might be self-publishing. (As a traditionally published author, I do not have a lot of answers about self-publishing.) It might be fixing up the book and trying to query it to agents again This might be sending it directly to a small publisher.
Alternately, you might put the book you’ve worked so hard on away for awhile, and once you’ve grieved it and gotten well over the idea that you have failed (ask any published author if she has any “practice books” put away in a drawer somewhere and I’ll give you twenty dollars if the majority of those authors don’t answer with a resounding YES!), you’ll start hearing the call of a new book, a new story, a fresh new idea. You will find the courage to start writing again, even though there are no guarantees that this book isn't going to break your heart, too. These are the moments that make the writer. I promise.
(Did I mention that I wrote two “practice” novels before I got published?)
10. Is there anything I should look out for when it comes to finding an agent?
Generally, if an agent is asking you for money up front for editing -- or for anything, really -- this is not a reputable agent. Agents work on commission. They only make money when you do.
An agent’s reputation does matter, so do your research— on the internet or by asking around. If it doesn’t feel right to you, chances are it isn’t right.
But, then again, perhaps you’re a naturally suspicious person who is naturally suspicious of anyone who wants to take a percentage or your earnings. Fair enough. In this case, you might want to do some research on what is reasonable for agents to charge. Some information on that can be found here:
When it comes to specific agents, it's perfectly reasonable to ask for references before you sign. Most authors will be pleased to provide this for a good agent. I've been known to sing the praises of mine from proverbial rooftops.
11. Anything else you think I need to know?
Above all, persevere.
12. But, wait! Will you send my book to your agent?
At this point, you have all the tools you need to send it to her yourself--or, to another agent you have decided, after extensive research, is the perfect agent for your project.
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I'm the internationally bestselling author of three novels, including Mating for Life, Things to Do When It's Raining, and the forthcoming The Last Resort. Lately I've been thinking about how easy it can be to forget how necessary writing is to human existence, and how much joy can be found it it. This blog is about pursuing that joy and sharing it with others.