Getting published in today’s world is a test of a writer’s persistence, patience, and—most importantly—willingness to do a lot of hard work.
When I first started digging into the weird world of book publishing, I remember having a few distinct feelings:
- A craving for cheese and carbs—ideally, both
- An overwhelming desire for a concise(ish) list for how to get a literary agent
While I can’t do too much for the first two if you guys share similar feelings, I can help you on the third.
Check out the following list if you are eager to get literary representation.
1. Write (and polish) a book.
Unless you are writing nonfiction, you should have already written (and thoroughly edited) your entire manuscript. That means, your manuscript should not only be complete, but you should have:
- Edited it on your own
- Had critique partners/beta readers review it
- Workshopped it in a group setting
- Edited it even more on your own
Literary agents should not be receiving the first draft of a manuscript. Make sure to edit your manuscript and get other eyeballs on it so that it’s pretty darn sparkly.
- 5 Things to Consider When Starting Your Novel
- 9 Practical Tips to Start Writing a Book (View the related iWriterly video)
- 10 Tips on Beta Reader Etiquette
2. Determine the age group and genre of your manuscript.
You may have started your manuscript knowing you wanted to write fantasy for young adults, or you may have written a story bouncing around in your brain without too much planning upfront. Regardless of your creative process, once the manuscript is complete, you need to determine two things:
- What is the age group? (Who is the intended readership?)
- What is the genre?
This is where those unfortunate word counts come into play. If you are green as spring grass and you have never heard of word counts for specific age groups and genres (trust me, we have all been there), allow me to enlighten you.
Each age group (picture book, chapter book, middle grade, young adult, adult) has a word count range writers are expected to fall into. Similarly, the various genres (thriller, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, paranormal, etc.) also have their own word count expectations. For example, fantasy manuscripts tend to run longer than romance.
If your manuscript is considerably longer than the recommended word count for your age group and genre combined, it’s time to kill some of those darlings. (Moreover, if your manuscript is longer than 100,000 words and you are a debut author, you are in the danger zone…) And, of course, if your manuscript is on the shorter side, it’s probably time to reassess your story’s structure to see where things can be beefed up.
3. Write a query and synopsis.
A query is a one-page cover letter specifically for the book publishing industry that showcases your manuscript. To many writers, summarizing a 75,000-word manuscript in one to three measly paragraphs is harder than writing the manuscript itself.
I’ve written tons of articles and blogs on how to write a query, but the unfortunate reality here is: you do have to write one. Query letters are what you send to literary agents (or editors) when you ask them to consider your work.
In addition to the query, you will want to draft a one- to two-page synopsis, which summarizes the events of your entire book (the ending and all). While not every agency requires a synopsis in the initial, unsolicited submission (meaning, the agent didn’t request you submit your work to them), it’s best to have one ready just in case.
Like your book, you will want to exchange your query and synopsis with other writers to ensure both are in tip-top shape. These two documents are often your first impression with industry professionals—and you want to make the impression a good one.
Don’t forget: freelance editors can help you prepare your submission materials. Before I started querying, I worked with an editor to get my materials ready (after exchanging them with fellow writers), and her insight was invaluable.
- How to Write the Perfect Plot Summary for Your Query (View the related iWriterly video)
- How Freelance Editors Fit into Today’s Publishing Landscape
4. Research literary agencies.
Go online and research literary agencies. Learn what authors they currently represent, the age groups and genres they represent, and if they are open to unsolicited submissions. Then, look at the literary agents at the agency to see who represents the age group and genre your manuscript fits into.
- FAAAQ: Frequently Asked #AskAgent Questions (View the related iWriterly video)
- FAAAQ: Frequently Asked #AskAgent Questions – Part 2
5. Select one literary agent per agency to submit to.
At most literary agencies, you must select only one literary agent to submit your work to. Make sure the one agent you submit to both represents manuscripts in the age group/genre you wrote and he/she is open to unsolicited submissions.
6. Review the literary agent’s individual submission guidelines AND the literary agency’s general submission guidelines.
Now that you have selected an agent to submit to, read both the general literary agency submission guidelines (if they want emailed submissions, accept submissions through an online form, etc.) and the literary agent’s submission preferences (attachments/no attachments, synopsis, etc.).
When in doubt, follow the individual agent’s guidelines—because, in reality, that is the person you are submitting to.
7. Submit EXACTLY what the agent/agency requests in the manner that they request it.
If an agent (or agency) asks for your query, synopsis, and the first twenty pages of your manuscript in the body of an email, submit that exactly—not your first 100 pages or the entire manuscript. In addition, don’t omit submitting materials (such as the synopsis) because you don’t have it prepared. Have everything ready to go (and edited thoroughly) in advance.
Show you are a professional and an awesome person to work with by demonstrating you can follow instructions.
- The Dos and Don’ts of Querying (View the related iWriterly video)
- Query Checklist (View the related iWriterly video)
- Deciding When to Query
8. Politely wait.
Literary agents receive hundreds of queries weekly (and thousands of queries each year). As a result, it will likely take some time to get back to you.
Agencies specify how they handle declines—either you will receive a notification of a decline (typically via email) or no response at all. Many agencies, due to a high quantity of submissions, will only email you if they are interested in your work (which means that no response=a decline).
Either way, prepare yourself for a lot of waiting. The average wait time for a response (if you get one) is three months.
But don’t fold your hands in your lap while you wait—write another book, increase your online presence as a writer, try to get a following on social media, create a website, etc. Stay active and show you are invested in the writing community and your career as a writer!
- 5 Ways to Increase Your Online Presence as a Writer (Also featured in iWriterly)
8.5 Participate in Twitter Pitch Contests
While you are querying through the traditional process, consider joining Twitter and entering a few Twitter contests. Many literary agents and editors elect to participate in these contests (myself included), and it’s a great way to get your work in front of industry professionals.
- How to Write a Twitter Pitch (View the related iWriterly video)
- 18 Essential Etiquette Tips for Twitter Writing Contests
9. If an agent requests a partial/full manuscript, send them exactly what they ask for—and ideally right away.
This goes back to step number one. Don’t query before your manuscript is completed and edited. Think about it—if a literary agent gets back to you and wants to see your full manuscript, you want to have it ready to send right away. Furthermore, you often only have a few opportunities to have your work in front of these professionals. Don’t waste the opportunity by submitting anything but your best work
10. If an agent asks to schedule a call after reading your full manuscript, keep your cool and coordinate a day/time to speak. Prepare a list of questions for the call.
Most agents will not offer literary representation on the spot. If they liked your full manuscript, they will ask to schedule a time to speak with you. While this is super exciting, remain calm. This call is typically used as a way to get to know you as an individual (and professional) and to see if you two would work well together in the long haul.
Have a list of questions prepared to ask the agent (such as if they are an editorial agent, their vision for the manuscript, places they intend to submit your work, etc.). This is your opportunity to learn about how they work, too!
11. If you receive an offer of representation, alert the other agents and editors you have submitted to.
Once you receive an offer of representation (WOOHOO!!), send emails to all of the other agents, editors, and industry professionals you have submitted your work to (and have not heard back from). You can either alert them to your acceptance of literary representation or let them know how long they have to consider your work and get back to you if they are interested.
Typically, you have two weeks after receiving an offer of representation to let the agent know your final decision. However, if the agent offering you representation is one of your top agents and (right away) you can see yourself having an excellent working relationship with her/him, then you might decide to accept representation right away. In which case, you would need to alert the other industry professionals you submitted to that you have accepted literary representation elsewhere.
12. Either accept or decline the offer of literary representation.
If you chose not to accept literary representation right away, at the end of the two weeks, email the agent to let him/her know your final decision.