Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finding An Agent

Since acquiring my first contract for my urban fantasy series, the Dark Days Series, some of the most popular questions I’ve received have been about getting published.  Now that I am between series and I’m re-tuning the great promotion machine for the Tattoo Artist series, I thought I would take the time to try to tackle some of these questions.  The topics won’t be in any specific order so stay tuned as I may soon tackle the question burning most in your mind.

In my email, I most recently received a question was how to acquire an agent.  Let’s tackle that one today.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not an expert.  I don’t claim to be an expert nor do I guarantee that my advice will get you an agent.  This is simply a story of how I got my agent.
First, some questions:

1.       Is the book you are trying to get represented finished?
A.      No – If it’s a fiction book, return to your computer and finish your book first and then come back to this blog post.  You’re not ready.
B.      Yes  -- Continue to question 2.

2.        Is it the best the book the best that it can be?  So perfectly polished you can eat dinner of it?
A.       No, the idea is solid, but it still needs grammar tweaks, it’s written in a passive voice, and/or it needs a more defined subplot, but the editor can help with that; it’s their job.  -- Ummm … Go back to the computer and get to work.  You’re not ready for an agent.  The book has to be as perfect as possible before contacting ANYONE.
B.      Yes, the book has been thoroughly edited by myself and critiqued by several readers.  The grammar is clean, the story is tight, and the characters are interesting and entertaining.  – Continue to question 3.

3.       Has the book been read by anyone other than your mother/best friend?
A.       No, but my mother loves it – That’s great, but it’s time to look into a critique group or some other outside source who might be a little more critical of your work.  Again, we’re looking for perfection since you usually get only one shot at a first impression.
B.      Yes, the book has been reviewed by a critique group and/or several highly critical readers who have given me valuable feedback on how to improve my book. – Congratulations!  You’re ready to start looking for an agent.

The first three questions may seem a little rough, but there’s something to keep in mind: You get only one chance to make a good impression.  Once an agent says “no,” it’s unlikely that you’ll get a chance to pitch to that agent again.  Also, remember that some agents can get several hundred queries a week requesting representation.  To stand out, you need to put your best foot forward and that means having the best product to present to them.

The first steps in acquiring an agent are actually a lot of prep work.

1.       The synopsis.
The synopsis is a summary of your book.  You need several of these of varying lengths for a variety of situations.  

A.      The elevator pitch:  this is called such for the simple reason of you may find yourself in an elevator with the agent of your dreams and you have approximately 2 minutes to pitch your book.  Can you summarize your book in two sentences?  Sure, it’s not going to have in it all the things that make your book great, but it can include something that might hook the agent’s attention and get them to ask for more information.  Can you give a compelling 2-minute presentation on your book?  You may never have to use this, but it’s great to have in your back pocket and it’s easy to try out on friends to get their feedback.  Practice makes perfect.

B.      The book blurb:  can you summarize your book in roughly 250 words, or the length of the book description found on the back of your favorite paperback book?  This is another chance to break down your book to its most compelling points.  If you can’t give an exciting brief description of your book, how are you going to convince anyone to buy it in a bookstore? 

C.      The proposal synopsis:  This synopsis is a bit longer, ranging from one to two single-spaced pages.  In the synopsis, you’re allowed to go into more detail.  The main thrust of the synopsis is to cover the main plot and give small details on the subplots and the development of the main character(s).  Also, tell the ending.  Don’t try to save it as a surprise.

Once again, make sure that these are as polished as your book.  Let other people read your pitches.  Prepare to make changes again and again to get it right.  You have to entice your reader, leaving them practically panting to get their hands on your manuscript.

2.        Query letter

The query letter is the first time that you contact an agent in an effort to win their attention.  Below is a copy of the query letter I was using to sell Nightwalker.  It changed slightly for each agent, but the bulk of it remained the same.

Dear Mr/s. XXXXXX,

Throw out the old myths that elves are peace-loving tree-huggers.  The Fey are coming and they mean to destroy mankind.  And man’s only hope is an alliance between a vampire and a vampire hunter. 

That vampire is Mira, an outcast among her own people because of her unusual ability to manipulate fire.  Unfortunately, one night’s amusement with a vampire hunter sours when he reveals that he must turn his skills at killing vampires to those of keeping her “alive” in order to stop the Fey from wiping mankind off the Earth.

My novel, DANAUS, is a dark fantasy/contemporary paranormal piece with an approximate word count of 88,000 words.  DANAUS is the first in series of paranormal novels I hope to have published, and is written from Mira’s point of view in a voice that a sharp and sarcastic James Bond might use if he worked for the undead and not the Queen.  I have already begun to work on the second book in the series.

At the moment, DANAUS is being read by XXXX of XXXXX.

In 1999, I acquired my bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University in creative writing and journalism, and have spent five years working as a financial writer and editor at Schaeffer’s Investment Research.  I have had a short story and poems published by a literary magazine called The Licking River Review.

Enclosed are the synopsis, the first three chapters, and a SASE for your convenience.

May I send you the completed manuscript?


Let’s attack this one point at a time.

1.       Notice how short it is!  Remember, agents are reading stacks and stacks of letters.  You’re not going to hold their attention for a long time.  Be like a ninja.  Sneak in, attack, and get out.  If your query letter does its job, they will be coming to you for more info.  Rule of thumb: query letter shouldn’t be over 1 page.

2.       Check and double check who you are sending the letter to!  Get the name and the gender right!  You don’t want to insult the agent before they even get to the meat of the letter.

3.       The first 1-2 paragraphs should focus on the book.  This is where your 250-word synopsis will come in handy.  The opening line should be a hook – something to interest the agent and get them to keep reading.  A question is a great and easy hook.  The opening should not only inform them on what the book is about, but should give an idea of how this book is different from all the other books that have already been written.  I know, a tall order, but it can be done.

4.       The next paragraph is general information on the book.  Basic information such as length and genre are greatly appreciated.  They like to know which audience you’re targeting with this book.  Not necessary, but always nice if you can include it: comparisons to known stories is appreciated because it can sometimes make it easy for the agent to market to publishers. (Though, try not to claim to be the next JK Rowling who wrote the next Twilight  - humility is always appreciated)  Nightwalker was pitched as Alias meets Underworld.  The book is not claiming to be either, but by comparing the book to two known entities, the agent/ publisher can get an interesting image in their head.

5.       If the entire book has been requested and sent to another agent, this is where you tell the reader of the letter.  Many agents allow simultaneous submissions, but they like to know if someone else is interested in the book as well.

6.       A BRIEF paragraph about yourself.  In the big picture, you are the least important thing here.  You’re trying to sell your book, not yourself.  If you have published before, list it briefly.  Keep this paragraph short and if you haven’t been published before, don’t worry. The agent will be drawn in on the first paragraphs, not your bio.

7.       Tell what has been enclosed/attached.  Send only what has been requested!

8.       Ask to send the entire manuscript.

9.       End politely.

Not too hard, right?  When you’re done with the query letter, give it to people to read.  Let them find grammar errors and typos.  Are they pulled in by the opening?  Are they asking about the book?  Attack the letter with the idea that you have to fight to get the agent to read the next line of the letter.  They are short on time and will stop reading the moment they are not interested. 

3.       Research

Probably one of the least stressful parts of finding an agent.  Research.  But it can be the most time consuming.  Before sending anything anywhere, you have to thoroughly research the agents.  Most places have websites and I suggest checking them out before shipping off that query letter.  There are places all over the internet that provide lists of agents.  I actually started with a Writer’s DigestGuide to Literary Agents.  It’s not a bad investment and a lot of libraries carry them if you don’t want to shell out the money.

Before prepping that query letter, ask these questions:

A.    Does this agent represent the genre I’m writing?
B.     Is this agent accepting new submissions?
C.     Who does this agent represent?  Is it someone I’ve heard of?  (which often translates into: has this agent sold work to a publishing house I have heard of?)

If the answer is yes to all these questions, then you should proceed.  In your research, make note of what the agent wants to see.  Everyone is different.  Some want a query letter.  Some want a query letter and synopsis.  Some what a query letter and the first three chapters of the finished book.  Be prepared to meet their requests.  However, you should NEVER pay to have your submission read by an agent.  That’s usually the first sign of a scam.

So, you’ve written your synopsis, query letter, and researched your agents list.  Start sending out those letters.  If they allow simultaneous submissions, take advantage of it.  Send out multiple letters and start a spreadsheet of when letters were sent out, who they were sent to, and what they were sent.  It will make your life easier.  After that’s complete, all you have to do is wait.

And there’s a lot of waiting to do.  Some agents can take between 4-8 weeks to reply to just a query letter, while a whole manuscript decision can take 6 months or longer.  Of course, I’ve received a rejection within an hour of sending a letter.

Don’t get frustrated or discouraged.  I sat through 2 years of rejections (getting a large stack of “no”) before I finally landed my agent.  Some people take longer and others take shorter.  I had a dear friend that landed an agent in less than six months. 

Keep at it!  While you’re waiting for that agent to contact you, you have two jobs:
1.       Edit the book that you’ve got on submission
2.       Write your next book.

In the end, always keep writing.

(Do you have any publishing/writing related questions you would like to have answered?  Please leave questions in the comments and I will try to address them!)

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