By Guest Blogger, Jennifer DeChiara
President & Owner, Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency
Finding a literary agent may sometimes feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s not impossible. I’ve put together a few guidelines that should make things easier.
1. Finish Your Book.
Even though this happens quite a bit, I’m still surprised when a writer queries me about a book that they haven’t even finished yet. Especially for a writer with no, or few, credentials, how can I be sure that they will ever finish the manuscript? Writing a book isn’t easy, and many successfully published authors find it hard to complete a book, so why would I spend time on a writer, or their chapter(s), if I couldn’t be sure that there would ever be more? And manuscripts tend to change as they’re written, so the book that a writer is telling me about now, one chapter in, is likely going to be different than the finished book, if it ever is finished. So do us both a favor and finish the book.
2. Do Your Research.
Before you start to query agents, make sure that you’re querying the right ones. Don’t waste valuable time – theirs and yours – querying agents who don’t represent the kind of book you’ve written. When you do that you’re labeling yourself as a newbie, someone who doesn’t know the fundamentals of submitting work. Agents know that writers submit to many agents at the same time, but be discreet about it. Don’t email me a query with a string of other agent names; use my name, not “Dear Ms.” or, even worse, “Dear Sir.” Mention an author or book I represent and tell me why your book is similar in style. Show agents that you’re a professional, even though you may not have been published yet.
Where do you find agents to query in the first place? There are many literary guides in bookstores with listings of agents, books they’ve represented, and what they’re looking for now; there is also a lot of information on the Internet. You should also check the acknowledgments sections of books similar to yours; authors usually thank their agents, so you’ll be able to find names of agents there. Writers conferences are another great way to find agents; make a list of agents you think might be a good fit for your work, find out what conferences they attend, and sign up.
3. Follow Submission Guidelines.
Before you query an agent, find out what their submission procedures are and follow them to the letter. Most agents these days have websites, with specific guidelines for querying and submitting work, so there’s no excuse for not doing it their way. Every agent is different, with different requirements, and those can change with time, so be sure to check their policies if you haven’t submitted to them in a while.
Some universal rules, though, do apply:
a. Don’t query an agent with more than one manuscript at the same time. It’s just not in your best interest to do this; you’ll appear desperate and make us wonder why you haven’t been published.
b. Don’t query more than one agent at a time within the same agency. What if both agents want the same manuscript? For the same reason, agents won’t pitch a manuscript to different editors at the same publishing house. Besides, if an agent isn’t interested in a particular query but finds it compelling and well written, they might hand it to another agent at the same agency anyway.
c. When emailing a query, don’t send an attachment. Just type your query in the body of your email. If an agent requests your work, they’ll let you know how you should send it.
d. Don’t tell me to look at your website or click on a link in your email to read more about your work, view your bio, etc. Agents don’t have the time to do that, and we shouldn’t be asked to do it. You’re implying that your time is more valuable than ours, and that’s just not acceptable.
4. Be Respectful.
Agents are extremely busy people, so be respectful of their time. Don’t expect them to spend time on you if you’re not a client. Don’t expect them to meet with you if you happen to be traveling through their city. Don’t email them or call them to inquire about the status of a query. You can call to follow up about requested work that you’ve
submitted, but wait at least a month before you do that (or follow their guidelines on this, if they have them listed).
If you’re at a conference, be mindful of an agent’s schedule. I’m always amazed at writers who pull at my sleeve and ask to talk with me about their books when I’m rushing through a crowded room, obviously on my way somewhere. Don’t follow me into the ladies room, and don’t hand me your manuscript under a stall. (Yes, I’ve had this happen to me twice.)
5. Be Ready To Talk About Your Book.
You should always have an “elevator pitch” memorized and ready to go at a moment’s notice. An elevator pitch is simply one compelling sentence describing your manuscript; it should take no longer than the length of time it would take to get from one floor to another in an elevator, hence its name. If it’s a great pitch, the agent will say “Tell me more,” so you should also have a few more sentences memorized that will give the agent a bit more information about your book. Know exactly what you’re going to say, but when I say “memorized,” please don’t recite it as though it’s memorized.
Sometimes at conferences I’m asked to listen to pitches, and I’m always shocked at writers who will sit opposite me and read their pitch, often several paragraphs, from a notebook in front of them. I understand nervousness, but if this is a problem for you, work on it, practice in front of friends, talk in front of your mirror. A writer should be able to talk about their book. Period.
Yes, it’s difficult to find an agent, but writers are signed every day, deals are negotiated, books get published, and dreams do come true. So learn all you can about the process, do everything you can to improve your chances, and never give up. I truly believe that a great book always finds a home. Good luck, everyone.