Agents, Agents, and more Agents

Last updated November 2020… The Association of Author Representatives changed their website link

Now that you have that first half of the novel under your belt, maybe from NaNoWriMo, maybe from working on your own, it’s time to start looking for that agent if you aren’t going the self-publishing route. Here’s a pretty extensive article that I found:

How to Play the Agent Game
by Chris Gaveler

Picture an actual playing board with plastic pieces and a spinner in the middle. The spinner is important because it will remind you how much is left to chance. The best writer with the best novel still has to submit to the luck of random numbers.

You obviously begin at Square One. For a realistic effect, place you playing piece (your manuscript) with several hundred thousand others. That’s a rough estimate of how many aspiring authors are playing the game alongside of you.

The game board, which is circular and therefore never ending, has three kinds of squares for you to land on. The majority are blank. That means you sit and continue to wait like you were before. Most of the game involves this activity. That’s why it’s a good idea also to have a life while playing.

Another kind of square has a question mark on it. That stands for Dumb Luck, those things that you have no control over but influence your fate. Pick a card from the Dumb Luck stack. Looking back at some of my previous draws (agent rejection letters), you might read something like: “This is very much the sort of novel that I enjoy and ordinarily I’d have been eager to read the rest but the end of summer turned out to be particularly busy and with a new child on the way in early November now is not the best time for me to be taking on new commitments, as promising as they seem.”

Return the card to the bottom of the stack and continue playing.

The third kind of square has an exclamation mark. That stands for Preparation, the things you can do to increase your odds of landing an agent. The stack of cards is as thick as the Dumb Luck pile. That’s a good thing. I suggest cheating and reading them all before the game begins:

  1. Buy an agent book list. Read it carefully noting which agents represent books in your category, share interests related to your book, charge no reading fees, and are open to unpublished authors.
  2. Noticing that your 2001-2002 agent book list was published in 2000, you go online to tap more up-to-date resources. Begin at the Association of Authors’ Representatives. Fewer of your queries return with expired forwarding addresses and incorrect contact information.
  3. When an “agent” you have queried invites you to mail him your complete manuscript, you first check his name at Agent Research to make sure he’s legitimate (a free service), thus saving yourself time, money and emotional energy.
  4. Noticing that anyone who fills out a questionnaire can have himself listed in an agent book, you purchase a “crook list” from Agent Research and cross out those entries.
  5. You know better than to ever accept a contract from an “agent” who charges any fees up front (phone calls, photocopying, etc. are billed to you later).
  6. You look at the acknowledgment pages of books like yours (usually first novels) and find the names of the authors’ agents. When you query these agents, you mention these authors and books by name.
  7. When you find titles of books that agents have placed with publishers, you go to and find out which ones are like yours and then mention them in your query.
  8. Your query letter has a succinct, exciting pitch.
  9. Your query is individually tailored to each agent you send it to.
  10. Your query’s one-paragraph description of your novel highlights its most compelling elements in language that demonstrates your writing skill.
  11. You sell yourself in your query by emphasizing your expertise in your subject matter.
  12. You buy or borrow from libraries books and magazines that instruct you about writing and getting published. You find more articles online.
  13. You go to writing conferences and learn from panelists. Afterwards, you query the agents whom you met or saw and mention the conference in your first paragraph.
  14. You go to writing conferences and pay to have samples of your writing professionally critiqued.
  15. You receive a rejection from an agent with specific criticisms about your manuscript. You listen to every single one and then fix them.
  16. You are fearless about revising.
  17. You read more chapters and articles about crafting excellent query letters, then you rewrite yours again getting feedback from multiple readers.
  18. You read extensively in your genre. You read extensively outside of your genre.
  19. You expand your “credentials” in your query and make contacts by selling your stories, articles and/or other short pieces to magazines, newspapers and/or websites.
  20. You are a member of a writing group, and you know the paradoxical fact that critiquing others’ writing actually hones your skills more than theirs.
  21. You write to published authors whom you admire. The majority send a form letter back. Some, probably those not on the best-seller list, offer you help or advice.
  22. You enroll in a writing program or take individual writing classes which improve your skills and expand your contacts.
  23. Your manuscript has been meticulously proofread more than once by someone other than yourself.
    • Make a list of writers you like and of published books that are similar to yours. Then, find out who represented these works. Check each book’s acknowledgments or do some sleuthing on-line. (I never had to resort to this — it seems too sneaky — but I’ve heard that you could call a publisher’s publicity department, claim to be interested in the rights to the book, and ask for the writer’s agent’s name. Phew.)
    • “Google” every agent. It may be necessary to search multiple sites to ensure that you have correct data. A number of agents will be listed on literary agency websites, but updates to those sites are sometimes delayed. Agents — especially ones who haven’t been in the business long — move around a lot. Basically, do your homework. (In many cases, once an agent’s listing hits a market guide you can buy at a bookstore, the information is obsolete. The internet is going to be a far better resource.)
    • Find out exactly how to approach each agent. These days, more agents accept email submissions, but many still want snail mail.
    • Send an agent only what he asks to see and in the format he wants. If he wants a query and the first 30 pages, send that. Some agents have guidelines about margins and font styles. If you can’t find information on someone’s requirements, it’s typically safe to mail your query letter, the first 20 pages of your book (one and a quarter inch margins on all sides, 12 point Times New Roman font), and a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply.
    • Personalize every query, and make a connection to the agent. State what you like about a client’s work or how you think your book fits into her interests. Please, address each person professionally, spell correctly, and double check addresses. (Note: Mass mailings — snail or otherwise — are obvious and off-putting.)
    • Never email or snail mail your entire manuscript unless it’s requested.
    • Always, always, be gracious and courteous, even when you’re rejected. This industry is a small world of its own, and you want all bridges to remain open.

Most of the other Preparation cards are blank. In time, you will be able to fill them in yourself and draw them at will. If you keep playing, through a combination of Dumb Luck and Preparation, you will advance to the middle of the board when an agent responds positively to one of your queries. The middle of the board consists of multiple tiers, many of which can be skipped. You have already done all that you can do to improve your chances during this level of play. Now just follow instructions.

The agency may request to see the first 50 or 100 pages of your manuscript.

If you pass that round, you get to mail the remaining pages. If not, return your playing piece to Square One.

Depending on the size of the agency you’re dealing with, there may be one or two readers to go through before reaching the head agent. If reader number one doesn’t pass your manuscript up to the next tier, return to Square One. You may advance another level this way before the head agent reviews your work and makes a final yes or no decision. Or he or she may suggest revisions. This does not constitute a yes or a no. No promises are made.

Rewrite and resubmit skipping the previous tiers. If the agent says no to the revision, return to Square One. If the agent says yes, expect to work on at least one more revision, but this time with an agent-author contract in hand.

I reached this point in the game twice, once with each of two manuscripts. While playing the game, this looks like the ultimate end point, the fruition of all your dreams. It’s not. Now you play The Editor Game, which is usually shorter (one way or another) and for the most part played for you by your agent while you wait, another skill you’ve mastered.

After my first time through, I returned to Square One. After my second round, I had a book contract. My novel, a romantic suspense titled Pretend I’m Not Here is being published in July 2002 by HarperCollins.

This isn’t the end point either. Now I’m playing The Promotion Game and The Option Book Game, hopefully to be followed by many more similar games, all equally frustrating and potentially rewarding. The only prerequisite skill needed for any of them is perseverance. You must keep playing to win. Thinking of it as a game will help keep the process in perspective. It can be hard, especially the near misses. There’s only one thing more depressing than getting an agent’s initial attention, teetering on the edge of a contract offer, and then getting turned down: that’s getting no attention at all.

Enjoy the ups and downs, and know that every time you return to Square One, you’re smarter and more experienced. You get an unlimited number of spins. Use them.

Copyright © 2002 Chris Gavaler

    And another…

Tips from a Slush Pile Find: How One Writer Got an Agent
By Ronlyn Domingue

When people ask how I got my agent, I often respond, “Divine intervention.”

In May 2003, I finished my first novel, or thought I had. Within a few days, I mailed query letters and excerpts to five agents, one of whom I’d met at a conference. Three sent polite rejections, one read the manuscript then declined, and the last (the one I’d met) said he liked what he saw but didn’t think it was finished yet.

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I revised The Mercy of Thin Air one last time, my confidence solid. The manuscript went back to the interested agent — then he passed on it. Frankly, we were both disappointed things hadn’t worked out. And I don’t recall breathing for about a month.

Once I emerged from the anaerobic stupor, I approached my agent search like a job.

First, I set my criteria. I only considered agents who were members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. I wanted someone with a track record of sales to major publishing houses. And finally, which was out of my control, I wanted an agent whose faith in this novel was as intense as my own.

Second, I created a database that held the names, addresses, and pertinent information on dozens of agents. They represented writers I liked or novels similar to mine in subject matter or theme. Each was ranked based on how interested I thought they’d be in my work and on how much information I could find. Some were held pending more research; others marked “do not send” because they were allegedly disreputable.

Third, I sent out individually tailored queries and accompanying excerpts to those ranked highest in my database. In total, I submitted to 60 agents. From 50, I received outright rejections. The other 10 read the manuscript. I was surprised to get sincere compliments from several who declined and equally bewildered by those whose soul-testing, awful comments made me question my very existence.

Yet, there was Agent #10. Call it a miracle, indeed, because the first 30 pages of my novel arose from a slush pile into the hands of an intern who gave it to the agent who was, in turn, intrigued enough to see the whole manuscript. In late August 2004, the phone rang (good news doesn’t come in an SASE) and on the other end was Jandy Nelson — an AAR member who routinely sold her authors’ work to major houses and who loved The Mercy of Thin Air as much as I did.

Occasionally when I tell this story, an acquaintance will stare in horror and gasp, “You sent to how many? It took how long?” My response is always the same: “It’s all about persistence.” This is a competitive business we’ve chosen — or been dealt — and only the persistent survive to get published.