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A Different Take on the “How I Got an Agent” Blog Post

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

When I began the search for a literary agent, I did my research. In fact, because I was working on my Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the time, I did my graduate presentation on it. I called it, “Mastering Rejection: The Art of Finding a Literary Agent” and promptly informed my eager Zoom audience that I felt like a huge fraud given the fact that I myself did not have a literary agent at the time. In fact, this was where I stood in July 2021 when I gave the presentation:

18 Months of Stats: - 4 novels - 3 pseudonyms - 373 queries - 13,104 hours of waiting - 34 manuscript requests - 143 rejection letters - 1 close call/referral - 2 major revisions - 1 “fingers crossed situation”

It was – simply and honestly – awful. I’d completed four manuscripts in four semesters, having never written fiction prior to starting the program. I studied the publishing business, memorizing information about imprints and editors and trying to figure out where I thought my stories could land. I subscribed to everything, read endless craft books, author blogs, and every inch of the monthly Writer’s Digest magazines that arrived in my mailbox, trying desperately to absorb as much industry knowledge as humanly possible in my quest to become an author.

By the time I delivered the presentation, I felt like an expert, but I had nothing to show for it. No contract, no agents knocking on my door. Only heartache, a by-product of eighteen months of rejection.

There are some things I wish I had known before I started the process of looking for an agent, so for the hungry author starting out scouring the Internet like I was just a few short months ago, here are my tips:

Step One: Read The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

This book touts itself as being the perfect companion to an MFA course, because it offers information that is often either overlooked or purposely neglected in the education process for being too “business-oriented.” Friedman argues that writers often get involved in the business end of things blindly, typically to the detriment of their work (and “no one knows how to avoid writing like a writer”). However, she also states that anyone who wishes to become a published author should not go forth into the field without a proper education regarding the business first.

Her book, a thorough guide to all things publishing, includes information about the choice to make a living as a writer (and the personal social/cultural implications of that choice), an overview of the publishing industry, a how-to on the steps to getting your work published, the importance of sales and the expectations publishers have of writers in helping sell their own work, and other ways writers can make money. To be fair, it paints a fairly bleak picture of the reality associated with becoming a published author – one that is a far cry from the daydream I harbored when I started my MFA. But I’d rather be aware of that reality than create unrealistic expectations for myself; this is also why I recommend reading the Friedman book before you do anything else. The most important thing I learned is that most authors don’t make enough money from book sales to live comfortably, and often, they supplement with teaching, freelance writing, and other side hustles. In my case, I’m fortunate to have a lucrative full-time job, one that I could easily see myself doing for the next twenty years until I retire – but I know that is certainly not the case for most authors, so it’s important to be prepared.

If you don’t feel ready to read the entire thing, start with chapters one and five. You should also check out a chart that explains the various paths to becoming published, located here: Assuming you’re a novelist looking to be published traditionally via one of the “big five” publishing houses, you will need an agent. This is non-negotiable, as big five houses won’t look at work submitted directly by authors. If you find yourself unable to secure an agent, even after going through the lengthy and challenging process that follows, all hope is not lost. You can always publish through a smaller house, or you can pursue the option of self-publishing. Both of those options are discussed quite thoroughly in the book.

The three chapters that speak to the process of finding an agent are chapters ten through twelve. Since you’ll need to start with that step anyway, I’d recommend you read these chapters before moving into the active search process. They offer a broad, succinct overview of the procedure you’ll have to go through in order to effectively research agencies and finally narrow down your search for a literary agent. You might note that some of the reading selections that follow may seem repetitive once you’ve read the Friedman book, but I have often found that it helps to see things presented in a number of different ways before it really sinks in for me.

Step Two: Finish your manuscript, and consider the revisions you might need.

You might wonder why I didn’t list this as the first step. The truth is, once you’ve gotten to the point with your manuscript where you feel like the end is in sight, you’re likely going to need a rewrite – or, at the very least, some significant revising once you’ve completed it. The tiny voice inside your head that questioned certain choices you made in the story – you know, the voice you told to shut up and stop distracting you – was your intuition, and it was probably right. Finish the draft though. Go through the process. Then, begin to consider a rewrite. I denied the fact that I could need a rewrite for a while once I completed my first manuscript. I thought, “I’m different; this story is different, and it’s perfect and amazing as is.”

I was wrong.

I had feedback from teachers, beta readers and my own instinct, but instead of reading between the lines of the sugar-coated pleasantries I received, I forged ahead and submitted that manuscript to dozens and dozens of agents.

Only when an agent told me I needed a rewrite did I actually listen. But, I also learned that sometimes it helps to put some space and breathing room between you and your manuscript before you go back in for the revision process. That interim time is a great opportunity to begin your research process – and I wish I knew that before I went crazy burning through potential leads with a manuscript that still needed work. We’ll talk more about the revision process in a bit, but begin to consider it as an integral step now.

Step Three: Read Jeff Herman’s book, Guide to Agents, Editors and Publishers (2021), and make yourself a spreadsheet.

Read it cover to cover. This book offers an in-depth look at the publishing industry, from writing your initial query letter to how to write a synopsis and what the industry trends are like for that particular year. Perhaps more importantly, it humanizes the industry by offering a profile on each agent listed, based on an annual questionnaire that Herman sends out to as many agents as possible. They must respond to the survey to be included in the book. The survey asks questions about pet peeves in submissions, the genres each agent represents, fun facts/interesting information about each agent, and of course, submission requirements/contact info.

As you read the book, take this opportunity to begin compiling information about agents you find interesting on an Excel spreadsheet. Some authors use fancy data tracking software for their query process, but I found that a simple Excel spreadsheet worked perfectly fine for my needs. You’ll want to keep track of each agent’s name, the agency he/she comes from, contact information/agency website, any pertinent details regarding submissions, and anything else you find that resonates with you. Try to find roughly twenty-five agents to start with, just to get a sense of who’s out there and what they’re about.

The data tracking process is going to become very important in your search, so if you find the organizing of information to be a challenge, play around with the information in a variety of formats so you can find something you’re comfortable with. There is a good chance that you will end up submitting your manuscript to well over a hundred agents (or 343, if you’re me lol), so you want to be sure you can sort your data according to submission date, response (if any), and other metrics.

Step Four: Write a query letter and a synopsis. Research appropriate comp titles so you can use them in your query letter.

You might be wondering why I’m suggesting that you write a query letter now. Truthfully, it’s because if you’re anything like me, you’ve decided to completely disregard that whole thing I mentioned in Step Two about the need to revise/rewrite. You’re probably excited, or you probably just want to see for yourself what the landscape out there is like. And, hey, I get it. I was the same way.

So, okay, you’ve decided to write the dreaded query letter. It’s honestly not that hard, provided you’ve lived and breathed your story so many times that you feel like you know it inside and out. But it is the single most important page you’ll write, so don’t rush it and don’t send it out until you are completely sure that it represents your work to the absolute best of your ability.

To research how to write a query letter, I leaned heavily on the Jeff Herman book. There’s a comprehensive chapter about queries in that book that offers samples and suggestions. I also researched some of my favorite authors’ websites. Nicholas Sparks has a great section on his site for writers, and so does Jennifer Weiner, and both of them offer their own query letters you can use as a model. Lots of authors do this. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, is another spectacular resource.

Query letters are comprised of a few key components: a personalized greeting, a one-line (or one paragraph max) pitch that includes comp titles, some (brief) jacket copy information about the novel, and a short author bio. Let’s discuss each of these sections so you can understand why they matter, and why no query letter is complete without all four of them. (Side bar: Barbara Poelle (an agent at Irene Goodman Literary Agency) writes all about the art of the query letter in her book, Funny You Should Ask, which is another must-read, in my opinion.)

The Personalized Greeting: Nothing long. Nothing crazy. Call the agent by his/her name. Never use “To Whom It May Concern.” Write a quick sentence that shows you’ve done your homework, something to the effect of, “I’ve chosen to query you with this project because of your proven track record in selling commercial romantic comedy.” This does not have to be your lead-off sentence, but it needs to be in there somewhere. Agents are people, and some read as many as a hundred queries a week. Show them you care enough to make the query “professionally personal.”

The Pitch: A pitch (sometimes known as an elevator pitch) is your one-line description of your book. The absolute best place to find sample pitch lines is Publisher’s Marketplace ( I’ll discuss Publisher’s Marketplace and their daily deals e-mails in a later section, but here are some real sample pitch lines, all taken directly from Publisher’s Marketplace, to give you an idea of how the industry utilizes them.

Uzma Jalaluddin’s HANA KHAN CARRIES ON, pitched as “You’ve Got Mail” set in competing halal restaurants…

Lizzie Damilola Blackburn’s YINKA, WHERE IS YOUR HUZBAND?, pitched as having shades of My Best Friend’s Wedding and Sophie Kinsella meets QUEENIE, following a 31-year-old British Nigerian woman who sets out to find a date for her cousin’s wedding, aided by a spreadsheet and her best friend (and many interfering aunties), tackling race, religion, feminism and identity…

Jessica Hamilton’s AVRIL ISLAND, pitched in the vein of THE LOVELY BONES, featuring a woman who, upon learning of her sister’s recent death in a fatal car accident and realizing she is the last surviving member of her family, returns to the small idyllic island where she grew up to mourn, but quickly realizes her childhood summers on the island were not at all how she remembered, told in alternating points of view between the ethereal sister and herself…

Joani Elliott’s THE AUDACITY OF SARA GRAYSON, pitched as for fans of EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER, about a washed-up writing teacher who finds out that her mother’s dying wish is for her to write the final book in her world-famous series…

Dr. Gareth Worthington PhD’s A TIME FOR MONSTERS, pitched as THE GIRL WITH TTHE DRAGON TATTOO meets DEATH WISH, a Nordic noir in which a female serial killer who only feels emotion when listening to music is hell-bent on revenge and must outwit a disgraced detective determined to redeem himself if she is to complete her carefully orchestrated plan and cover up the ultimate secret…

These pitches are all similar in that they reference other people’s work. The titles referred to for comparison are called “comp titles.” They are helpful for agents to have because they’re concise, typically popular, and by comparing two commonly known books or movies – or even just one, but “with a twist,” the agent will get an understanding of what the story holds without needing to read any further. If you bring a great pitch to the table, you’ll ultimately make the agent’s life a whole lot easier because you’ll save him/her from having to write one for your work when he/she goes to pitch it to publishers. Of course, it is possible to pitch your work without comp titles, but as a debut novelist, my recommendation is that you show agents that you know the industry and recognize the value of comps. And yes, it’s perfectly in-bounds to comp your work to a movie or TV series (but if you do that, try to throw a book title in there for good measure).

Pro Tip: Put the title of your manuscript in all caps, because that’s how they do it in Publisher’s Marketplace, and that’s how most agents have been trained to do it.

Supporting Detail: Okay, so now we’ve covered the intro and the pitch. The next thing to work through is the supporting detail. This is the paragraph or group of sentences where you go slightly more in-depth into the plot of your novel. Share a bit about the characters, the stakes, and the dramatic arc. Consider this akin to “jacket copy” – but more concise. Most query letters are accompanied by the first five or ten pages of the manuscript, so don’t worry if you don’t get the entire plot down in the query. Just tell enough of the story for the reader (in this case, the agent) to want to learn more.

Author Bio: Last but not least, you’ll need to offer up some biographical information about yourself. Keep this brief, and try to include only relevant information, such as the fact that you have an MFA from <insert name> University. If you have any publishing credentials, be sure to list them. If you’ve received any awards, fellowships, scholarships, etc. related to your writing, include that information. If you’d like to insert a few quick, personal details, you can, but don’t die in the bio ditch telling a potential agent your life story. Queries are brief, so there’s no time for that. Also, if you have zero publishing credentials and have received no awards, don’t worry. Just share what you can and move on. Agents are always on the hunt for new talent. In fact, nothing is more thrilling for an agent that being the first person to discover an amazing new author.

Synopsis: Once your query letter is complete, you’ll want to get to work on a separate document called the synopsis. A synopsis is an interesting document. Its purpose is to share the entire plot of the story, including the ending, with the agent in roughly two pages or less. I single spaced mine, and there was no guidance out there in the industry that suggested that doing so was inappropriate, so you can buy yourself some space that way if you need to.

Personally, I hated writing the synopsis for each of my novels more than I hated writing the queries, if for no other reason than I didn’t want the agent to know the ending. I felt like it was cheap. Take me to dinner first, you know? Wine me and dine me. You’ve got to work for my ending. I believe agents who ask for a synopsis are either one of two things: a) super busy, or b) lazy. (I found this funny because they’re obviously opposite character traits.) The super busy agent orchestrates lots of deals (like, ten or more) each year, and doesn’t have the time to read everything cover to cover. She is likely using my synopsis as a test. If she reads it and sees something majorly wrong, or missing, she won’t need to read the whole book, just a few sample chapters. She may not even read those if the synopsis turns her off. This is an efficient use of her time as a busy agent.

The lazy agent may not want to invest the time in reading your whole book, and if you’ve submitted a synopsis, then great news (for her): she doesn’t have to. She can scan the synopsis first and then decide whether or not she cares to look at the sample pages. I will say this, though. Agents typically work on commission. Few agents, especially those in smaller firms, make a livable salary. In order to be successful at their jobs, they need to sell books. I have only really encountered one agent who I felt was kind of lazy, and that was the one from my first round of queries who took three months to get back to me about my full manuscript. I know she wasn’t selling books; she had zero sales listed on Publisher’s Marketplace. I also knew she posted an awful lot on Twitter about her job as a substitute teacher. She also posted pictures on her Instagram about the long, four mile walks she took regularly, the new recipes she was trying out, and the fact that she still lived at home with her parents. I’m not knocking her, but the more time you have to take pictures of the fancy cupcakes you’re baking, the less time you’re spending reading. And a synopsis may be the cliff notes an agent like that needs to handle their workload.

Understand this: Good agents are not lazy. So if an agent requests a synopsis, assume he/she is a good agent and don’t half-ass this document. A bad synopsis could hurt you just as much as a bad query letter.

Step Five: Consider that revision one last time.

Like, really consider it. The best way to do this is by reading a book I discovered called Story Fix by Larry Brooks. It’s an easy read, and a worthwhile one. In it, Brooks uses layman’s terms to see if what you’ve written matches up neatly with something that could become commercially successful. This is really where the rubber meets the road when it comes to debut authors.

One major thing I learned from this book came in the early chapters where Brooks discusses the difference between high concept, low concept, and premise. In order for a debut author to be successful, she has to write something “high concept.” This term is used over and over again in the book and it means something that hasn’t been done before. It needs to be timely, interesting, and most importantly, new.

Unfortunately for me, after reading Story Fix, I had to accept the hard truth that my first manuscript was not high concept. Alas, I got to work on my second one with the intention of making sure it was a high concept story, first and foremost. And, wouldn’t you know? I got a lot more traction from agents with the second manuscript than with the first.

Story Fix really helped me shape my understanding of the publishing industry, and has also helped me look at my ideas in a way that are not only interesting to me personally, but that might also have some mass appeal in the commercial market. The shift in my thought process altered my choices about what to write during the period of my “unagented” life.

Story Fix may have you thinking more seriously about a rewrite. If so, then go for it. Take the time and effort to do it before you query – because once you get on the query-go-round, you’ll waste a lot of time waiting, hoping, and feeling like shit when you get rejected over and over again, and that might just suck the fun out of writing for you altogether. Make sure that what you’re delivering to potential agents is not only the best writing you’ve got to offer, but also the most sellable.

Step Six: Do your research.

Once you’ve completed all the other steps, now you’ll want to really get down to the nitty-gritty of your research. Expect to spend at least 60-90 minutes researching each of the agents you plan to submit queries to. Here are the basic tools that I recommend you use.

Subscribe to ($25/year) and Publisher’s Marketplace ($25/month). Then, research each agent’s information with the following:

- Her listing: This will tell you how many people have submitted to her in the recent past, how long she takes to get back to them, if she offers a courtesy response, how often she requests full manuscripts, etc.

- Her Publisher’s Marketplace page: This will tell you how many sales she’s made since 2004, which houses she’s sold to, which editors she’s worked with from those houses, and (in some cases) how much the work was sold for.

- Her MSWL profile: This will tell you what she’s interested in, her preferences, and a little more about her. MSWL is Manuscript Wish List, which is a website, but is also a common Twitter hashtag in the agenting world. Each agent has an MSWL site which shares information about her and lists favorite books, favorite movies, and generally speaking, the kinds of books she hopes to acquire.

- Her Twitter account: This may tell you very little or give you a ton of insight into who she is, depending on how active the Twitter account is. Usually, the info on the Twitter account will let you know whether or not you would want to go out for a cup of coffee with the agent. Do you have anything in common? Any shared interests? Could you sustain a conversation with this person for more than five minutes? Read a few tweets to find out.

- Do a Google search. Look for interviews the agent has done. (Writer’s Digest often publishes “New Agents to Look Out For” articles.)

- Of course, do your due diligence and read through the agency website where your agent works.

Once you’ve completed all these steps, format your query letter to this specific agent. Make sure to follow the agency’s guidelines (which will be listed on their website) with meticulous detail. Failure to follow directions usually leads to an automatic rejection.

Then, you’ll be ready to submit query and (if requested) sample pages. And, last but not least, then you have to wait. Patiently. While you wait, start writing something new.

Here are some things I wish I had known before I began this process:

1) If an agent is interested in you, (usually) you’ll know quickly. This goes for initial queries as well as full manuscripts.

2) Even though an agent requests a full manuscript, that doesn’t necessarily mean she is going to read the whole thing. This feels awfully cruel and unfair, like how can you judge my work if you haven’t even finished the manuscript? But it happens all the time, so be prepared.

3) Keep an eye on the trends and on social media. Some agencies look super legit, and then crazy things happen. Any major industry controversies will be discussed via Publisher’s Marketplace (an added bonus if you buy their membership). When you sign up for the membership, you get a daily newsletter called Publisher’s Lunch sent to your email. It shares updates on what’s going on in the industry. Knowing that information and being able to articulate it to an agent indicates that you pay attention to the industry, which is a desirable trait and will help you to earn the respect of a potential agent.

4) An R&R (which means “revise and resubmit”) is a good thing, not a bad thing. Any specific, directed feedback from an agent is valuable. If you receive specific feedback in a rejection letter, you are allowed to ask for an R&R. (The worst the agent can say is no – or just not write back at all.)

To conclude my super lengthy first-ever blog post, finding an agent is not for the faint of heart, and it’s not a one-and-done kind of process. The best advice I can offer is that you prepare yourself emotionally for the roller coaster ride. Even if you are the best author on the planet, you are going to get rejected. A lot. But if you know that up front and are ready for it, hopefully it will make the process a little bit easier to handle.

Good luck!

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