What is a Literary Agent?
When I’d just had my baby son and was searching for agents, I would tell non-writer friends about the process. But I struggled to explain what an agent was.
“Do they publish your book? When is it coming out?” they’d ask. A fair question for someone not in the publishing world. But the answer is no, agents don’t publish you: they do all the work that comes before. Besides writing your book, of course. Only you can do that!
There are some great articles out there on what good literary agents do. So I’ll just say that a good literary agent will:
- (In some cases) give you editorial comments and feedback that will strengthen your work before any editors see it. If you are lucky enough to sign with an editorial agent, you’ll see what gold the feedback is. Seriously. Often agents have both writing and publishing backgrounds and they do a fantastic job of critiquing clients’ manuscripts.
- Represent your work, and as its representative, do their best to sell it to respected publishing houses. This is why you want to find an agent who REALLY loves the work you do. If an agent isn’t passionate about your writing, they won’t be its best representative.
- Manage your writing career. Good agents will encourage you to keep a steady workflow going so that if/when your first on-submission manuscript fails to sell, you’ve got your next one ready and waiting to go out. When you do land a contract with a publisher, your agent (who takes a cut/rightfully earns a portion of your book’s earnings) will do her best to negotiate the best deal for you. It benefits you both, and both of you will have earned the very best deal there is.
Familiarizing Yourself with the Literary Agency Landscape
Say you have a manuscript you think is as ready for publication as you can make it. You’ve sent it to critique partners, you’ve revised it, you’ve edited it, and finally, you’ve carefully polished it. The next thing you’ll do is…write some more. Except this time you’ll be writing copy that essentially markets you and your book to agents. If you join the SCBWI, you’ll receive a valuable resource to this end: an online version of The Book: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children.
If you’re not interested in the children’s lit market but in the adult market/publishing market in general, books like the Guide to Literary Agents, which is updated yearly, will serve you well. Be aware that even many agents who rep children’s books will also rep books for adults, be they cookbooks or nonfiction or commercial and literary fiction. Also, some agencies have both adult’s and children’s branches within their offices.
What you’ll do with these reference books is comb them for names of agents you think you’d like to query. When I started my agent search, I looked through the names of agencies in alphabetical order. I wrote down which agencies I wanted to query (you can also use a site like QueryTracker to help you manage this overwhelming process), what their websites were, and which agent in that agency I planned to query. Then—and this is a very important step—I visited each website and carefully noted their exact specifications. And they all have them. Here is an example from my agency, Upstart Crow Literary. See how clear and specific the instructions are? You must follow them exactly.
If you don’t, chances are the agent won’t read your query letter, much less the sample pages you send. Why? Because by not following every detail of their submission guidelines, you’ve shown that you’re not really interested in that agency and that agent. (And that you can’t read instructions.) And you MUST be interested and invested in the possibility of working with every agency you query. It all relates back to the truth that you and your agent must be a good match, because you will be working together for hopefully a very long time and she will be representing your writing, your art, in the hardscrabble world of publishing.
Writing and Submitting Query Letters
Now that you know which agents you will query, you need to draft a query letter that you can modify to fit each separate agent you query. A query letter is an art form in itself. It’s what will get an agent to read your submission. It must hook the reader, summarize the book, and present information about the novel (such as word count and what audience it’s meant for) and about you, the author. Here’s what my query letter to my agent looked like:
Dear Ms. Chiotti,
Lucy’s life begins on the night it nearly ends. Her second chance comes in the arms of the child who saves her—a girl as wounded and lonely as Lucy herself.
The last pup in a litter of German shepherd dogs, Lucy flees home the day her breeder turns a beating hand on his wife and Lucy’s dam and sire. Ashamed at her inability to stand up to him, Lucy runs deep into the snow-glazed Montana forests, where on an icy road a car hits her. The car’s occupants are eleven-year-old Annabelle and her caretaker aunt. They rescue Lucy, who soon desires nothing more than a permanent home with Annabelle. But when the breeder tracks Lucy to Annabelle’s house and charms the girl’s single aunt, the dog and the girl must find a way to stay together and show everyone that he is a liar and a dangerous man.
LUCY RUNNING is a middle grade animal novel that runs 49,000 words. My manuscript’s animal protagonist, along with its themes of survival and finding family, will appeal to fans of The Underneath and Charlotte’s Web. In writing LUCY RUNNING, I worked with mentors Susan Fletcher and An Na at Vermont College of Fine Arts where the manuscript formed my creative thesis. I’m also a Published and Listed member of the SCBWI. The full manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.
Even though I had other versions of queries for the same book (I queried 25 agents) it took me time to modify this for agent Danielle Chiotti. Note how there is a hook, a short body, and an ending paragraph with pertinent information in it. Query letters must ultimately be short and snappy and interesting.
There are a few ways agents can reject or express interest in your work, and they will often specify their approximate reply times (usually in the range of 4-10 weeks). Some tell you that if you don’t hear from the agency by that time, you can consider your submission rejected. Others will send form rejection emails. But if your work catches an agent’s eye, they will send a letter or email like the one I received from Danielle:
Thank you for querying me about your manuscript, LUCY RUNNING. I read your sample chapter with interest, and I would like to invite you to send along the full manuscript for review.
I read these thrilling words on my phone while at a stop light in Tulsa, Oklahoma and couldn’t wait to get home so I could send the full manuscript to Danielle!
After sending the full manuscript, you’ll wait another set of weeks for the agent to get back to you. Sometimes they will ultimately reject. Other times, they will send you feedback in the form of an R&R, or revise and resubmit. (If an agent does this, pay attention! They took the time to make notes on your manuscript and if you agree with the notes, it’s worth your while to make the revisions and resubmit your work.) Or, if you’re super lucky, the agent will ask you for a phone call.
You Only Need ONE Agent to Fall in Love With Your Story
It actually didn’t happen in either of these ways for me. Danielle ended up turning down LUCY RUNNING but invited me to send me any other work that I had. I told her about AND THE BLACKBIRDS MOCK, and she expressed interest. So I sent that manuscript along. She ended up offering a phone call during which we talked about the manuscript and the writing life. At the end of our conversation she offered to become my agent. We signed our contract later that day!
While I felt pretty down after each of the 25 rejections I received, I received fewer rejections total than many peers I know in the kidlit world. Some lucky people sign agents after 5 queries; many sign agents after hundreds. You have to let yourself mourn each rejection, and then gather yourself off the ground and try again. You will face rejection throughout your entire writing career. So getting used to the feeling, or at least accepting that it’s going to happen, is crucial if you want to survive. But the shining moments—like the feeling of putting your pen to the paper of an agency contract—will make up for all those rejections.
You only need one agent to fall in love with your story. Take care in researching agencies, writing query letters, and submitting queries. With a lot of hard work and little bit of luck, you’ll find The One.You only need one agent to fall in love with your story. Take care in researching agencies, writing query letters, and submitting queries. With a lot of hard work and little bit of luck, you'll find The One. Click To Tweet
If you have any further questions on the process of searching for an agent, let me know in the comments below. I’ll be happy to fill in any gaps I’ve left out.
Thanks for reading!
Note: My wonderful agent gave me permission to post the query letter and the excerpt from her email. Many thanks, Danielle!