While editors are authors' greatest creative partners, literary agents are authors' greatest business partners. They're also often necessary for getting your foot in the door of publishing.
Why do I need an agent?
Please count how many of the following you can confidently say "yes" to:
I personally know the acquisitions editor at my favorite publishing house.
I recently went out to lunch with several editors. Over biscuits and gravy, we discussed what kinds of books they want right now. When my name pops up in their inbox, I'll have their attention right away.
I know which publishers offer the best book deals.
I know which publishers are predatory.
I know how to start a bidding war over my book! I can hold a fast-paced auction over the phone from my office.
I am a lawyer, was trained in law, or otherwise have specialized knowledge regarding how to read and write contracts filled with legalese.
I know how to sell my own movie, translation, and audiobook rights.
I know how to negotiate a higher advance for my book.
I know how to negotiate for better book covers, titles, and audiobook narrators. I know how to file my taxes after I sell foreign rights. I know exactly how to fix the thing in my book that is making every publisher pause.
I regularly travel to literary conventions in New York, London, and Frankfurt to initiate lucrative book deals with publishing insiders.
Did you get 10/10? Probably not. But a great literary agent can confidently say "yes" to all of the above (maybe not the biscuits and gravy part, exactly, but the rest still stands).
And even if you do feel you can do all of the above things on your own, that's sometimes a moot point: Mainstream publishers generally do not accept unagented submissions.
How do I get an agent?
First, do your research. Check out Manuscript Wish List, where agents' listings include the kinds of books they're looking for. Look up the #mswl hashtag on Twitter. Publishers Marketplace lists the deals particular agents are snagging for their clients. See which agents are currently seeking your kind of work; look up who represents your favorite authors. I recommend making a spreadsheet to help you remember the agents you're interested in contacting.
When you find agents you're interested in, look at their websites. Use your spreadsheet to note which materials they require authors to submit. Usually it's some mix of:
a query letter (a quick introduction to you and your book)
a synopsis (an extended summary of your whole plot)
A word of caution: No matter how tempting it is, do not query an agent before your manuscript is complete and ready to be reviewed by professional eyes. The last thing you want is to send an agent a query, have them request your full book, and then realize you don't have a completed story to send them. That's a fast way to burn a bridge.
My book is done. How do I write my query letter?
First of all, congratulations! Finishing a book is no small feat.
This post is not a step-by-step guide to writing a query, because those already exist. But I previously worked as a literary agent's assistant, and it was my job to read about a trillion query letters a day. Nearly all of the romance, YA, and fantasy writers represented by my boss were discovered through the slush pile—by me.
So here are some of my recommendations:
1. Get fresh eyes on your query before you send it. More than one pair. Get it critiqued. Thoroughly. You know your story well, which means you're a poor judge of what is and is not confusing in your elevator pitch. You need to test drive your letter with folks who know nothing about your plot or characters.
2. If there aren't good comp titles for your book, skip them. I see a lot of stressed discussion among writers online about what their comp titles should be. The reality is that they're not necessary (unless an agent specifically requests them, which I have never seen).
Agents don't need comp titles as much as publishers, and an agent who takes you on might have better ideas for comp titles than you. (Hint: Using a TV series or movie as your comp title doesn't work, since the point is to quickly demonstrate what kind of reader your book would appeal to.)
3. Follow the agent's instructions exactly. When they say spoil the ending in your synopsis, they mean it.
4. In your synopsis, do not mention more than two characters by name. The first time you introduce a character, put their name in BOLD CAPS. Agents don't have time to read and reread your letter to make sense of it. Help them by making it easy to get the gist of your story in a 10-second scan.
Argh! I think my book deserves more than a quick scan!
That's why queries are so important. If an agent (or agent's assistant) scans your email and finds that you:
formatted your letter well
followed their instructions
organized your letter and synopsis with the reader in mind
have a well-written opening paragraph in your sample
then congratulations, you are already leagues beyond 99% of query submissions. If you've accomplished all of the above, then you've demonstrated that you take your own writing seriously enough to have done your research. You put real effort into your query, which indicates that you'll put real effort into your book and your business relationships.
That's a great first impression to make. The person on the other side of your email is going to feel that hushed excitement of possibly discovering a jewel in the slush pile. Then they'll read your email more thoroughly.
Become familiar with query letters.
Read good ones and bad ones and agents' critiques of them:
YA fantasy/romance author Margaret Rogerson's query letter
Query Shark is run by an agent who's given a bajillion different critiques of query letters for years and years. Read about 100 of these. Really.
And critiques from literary agent Nathan Bransford
You can get your query critiqued here. Readers, mostly fellow authors, volunteer their time by offering advice. Mainly, they're going to tell you whether your letter is easy to understand. You can return the favor and critique others' queries, which doubly benefits you by making you think critically about what makes a successful query.
If you want professional insight into your query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters, I offer a variety of editing packages. For each package, I'll approach your work exactly as if I were scanning it from a real slush pile. I'll let you know what hooks me, what gives me pause, and provide you with actionable feedback to strengthen your submission. Finally, I'll proofread all of the components of your query. Together, we can make sure your work is ready to be sent to a literary agent. You can read more about this service here.
And finally, there is a lot of information online about writing queries and synopses. That's great! But some resources aren't trustworthy or helpful. Be cautious before accepting the advice of someone who has not worked in a literary agent's office. Before you sign with an agent, do your due diligence. I recommend reviewing Writer's Beware, asking the agent if you can reach out to any of their current clients, and searching their name on social media (especially Twitter). You deserve to have a reputable agent who makes you feel comfortable and supports your writing career.
I hope this has helped. If you have questions, feel free to get in touch. Best of luck!