There are thousands of agents out there at any given time, but those thousands of agents are getting requests for representation from hundreds of would-be-writers every month. There’s massive, massive competition for the attention of a single agent, and so the querying process has been developed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and help the agents find the authors with the talent, drive, and discipline that they want to represent. Agents can, therefore, afford to be picky.
The very first thing that you should know is that agents sign clients on proven, tangible talent, not “what ifs” and “maybes” – you could have the best idea for a novel in the entire world, but if it’s not down on paper, polished and complete, there’s nothing there to actually read and evaluate, and then sell.
This is where a lot of writers first stumble – their first impression is awful. They don’t finish and polish the manuscript, or they don’t research the agents they’re approaching enough and submit to the wrong agents, or their cover letters are horrendous. The agent-writer relationship is very important, and it’s vital to find an agent who not only represents the kind of writing that the author is submitting at the moment, but also the sort of career they want to have – and the agent has to be excited about the writer’s manuscript, too, and have the connections to sell it to the right publishing houses or manage the various rights. The agent and the writer have to like each other, and have to be able to maintain a professional relationship based on trust. They don’t have to be friends, but they have to be able to get along.
It’s also useful, but not necessary to have a handful of publications in short story anthologies, genre magazines, academic journals, newspapers, a completed thesis, a blog that you run and update consistently with a significant following, a series of popular fanfictions, etc. prior to beginning the agent-search.
Basically, that completed manuscript and any other publications are proof that not only can you write, but that you can finish what you write. And that there are other people who believe your writing is good and like it – whether that’s paid, or just a big number in terms of stats in a free-to-read medium like Wattpad or Archive of Our Own. You just need to prove that there have already been others who have invested in you and found your work worth publishing. This can include your stories from Wattpad, Raddish, or any other sort of online story-sharing platform, especially if the story is finished and you have a significant number of read stats and engagement.
Should I try to get an agent with my Online Publishing Platform Story?
Well, that’s a tough question.
See, here’s the thing: agents and publishers are in the business of making money. And a story that is already out there available for free to the reading public is, well, not making money.
There are two times when I would say using your Wattpad/Raddish/Online Published Story on submission is a good idea:
First, if you have a highly polished and complete tale, that is relatively unknown on the site and has low reads. This way it can be pulled for polishing and submission.
And yes, I think that if you’re going to submit with the story, you should delist it from the website. Why? Because agents and publishers know how to use Google and if the book comes up and they find it for free elsewhere, then it’s already out there and not something they can commodity.
The second is the exact opposite – if the story is massively, hugely, incredibly popular. I’m talking like, “After”popular. Like, E.L. James “Fifty Shades of Grey”-back-when-it-was-still-a-fanfic popular. These kinds of stories, even though they’ve already been published online, have a massive, rabid, incredibly dedicated fanbase that is willing to purchase a book they’ve already read for the sheer fannish devotion. That’s a book worth shopping around to agents because it’s a guaranteed money-maker.
And what should you do if you fall between those two points?
Well, I think you should write another book.
See, agents aren’t just here for a one-and-done with their clients. They want to represent your entire career, and that means multiple projects spread over many years. You’re going to have to write multiple books over your career, and this is the time to start. Create book that has nothing to do with your already-published-online one, and make sure it’s a strong one.
And that already-published-online story? Mention it in your cover letter to the agent and cite the number of views, comments, and votes you’ve gotten on it. Use it as proof that people already like your work. Later, down the road, when you have an agent and you guys have a good working relationship set up, that is when you mention that already-published-online story again. Ask them if they’d be interested in reading it, maybe seeing if there’s some potential for money-making there.
Your agent may say yes, they may say no. Heck, maybe the announcement of your publishing deal will have skyrocketed your story’s popularity. You can’t be sure what will happen to that story, but it’s always nice to keep it on the digital story-sharing site so people interested in your forthcoming book have a chance to sample your storytelling style.
Of course, this is just what I would do. If you feel that you’d try a different route, that’s up to you.
So how does this all work?
- Write a novel. Edit and polish that novel within an inch of it’s life. You can do this with a professional editor, or with critique partners, or beta readers, whatever suits you and your process the best. Just make sure that the novel is 1) complete, and 2) the best version of itself. You only get to make a first impression once; make sure it’s a good one.
- Write your Pitch Package. This will include the cover letter that you submit along with your manuscript, and should be equally as polished as your book. You can read about what should be in a Pitch Package here.
- Research which agents you want to submit to. You can find info in the agency guides that are published each year in your country, as well as on websites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, and Writer Beware. Read industry publications like your local Writer’s Guild/Union magazine and newsletter, or Publishers Weekly. I also went to the bookstore and wrote down the names of all the authors who were writing books like mine – SF/F, Queer, near-future spec, very thinky – and then went home and researched who their agents were. Social media has also made this so much easier than it was when I was first looking for an agent, because now you can see how those agents communicate, what sorts of things are important to them, and can even have little interactions with them prior to submitting.
- Research which agents you want to submit to more. I cannot stress this enough – read their website and blog. Make sure they are even open to new submissions. Make extra sure they represent what you write (i.e.don’t send your western romance to an agent who only does space opera). Figure out if their agency shares submissions between all the agents or if you can query another agent in the practice if one doesn’t offer. Know who their other clients are and the kinds of deals they’ve gotten through thier agents.
- Submit. Agents prefer that you submit to them one at a time so that they have the chance to read your work without outside pressures. I did it a few at a time, tracking them on an Excel sheet that listed all of the things they wanted in each submission, and more importantly, recorded their feedback. When the same feedback was given more than three times, I took a long hard look at the book, did some revisions to address the issue, and resumed sending the book out.
This will be a long process and could take anywhere from several months to several years.
- Start with your favourite, #1, big dream agent. This way you’re not insulting a lesser-desired agent who is offering by asking them to wait while you query someone you’d like better, and it means that if you hit big on the first go, then your hunt is over right away. Woo hoo. (This is also why you need to make sure your book is the best it can be and has been through revisions and edits from outside eyes before you ever start submitting.)
- When you submit your manuscript, give the agent exactly what they asked for. No more. No less. If they say “Query letter, first five chapters, and a picture of a clown with a purple nose,” give them the letter, the chapters, and the picture and nothing else. Why? They are testing you. Yes. This is a test about whether you can follow directions, and whether you are worth working with as a result. Okay, so no one actually asks for clown pictures, but the point stands. If they ask for the first five chapters, don’t send the whole book. If they ask for the whole book, don’t send them only the first five. They have a specific process for how they evaluate manuscripts and potential clients and you don’t want to mess with their groove. They are just looking for an excuse to reject you so they can move on to the next person in the slushpile. Do not give them one.
- Only submit to agents in the way they tell you to submit. If they say paper, send it on paper. If they say email, email them. If there is a form to fill out, fill it out. Do not hand-deliver it to the agency offices unless they specifically tell you to do so.
- Be polite, oh my god, be polite. Be a professional. No one wants to work with a whiny, cranky, self-important snowflake. And trust me when I tell you that agents talk to one another. They will know if you send back a snarky, horrible email when you receive a rejection, or if you bitch about them on your own social media, or neg them in the cover letter. These are human beings that you are hoping to form a relationship with, and you will be asking to manage your career and money. Treat them like the professionals they are.
- And for the love of little baby ducks, no bribes or weird submission materials. Don’t send cookies, or bookmarks, or a cover you made for your book yourself, or gifts. And if it’s one of the agencies that still prefers paper submissions, don’t send it on scented stationary or in green swirly pen. You don’t know whose migraines that might trigger. Professional, professional, professional.
- Wait. I know, it’s frustrating and terrible, but you gotta give the agent time to read your submission – and all of the ones that came in before yours. Their website will usually indicate how long you can expect to wait before you hear from them; usually it’s a few months but sometimes it’s upwards of a year. If that time has lapsed and they haven’t responded to your submission at all, you can send them a politely worded follow up to ask about the status of your submission.
- If you’re like me and query just a few agents at a time, and one comes back with an offer while you’re still waiting to hear from the others, it’s professional to message the others and either politely withdraw your submission from their slushpile, or inform them that you have an offer and that you’d like to hear from that agent too, in case they may also be interested and may like to counter-offer.
- Agents review your book on several points – does the agent think it’s well written? Is it original, fresh, intriguing, saleable? Is it pandering to a trend that is going to be dead in the time it takes to get the book into print (usually a few years), or could it possibly pioneer a new one? Is the writing good but the plot broken, yet fixable? Would it make a good series?
- Agents will look you up. Again, agents know how to Google and they will look at your online presence, the way you conduct yourself, and the professional-ness of your blog and website if you have one. They want to know if you’re going to be good for their agency, or a risk to their reputation. (So if you’re going off on Twitter about how stupid a previous agent you submitted to is for not recognizing the special awesomeness of your holy talent, be prepared to have every other agent you query after that say ‘no thanks’ to being a part of your narcissistic dumpster-fire career, too.)
- More often than not, you’re going to get a politely worded “No, thank you,” with little or no details as to why the manuscript was rejected. Assume that it just didn’t hook the agent, and move on. They’ve got lots of submissions to get through. I always replied with a very nice “Thanks so much for your consideration, and I wish you all the best with your current clients, ta ta” kind of email and left it at that. They’ve made up their mind, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
- However, you might get a conditional rejection. This will be something like, “I liked this, but I think XYZ isn’t working and I’d like to see you address that and resubmit please.” Now, when you get an email like that, you need to remember that 1) it’s just that agent’s opinion. If you don’t like the agent’s suggestion for changes, you’re not obligated to make those changes and resubmit. You can just politely say ‘no thanks’ and move on to the next agent (although, you know, remember that they do this for a living so they have an idea of what they’re talking about.) 2) It’s not a promise of a yes later down the line. It’s just a promise to re-read and give it a second consideration.
- You might get an alternate request. The agent might not want or need the book you submitted for various reasons – it’s too close to something one of their other clients is already doing, or the trend is dead, etc. – but they love your writing and want to see more from you. They may ask to look at what else you have. Now, ideally, while you’ve been querying you’ve also been writing. For reasons that I go into further detail about in “How to Plan a Series“, you should be writing something different from what you submitted with, and not the second book of the same series. If it’s not finished, tell the agent that you have a manuscript in progress and if they’d be willing to wait a few weeks for you to polish up the existing chapters to send along, you’d be happy to do so. If you don’t have anything on the go, point them to your story on an online platform (if you have one), or tell them that you don’t have anything else at the moment but look forward to pitching them in the future with another novel when it’s ready. (And if you finish querying to no success with your current manuscript, then absolutely write another novel and send it to that agent. Be sure to remind them that they asked for something else from you when you submit.)
- Sometimes, there may be something in the letter that you might be able to respond to. For example, when I submitted my debut novel to a small press publisher, the editor said she really, really loved the characters and concept, but that there were several flaws in the manuscript that she couldn’t see a way toward fixing and that’s why she said ‘no’. I replied and politely asked that if I took some time to rewrite the novel to address her concerns, would she be willing to re-read it and reconsider my submission. She said yes, I rewrote, and she ended up accepting the manuscript for the publishing house. However, had she said no, I would have taken her advice, and rewritten the book anyway, and then moved on to other agents and publishers to submit to.
- Hopefully, all this submitting, and tracking the feedback, and revising your manuscript accordingly, and submitting again, will pay off and you’ll end up signing with an agent. But I’m gonna be really honest with you – it might not. You could get to the end of the list of agents that you wanted to work with, and have no offers.
- At this point, you need to step back and re-evaluate: does your craft need work, and that’s why you were rejected? Is the story right for the time? Did you tell the story in the right age range and demographic, or is it too mature/juvenile? And, more importantly – do you still want an agent? Is this still the route you want to go, or do you want to give indie publishers, small presses, vanity publishing, or self-publishing a try? (And please, for the love of those same baby ducks, don’t choose to go into selfpub on a knee-jerk defensive reflex because you feel rejected by trade publishing – selfpubbing is a very hard small business to open and run and you need to be even more professional and informed to do it well and make any kind of profit.)
- If the answer is yes, you still want an agent, then I would recommend putting that book in a drawer and starting a new one. That first manuscript can always be revised and revived later. And you probably learned so much from writing that first book that your next one will be a hundred times better. But for now, stick it somewhere that’s away and move on, and try again. And be heartened by knowing that pretty much every author has a “trunk book” that didn’t get them an agent – a lot of people get agents on their second or third manuscripts. I know an author who got an agent on her eighth.
- If an agent likes the sample of your manuscript you sent per their instructions (the “partial”), they will likely ask for a “full” – meaning the whole book. They may also ask for things like market comparisons or series pitches. Don’t worry, if you’ve created your full Pitch Package, you’ll already have that stuff ready to go out. I always recommend taking a day or two before replying to give the manuscript a quick re-read to catch any last-minute typos or glaring errors, and then sending on the manuscript.
- If the agent likes the full book, they’ll likely ask for a phone call to have a chat with you. This is to see how you communicate together, check if you guys are on the same wavelength, and to give you the opportunity to ask questions. Don’t be nervous – remember, this is as much about you deciding if you can work with this agent as them evaluating you in return. Have a list of questions for them, and note down their answers. Things like whether they’re more of a hand-holder or if they have no interest in being part of your emotional support network, just your business one. Whether they like to offer editorial advice on your new books. Whether they like your ideas for some other novels (again, they’re in this for your whole career, not just this manuscript). Whether they’d be open to meeting in person regularly. What kind of deals they’ve closed in the last year. Then thank them for their offer and let them know that you’re interested and will get back to them with your decision.
- You don’t have to decide right away. I mean, obviously don’t take too long a time to decide, but give yourself breathing space to review your wants and desires in an agent against what this particular agent is offering. Maybe reach out privately to some of their other clients to see how happy they are and how the agency runs from the inside. Check the agent against Writer Beware and look them up again on DuoTrope and Absolute Write, and Query Tracker. And if something feels off, or if you don’t like something and want further clarification or explanation, address it with the agent. Email them, or ask for another call.
- You are under no obligation to say yes. Let me repeat that: you are under no obligation to say yes. If you don’t like the offer or something just isn’t jivving, you can say no.
- Once you have said yes, your agent will send you a contract. Review it carefully, ask for clarification on things you don’t understand, and feel free to discuss amendments with your agent if you feel they’re necessary. Be aware that if it isn’t in the contract, it’s not something your agent is obligated to provide to you – like help doing your taxes as an author, or financial mentorship if you get a large advance. If you want that information, you need to ask for it, and your agent will point you in the right direction.
- Once you’ve signed, you’ll be an official client, and they’ll likely make an announcement.
- And then get down to the hard work of getting that manuscript you signed with ready for submission to publishing houses. Communicate, communicate, communicate. As with any relationship, this is the key to a happy future career and a great team effort between you and your agent.
Is there another way to do this, without going through the submission slushpile?
I didn’t get my agent through the slushpile. (Though pretty much all of my authorfriends did.) While I was querying agents, I met an editor at a convention and accidentally pitched her my novel Triptych at a room party. At that point I’d had about 20 agent rejections, as well as some publisher rejections as I’d submitted to some small/indie presses that didn’t require submissions to come through an agent.
The editor wanted to read “Triptych”, and eventually rejected it. But she allowed me to try again when I asked her if she’d be willing to let me resubmit after revisions that addressed the reasons why she rejected it. She did, I rewrote, and she signed the book. Many things happened with the book – Publisher’s Weekly starred review, Lambda Literary Award nominations, film adaptation offers, named Best Book of the Year by PW – and I realized quickly that I needed an agent ASAP to help me navigate this new reality.
Through that editor I got some agent recommendations. I also had a few contact me, to ask me if I was looking for representation and asking for the chance to have a chat. I had another book completed at the time (what would eventually become “The Skylark’s Song“), and I used that manuscript to submit with.
I narrowed down my choices to three agents, and got on the phone with each of them. All three more or less offered to represent me. The first, I declined because talked over me the whole call, didn’t listen to what I said, and was frankly kind of a ditz. The second said she’d give me a conditional offer of representation, provided that I revise “Skylark” first with her notes. The third said he’d like to take me immediately and work with me on the “Skylark” revisions. I spoke again to the second agent, and she advised me that if the third agent was keen enough to sign me before he saw the revised manuscript, I should likely sign with him. So I did.
I found out later that agent #2 was mad at herself for “letting me get away”, but not to worry. Turns out the agent I signed with and I had a terrible relationship (he was the one that contact me, and remember, this was before there was really any presence of agents on social media so I didn’t really know much about him), and I eventually ended up leaving him for agent #2.
You can also meet agents by attending pitching sessions at conventions and conferences (this is why you need to read their website – it will tell you where and when they’ll be). In-person-face-to-face pitches can be nerve-wracking, but with your Pitch Package you’ll have already done all the hard work on figuring out how to talk about the book. All you have to do no is memorize some of the info (the elevator pitch, especially), and practice controlling your nerves. And agents are aware that you’re nervous, and are there to see you succeed. No one will judge the quality of your novel based on the the quality of your ‘performance’ while pitching.
I would very much caution you, though, not to try to casually pitch the agent at the conference bar or networking party, unless you have already had a good conversation with them and they seem open to it. Don’t make them work when they’re trying to relax, it’s annoying.
If you do want to pitch them in these situations, I’d say something along the lines of, “Hey, listen, I’m really enjoying this conversation and I think we might work well together. Do you mind if I send you an email later to pitch you my novel?”
They may give you a card and say yes – remind them in the email where and how you met them, when you send them your cover letter. They may say no thanks, and you have to respect that because no amount of bullying to let you pitch them will endear them to you or your work. They may ask you to pitch on the spot (always memorize your elevator pitch!) The point is to let them decide if they are comfortable hearing about your book now, or if they prefer a different form of communication.
As I said earlier, each agent has their own way of evaluating pitches and you want to respect that.
For the love of those little baby ducks we are all now coddling, do not pitch in inappropriate spaces. I have heard horror stories of people slipping manuscripts under bathroom stall doors while agents are peeing. Are you kidding? That is not how to start a professional relationship!
You may want to look into online contests as well, like #PitMad or #PitchWars on Twitter, or blogs like Miss Snark’s First Victim which holds a few Secret Agent contest every year, or any number of hundreds of other opportunities. Your local and online writing community friends will have resources and suggestions, if you ask.
There’s more than one way to find and sign with a literary agent, and I encourage you to look at all the possible options and read lots about different author’s experiences.