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So you're a writer type, and you've written the great American novel. Or you're a muckraker type, and you've written the biggest exposé since The Jungle. Now you're looking for someone to publish your masterpiece. First step: Don't bother throwing your query onto the slush pile of every publishing house in town. What you really need to do is attract the attention of a literary agent, without whom it's darn hard to get a book contract.
As a literary scout and former literary agent, I've read at least a gazillion pitches. While the quality that makes a book perfectly sellable may be elusive, there are ways to turn on and, conversely, turn off an agent before he or she has even read your magnum opus. Here's some of what I've learned about the right way to make that first connection with an agent.
The first step in finding an agent is networking. Go to literary conferences that feature agents, try to hit literary events—readings, book parties, and so forth—join a writer's workshop, ask around. It's always preferable to have a personal connection to an agent. Your work will get more attention and a quicker response.
If you can't find a personal contact, there are still other ways to make a connection. First, look at books by authors you like—or who you think have a similar subject or expertise or writing style to yours—and read the acknowledgments. Often, they include a shout out to both the author's agent and editor. There's also contact info for all legit agents in the Literary Market Place, a great reference for wannabe authors. It lists not only loads of publishers but also agents—with contact information, specialties, and information on how to submit queries. The reference guide is available at libraries and bookstores, and you can also get it on the web for a fee.
Once you've targeted likely agents, it's time to put together a query letter. The letter should be brief. Outline your relevant experience. For nonfiction proposals, this means degrees, writing credits in relevant journals, newspapers, or magazines. For novels, this means published fiction—don't bother to include articles published in, say, Supermarket News when you're trying to sell literary fiction. The two types of writing have nothing to do with each other as far as agents and publishers are concerned.
By the time you seek out an agent, you should either have your entire novel finished or your nonfiction work in proposal form with sample chapters available. What's in a proposal? An overview, an introduction, marketing information, a description of your format, an author bio, and sample chapters.
But before you stick that stamp on your package and put your trust in the Postal Service, what else can you do to give you work the best chance of piquing an agent's interest?
1. Use any and all contacts you have. If you can include the name of someone the agent knows, they'll look at your materials more closely. I can tell you that even if I don't recognize the name of the person doing the referring, I'll make a little bit of extra effort to read the query.
2. Know what your genre is and pitch to the appropriate agent. For example, I know nothing about children's-book publishing. This doesn't mean I don't like books for tots, it means I have zero contacts who are editors of kids' books. So even if I like your book, I won't know whom to send it to. If you're working on a romance, don't send it in to an agent who prefers literary fiction. If you're working with fantasy, horror or sci-fi, be sure that your targeted agents know your field—it will save you a lot of time and heartache, and it'll save a lot of trees.
3. If you're writing nonfiction, be prepared to give your work a topical spin. Show the agent why your book would jump off the shelves and into the hot hands of readers at every Barnes & Noble nationwide. You're writing a book about '80s New Wave? Then cite some stats that show how hot that genre of music is right now. It's up to you to do some of the marketing research ahead of time if you really want to sell your book.
4. On the other hand, don't try to write your entire pitch in marketing language that comes on too strong and too evasive. A pitch that reads, "What happens when one woman loves two men? Read Love Lies to find out" isn't going to spark much interest from an agent who's reading 25 other queries in the same hour. Be straightforward.
5. Submit only one idea at a time. Definitely include information about books that you've already published. But approaching an agent with, "I have 10 unpublished novels" doesn't really make you seem like a good bet.
6. Be sure to address your cover letter to the agent to whom you're sending it. You have no idea how many pitches I get addressed to another agent or agency.
7. Agents get loads of queries each day, by mail and by email. In fact, some agents now accept queries only by email. Whichever you prefer, just make sure your targeted agent accepts the method by which you send your query.
8. Write your cover letter on white stationery without any fanciful flora or fauna gunking up the margins. Alternately, if you're sending a pitch via email, send your message without emoticons and gewgaws. All that extra frippery is just too distracting. Let your work speak for itself.
9. Include a page or so of your writing, preferably the very beginning of your book. If there's a more scintillating bit further along in your manuscript, send that, but make sure the portion you include makes sense in and of itself. Do not send your entire manuscript or proposal—whether via snail mail or email—until requested.
10. Talk yourself up, but show a little humility. And talking down to the agent isn't going to get you anywhere (and, yes, people do it—although academics seem to have cornered that market).
11. Have a little patience. Most agents have heaps of manuscripts and queries in every corner of their office. It will take a little while to get back to you. On the other hand, if you have serious interest from another agent and still want to explore your options, you should feel free to contact all agents to whom you've sent pitches to get their balls rolling.
12. Accept rejection graciously, but remain confident in your work. As any agent will tell you, the business is subjective. You may find that one person hates your work while another loves it. That said, once you've racked up a load of rejection letters, it may be time to cut your losses and try your hand at that next project.
Elise Proulx—no relation to Annie, though she does play the accordian—is a San Francisco-based scout for Lowenstein-Yost Associates, a New York City literary agency. Look out for mediabistro.com's new weekly feature, "Pitching an Agent," a insider's guide to literary agents, debuting soon.