Finding Your Literary Agent: 6 Things You'll Need in Your Submission Packet
If you've reached this point, then you have a finished work of fiction and you're ready to start shopping it around. And if you've found this article, then you know better than to send it to publishers and get lost in the slush pile. You need a literary agent. Today, we'll touch briefly on the materials you'll need to prepare in advance and what to do once you have it all together. In no time, the rejections will be rolling in. Seriously - check out the QueryCast if you don't believe me.
Your Submission Packet
The first thing you'll need, of course, is your finished, edited manuscript. Let me emphasize edited - if you're querying with a first draft, then you deserve every rejection that's coming to you. Make sure that manuscript is properly formatted - Shunn manuscript style, the same one you might use for a short story, will do - and is in a common file format. That latter point might not matter if you query people who don't take attachments, but do yourself a favor and save it as a .doc anyway - save yourself some headaches.
You may be tempted to send this out right away. Fight that urge with all your being. If an agent wants to see your full manuscript, she will ask for it - and by the way, that's also true of most publishers who accept direct submissions from authors. Unless they ask for it, don't send it.
In addition to a full manuscript, an agent may ask for a partial manuscript. By convention, this is the first fifty pages and should be formatted the same as the full manuscript. Increasingly, agents also ask for pages up front - this can be anywhere from five to twenty-five pages, or one to three chapters. Between the increasing use of online forms and agencies being reluctant to take emails with attachments, it's probably not worth putting together a collection of partials with different lengths - if you need to make one, it's easily done.
Now to the meat of it: The query letter is the first (and often only) thing an agent will see before making that initial up-or-down decision. A query letter is a basic business document detailing your project in brief. Most of it will be a description of your manuscript written in a style similar to jacket copy. If you want to see what a query letter looks like, there are plenty of places online that can help you - QueryTracker has a collection of success stories and a query letter forum, and the Query Shark blog can help you get a handle on the dos and (especially) don'ts.
Besides the description, there are a few other necessary elements. The letter should always include the length of the manuscript - by word count not page count - and genre. Do try to narrow down the genre here - this isn't a time to claim that your work defies genre or give one that you made up yourself.
Optionally, you may add personalizations to the letter. At the very least, you should include the agent's name - generic greetings like "Dear Agent" or "Dear Sir or Madam" are a good way to get rejected as they suggest that you're just spamming the internet with queries. Mentioning things from a wish list or works by someone else this agent also reps are also good ways to suggest that you've done your homework.
Above all, keep it short - under 300 words is a good goal - and keep it to the point. Again, this is a business letter, not personal correspondence. Don't get too chummy.
A pretty common concern by unpublished authors is that someone else will publish something similar and they'll look unoriginal. You know what? Good for you if that happens!
Many agents will want to see comps - already published books that are similar to yours. This is a business, and modern businesses tend to be risk averse, so demonstrating that books like yours have sold is a mark in your favor. When seeking out comps, try to find two or three recent works - no more than ten years old, ideally published within the last five. Don't worry about finding runaway bestsellers, similarity will count for more than fame. With the adoption of film industry concepts in recent years, you can present your comps with the classic Hollywood "X meets Y" format, and some people have even gotten away with using films as comps, though I wouldn't recommend doing this unless you are seriously struggling to find similar books.
If you have good comps, you might consider adding these to your query letter alongside word count and genre. They might help even if the agent doesn't specifically ask for them.
As much as agents swear that it's the project that wins them over and not the author, well...we live in an age of personal brands, and who you are counts. You'll need to have a professional authorial bio.
If you've been selling short fiction, you probably already have a bio that, with a few tweaks, can work for this. Otherwise, the key to remember is that the main purpose of the bio is to suggest that you have or can generate an audience. That means keeping notes about your childhood and hobbies to a minimum. Include other publishing credits, relevant awards, social media following (agents being one of those groups who are obsessed with Twitter), industry experience, major media appearances, and anything else that makes you look valuable.
Again, you should include your bio with your query letter, but as the form many agencies now use includes a dedicated spot for a bio, you may wish to keep a copy in a separate text file.
I really saved the best for last here. A synopsis is a one- or two-page document detailing your plot. This is where most people start to complain: "My novel's too complex to fit it into two pages!" First, it's usually not, but more to the point, no one's asking for the story, but for the plot. If you don't know the difference, go by Wikipedia, look up any novel or film with which you're familiar, and look at their synopsis. That's what you want - not everything that happens, just what's plot critical.
Don't try to get cute with your synopsis. Don't hide plot twists or try to slip in red herrings - this is meant to be an accurate description of the project. Leave out secondary characters, side plots that don't bear on the central conflict, anything that you don't need. This is where outlining comes in handy, as your outline probably has a decent synopsis tucked away inside it.
Put your synopsis in a separate document from the manuscript and query letter. While a synopsis is a common request, agents vary on when they want to see it - some before getting the manuscript, others along with the manuscript. Don't send it unless someone requests it.
Now That You're Ready to Submit
With your materials ready, now is the time to start finding agents. For this, I highly advise creating an account on the previously mentioned QueryTracker. A basic account is free and will allow you to search for open agents by genre. While this will speed your search, I still recommend looking at agent profiles on agency websites to make sure that your project is a good fit. Read their requirements carefully, then send your query exactly as they ask. These days, most submissions are electronic - either via email or a form. I would avoid contacting agents who only take postal submissions, as they usually aren't interested in unpublished authors.
And that's it. Now it's time to sit back, relax, and prepare to be disappointed. Rejections are part of the game, and just like with short fiction, now would be a good time to get used to being pushed aside. But hey, no matter what, no one can say you didn't try.