The Ultimate Guide to Getting a Literary Agent 
This is a comprehensive guide to finding and signing a deal with a literary agent for your novel or non-fiction book, so you can launch your writing career in 2020!
In today’s guide you’ll learn:
- The basics about literary agents and whether you need one.
- If you’re ready to seek one out, and how to do your research.
- How to write a query letter and synopsis.
- How to send out your queries in a systematic way that gets results.
- How to pick the RIGHT agent for YOU, and avoid scams.
- What to expect after you’ve signed with an agent.
In short: if you have your heart set on publishing your book and want a shot at making writing your profession, you’ll love this guide, updated for 2020.
Unlike other guides to getting a literary agent, we’ll be using detailed examples at each step.
About the Author
Michael Pietrzak is a freelance writer, and a regular contributor to SUCCESS Magazine online and in print. He writes about personal development, habits, psychology, and business.
Michael is also the founder of So You Want to Write? Inc. which connects writers with literary agents, editors, and published authors so they can improve their writing and get published.
About So You Want to Write?
Affectionately acronym’d SYWW, we are a member-led, professional development community of writers established in January 2017.
We partner with literary agents, editors, and published authors to create great content & workshops, and offer coaching that helps writers improve their craft and publish.
Chapter 1: The Basics
Welcome to the “there are no dumb questions” section of our guide. While many of you will be well acquainted with the publishing landscape and literary agents, many others will not. Feel free to skip ahead if this is familiar.
For the rest of us, let no barriers stand! Just because you’re new to the literary agent world should not hold you back from success.
Let’s cover the basics so that the rest of this guide makes perfect sense.
What The Heck is a Literary Agent?
In short, they are the gatekeeper between your book and the major publishing houses.
In a great writer-agent relationship, they will become your greatest ally, defender of your interests, and champion of your book, not to mention your writing career.
More than likely they will also become a close confidante, absorber of tears when stress becomes too much, and in the best scenario, a great friend.
Literary agents are ideally well connected to people who work at publishing companies, and can help you with Step 1: rising out of obscurity.
Great agents, in our humble opinion, are also great lovers of the written word. They ought to have read a whole lot in their lifetimes.
They must know the elements of great storytelling, how to spot brilliant dialogue, and be obsessed with relatable characters.
On the business side, they ought to be damn good sales people, so that when they pitch your book, multiple offers to buy it come flying at you.
They are up to date on what books are trending among readers, and what publishers are actually buying, and can help you gently tweak your book for compatibility with the market.
Experienced agents will help you negotiate film rights when turning your book into a movie starring some Hollywood A-lister.
Upon reading your manuscript, they know exactly who to pitch it to, at what publishing house.
They’ll usually bring in a strong editor to help polish your book into a radiant gem before it goes out into the world.
Finally, they work with the publisher to market your book, so you can get back to writing.
How do Agents Get Paid?
Literary agents get paid on commission because this is the way it’s been done since time immemorial. Their traditional cut is 15%, or 20-25% when dealing with international rights (i.e. when your book sold in foreign markets).
Agents will not charge you up front—that is, before they sell your book. If they try to, beware, because you are not dealing with a reputable agent. See our How to Spot a Scam section for more on this.
Literary agents usually pay for themselves in the long-run because they can help you negotiate a better deal with the publisher. In other words, they won’t let you get taken advantage of.
Why do I Need a Literary Agent?
At this point you may be thinking, “Hmm, why would I pay someone 15% of my sales and lifetime royalties?! Good question!
Unfortunately, the publishing world is ancient and somewhat inscrutable, and all major publishing houses do not accept manuscripts from debut authors unless they arrive via agents.
According to publishing guru Jane Friedman,
“80 percent of books published by New York houses get published by literary agents.”
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. There are literally millions of writers trying to publish their work traditionally, and only a handful of publishers around the globe.
The literary world as we know it would grind to a halt if staff at Penguin Random House had to drop everything to read through every manuscript.
Most of these unpublished books, frankly, are nowhere near ready to be published. Some are even god-awful. Not yours, of course.
Literary agents do the yeoman’s work of wading through the chaff to get to the wheat, or more plainly, to reject weak or even just ‘good’ manuscripts to find the great ones that live on the level of Stephen King and Sylvia Plath.
Have you taken a moment today to thank a literary agent?
Yeah, But do *I* Need a Literary Agent?
The short answer: probably.
If you want to publish fiction the traditional route, it’s virtually 100% necessary.
One go-it-alone option is of course to send in your manuscript to one of the few publishing houses that accept unsolicited work, and wait six or 12 months or more for them to read through what is affectionately called, “The Slush Pile”.
Maybe you’re in no hurry, and the timelines don’t scare you.
Or maybe you’re a real dynamo, and willing to hustle.
Let’s imagine that, having no experience or connections in publishing, you take the months or years required to cold-call around to various people in publishing houses, and by some miracle are offered a contract.
Are you confident in your ability to read and understand the legalese, and to know that you’re getting a fair deal?
Do you have the experience and connections to play one buyer off another to negotiate an even better deal?
Like we’ve said, literary agents normally pay for themselves by fighting to get you the best deal. Their financial interests are tied to yours, after all.
It’s like having an employee on the payroll who only collects their salary when you make money.
Bottom line: traditional publishers dominate the shelves at major bookstores, and if you’ve written a novel and want it to have a space on those shelves, you need an agent to get access to those publishers.
Yes, the system sucks, but this is the reality.
Are there exceptions? Read on to find out.
Who Doesn’t Need a Literary Agent?
If you’re self-publishing, you don’t need a literary agent (the few exceptions: trying to publish abroad, doing an audio book, or turning your book into a movie or TV show.)
In this scenario you’ll have no contact with the big publishing houses and you can kindle an intimate love affair with Amazon (see what I did there?) or one of the other self-publishers like Ingram Spark or Lulu.
Self-publishing is a HUGE topic and we won’t be able to do it justice here; let’s just say that we run across self-published authors every week who kick themselves for rushing to self-publish, and then end up selling only 100 copies of a book that took them 5 years to write.
If that doesn’t scare you enough, keep in mind that no literary agent in her right mind will touch a book that has been self-published and flopped in the sales department.
You get one shot at publishing.
There are of course certain types of written word that literary agents do not traffick in.
Legitimate literary agents will not represent:
- Fan- or flash-fiction
- Short stories
- Niche or specialty writing
Why? Because there’s no reasonable prospect of making money by publishing in these areas, and at the end of the day, literary agents need to eat too, and alcohol is not a meal.
How do you know if your book is in the “niche” category? Go to a chain bookstore and see if there are comparable titles on the shelves.
If not, you’re niche. Be honest with yourself.
The big publishers will want to know they can sell 10,000 copies of your book at a minimum.
What About Non-Fiction?
For those of you writing non-fiction, we have good news: many smaller presses will accept unsolicited manuscripts, including:
- Picture books
- Academic work
- Educational books
However, in these situations, without an agent, the full responsibility for pitching the book is on your shoulders. How convincing can you be?
Also be forewarned: publishers will be looking at your credentials and experience. In other words, they’ll ask, “what makes this author an expert on the subject matter in this book?”
Nobody will buy a book about engineering from an accountant (probably).
How do you find such publishing house unicorns? Presumably if you are familiar with the niche, you’ll own a few books on the subject. Open them up and see who is listed as the publisher.
From there, Google is your friend.
Chapter 2: Preparing Yourself
Alright, so you’ve decided that you most definitely probably need a literary agent, and you’re ready to receive suitors.
But hang on! Are they ready for you?
Am I Ready to Seek a Literary Agent?
If you’re writing fiction, being “ready” means that your manuscript is 100% completed and polished to the best of your ability.
“Completed” leaves no room for interpretation: no waiting to finish the ending!
If an agent is intrigued by your pitch (aka query letter) then there’s a good chance they will request the full manuscript to read.
But because the interpretation of “polished” can vary widely, let’s spell out exactly what that means.
Keep in mind that first, the agents we work with receive upwards of 100 queries a day and consider maybe one a day good enough to request a sample of the manuscript.
So, when it comes to your query letter (more on that further along), it has to be in the top 1% of all of them.
Second, when your book gets published it will be competing for attention on the bookshelves with current bestselling authors like Tim Ferriss, John Grisham, and Danielle Steele.
If you’re fortunate (ok, talented) enough to make it through the query letter gate, the next thing the agent will look at is your manuscript.
When it’s not only the best damn thing you have ever created, but also on the level of Stephen King (or at least Dan Brown), then, and only then do you have permission to stop polishing.
What Does Polishing Involve?
Polishing usually happens in three phases:
- Numerous editing passes of your own work
- Feedback from alpha and beta readers
- Working with a professional editor
Unless you’re a unicorn’s equivalent of a superhuman (a superunicorn?) who is setting down the words exactly as they are transmitted to you from the breast of Shiva himself, you will need to edit your own writing. Many times.
We’re talking at least three, if not ten drafts.
But that’s only the first phase of editing. You will also need outside help. This is where alpha and beta readers are indispensable.
These friendly ears and eyes will help you tremendously to see the mistakes and opportunities that you’re not able to see in your own work.
If you’re not familiar with the terms alpha and beta reader, here’s a great primer.
To find readers, join a local writers group and make some friends. Meetup.com is a great place to find groups.
Or participate in an online community like Reddit/r/Writing.
Your readers, if you’ve chosen them wisely (i.e. they are writers who themselves have a nose for literature) will come back to you with suggestions that are on-point.
They will probably catch some typos and grammar oddities.
More importantly they’ll flag minor glitches, or possibly glaring catastrophes with your plot, characters, or dialogue.
Once you have this feedback, it’s time to go back and rewrite the guilty parts and turn them into literary gold.
Repeat this process with two or three readers.
Think you’re done? Nope!
This last stage is considered optional by some, but in an increasingly competitive market for literary agents, why skip it and hurt your chances?
Hire your own editor.
A professional editor is someone with an eye for detail, an affinity for great writing, experience with multiple manuscripts, and ideally someone who knows what publishers want.
He or she will take the manuscript you see as perfectly polished and could not be improved, and point out some conspicuous errors that you missed, that make you go, “wow, how did I miss that?”
We work with a first-rate editor, Jessica De Bruyn. She works with agents and publishers regularly and knows what they’re looking for.
By far (95 to 99 percent) the biggest reason that literary agents decline to work with clients is because their manuscript is not good enough.
Make sure you’ve done all that you can to put a shine on it before you even start researching agents.
One final warning for you perfectionists out there: don’t edit forever. There’s really no endpoint with art, but at some point enough is enough.
[Bonus: Download our Novel Revision Checklist by Literary Agent Nathan Bransford to help you polish your book]
Chapter 3: The Research Phase
Ok, so you’ve made an honest assessment that you and your manuscript are ready for an agent.
It’s time to do your homework.
This step is mandatory—do not pass Go or collect $200 without spending ample time in this phase.
There is nothing more tragic than an otherwise competent writer spending two years polishing the Next Big Book only to mess up his or her chances by taking the “spray and pray” approach to finding an agent.
In other words, don’t be that writer who emails your query letter off to every agent under the sun or you’ll become publishing industry enemy #1.
Finding a great agent has a lot in common with finding a great life partner. You want to choose someone who will champion and support you, make time for you, even love you.
Bonus points for finding someone who will do your dishes.
Solid research will also help you avoid the multitude scams out there. See our How to Spot a Scam section below for more on this.
Step 1: Create Your Agent Longlist
There are thousands of literary agents worldwide, and only a handful will be right for you.
Start by making a list of agents who:
- Represent books in the genre you’re writing (i.e. horror, cookbooks) and/or
- Represent books by authors you love, love, love.
You can compile that list in a spreadsheet that looks something like this (download this printable template here):
Feel free to add 50, 100, or even 200 agents to your longlist.
There are a few ways to find literary agents:
Visit your local bookstore (free)
Find the section of the store where your new book might fit one day (e.g. the Young Adult or History shelves) and open up books that look similar to yours.
Somewhere in each of those books, probably in the acknowledgement section, the author will have thanked his or her literary agent (unless the author’s an ingrate).
That name goes onto your list for further study back at home.
This method is more time consuming and frankly anachronistic, but if you’re a bit of a luddite and/or a touchy-feeling kind of person, this might work for you just fine.
Google Search (free)
Yes, you could type “literary agent” into Google Search and wade through the 100 million results. You could narrow down the results by 80% by adding the name of your genre to the search.
Keep in mind, however, that a top ranking in Google does not signify an agent’s quality.
In case you’re not catching the insanity in this methodology, we do not recommend this approach.
Use AgentQuery (free), QueryTracker (free & paid), Writer’s Market (paid), or others.
Each of these tools include up-to-date databases of literary agents.
The services will tell you what genre(s) the agents accept, whether they are accepting queries now, and include a link to their bio & agency website, and list their email address.
For example, let’s say I’m writing memoir and want to find an agent that is currently accepting email queries.
I could head over to AgentQuery.com and from the “Quick Agent Search” tool on the left, click the “Select a Nonfiction Genre” dropdown menu, choose “Memoirs,” and hit “Quick Search.”
Voila, a list of the 422 agents that work with memoir, along with their relevant details.
Click “Full Profile” and you’ll get a wealth of info about that agent, sometimes as granular as what they like to eat for breakfast (I kid you not).
Beats Google, huh?
With respect to QueryTracker, some functionality is free, but if you want advanced features (e.g. filtering agents by genre) you’ll have to pay $25 for one year, which is totally worth it to find your match made in heaven.
In the case of Writer’s Market, you need to buy a physical or digital copy of the guide to get access to their website, which, last we checked, was going for $22 (digital) or $50 (paperback, Deluxe version) on Amazon.
The guide includes not just a list of agents but also of publishers, magazines, and writing contests. Again, huge value for not a lot of money.
Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents is another paperback ($36) or Kindle ($31) resource that contains lists of agents, publishers & imprints, but it’s also a bit of a larger guide that will show you how to avoid scams, and write a great query.
If you’re in the UK, you could also check out the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (around £18).
Pick whatever tool you like, and add the agent names you choose to your spreadsheet!
Use Publishers Marketplace (paid)
Like the previous three tools, this is a database of agents, but we’ve singled it out because it’s so much more.
Publishers Marketplace (PM) not only lists each agent, but a list of all of their book deals going back to the dawn of time (probably?)
The advantage to this is that you can really drill down into an agent’s history to see how successful they are at making deals.
If they haven’t sold any books recently? Well then you know that could be a red flag, or that they are not accepting clients at the moment.
PM is the tool that most, if not all, literary agents use themselves to know what’s happening in the publishing world.
If you’re serious about finding the perfect agent, this is the tool we recommend, despite the $25/mo subscription fee.
Don’t tell PM we encouraged this, but you could just cancel your membership after the first month, once you’ve done your research.
Outsource It (paid)
If you’re less of a DIY human, and someone’s who’s fantastically pressed for time, you could always outsource your agent search.
Copy Write Consultants will do the research for you, for a fee (last we checked, between $150 and $250, which is exceedingly reasonable).
Simply give them your manuscript and perhaps your submission materials (query letter, synopsis, or book proposal) and they’ll provide you a list of agents who might be looking for your book.
While outsourcing may be right for some writers, we don’t recommend it, in the same way we wouldn’t recommend outsourcing your dating life to a 3rd party.
Step 2: Peruse Agents’ Websites & Social Media Accounts
Once you have your longer list of agents you might like to chase down and work with, it’s time to shrink the pool to perhaps 10, 20, or 50 agents.
Go through your longlist one by one and visit the agent’s website. You are looking for several things:
First, cut out any agents that have retired, died, gone out of business, are taking a sabbatical, or clearly state that they are not accepting new clients.
Then, look at the agent’s client list, confirming that they have a history of deals with reputable publishers. What’s a reputable publisher? Any that you can readily find on bookstore shelves.
N.B. if an “agent” does not list his or her deals, or claims that their list is confidential, this is a bright red flag. Either it suggests a scam, or an armchair agent who hasn’t actually signed any deals (yet). See our How to Spot a Scam section.
- Double check that the agent has worked with your genre in the recent past and still wants to do so (some agents leave a genre for another).
What sort of cash advances has the agent secured for clients before? You can find this information through Publisher’s Marketplace. Are you comfortable with these amounts?
- Lastly, you should be looking for deals with publishers that might want to rep YOU. For example, don’t seek out an agent that has only published with romance publishers if you’re writing sci-fi.
While you’re exploring this person’s website, and if you think the stars might align, you can take the opportunity to read the agency’s submission guidelines, which should explicitly spell out how they would like you to send in your query.
You should now have a look at the agent’s social media accounts—Facebook, Twitter, etc. to see what they are saying online and if they are active.
Bonus points if you can find something that one of their authors has said about him or her.
Lastly, check in with your gut: from everything you’ve learned during this deep dive into their website and social accounts, do you feel that you could work with this person for at least the next decade?
Step 3: Stalk Them Online
Now that you’ve read everything that the agent wants you to know about him or her, it’s time to see what the “internets” have to say about this potential partner of yours.
An agent’s website will of course present him or her in the warmest light. Google might give you a starker picture.
Simply type the agent’s name + “literary agent” into your favourite search tool. You might also throw the term “review” in there for good measure.
To be sure, if this person has been kickin’ around in the publishing world for more than a few years, several authors or news outlets will have had much to say publicly about him or her.
Mostly positive comments is a good sign. If the reviews are overwhelmingly negative, you should stay away.
However, keep in mind that all agents who have been in the business for a while will get some bad press. We writers are naturally dramatic characters with an inclination to write reviews, good or bad.
You can’t throw a stone online without hitting a writer who is incredibly passionate about having their book (the finest in a generation, of course) published, who also felt slighted by an agent at one time.
One or two bad reviews are likely outliers. But consistent bad press is a red flag.
Want to know more about an agent’s taste in books? Head over to goodreads.com and see if they have a profile. You might just find a list of books they’ve read along with their ratings & reviews.
First, click on the friends icon at the top right.
Then, in the “Find by name or email” box, type the literary agent’s email address.
And there you are, a list of books the agent has read and rated, and when.
If the agent “checks out”, add them to your shortlist, and while you’re at, start collecting information that might be helpful for your query letter, like the agent’s interests, book deals that look like yours might, interviews they’ve done, etc.
Should I Choose an Experienced or Newer Agent?
You may be inclined to seek out the biggest name in your genre, and why not?
In theory, that person will have the most connections, clout, and negotiating skill in her world.
But that person may also be the busiest in the business, and have far less time to devote to your literary career.
The top agents tend to attract well-established or celebrity authors, and your phone calls might be answered only after Tina Fey’s or Oprah’s.
Newer agents are sometimes hungrier for deals that will launch their careers, and hustle just as well or more than their more seasoned counterparts.
Take caution before signing with a brand new agent, however. Someone with no book deals is probably a risky bet, unless you know they are attached to a respectable agency or mentored by an agent with a track record.
You may want to avoid anyone who’s been an agent for several years and still has no or few book deals.
Your rule of thumb should be: based on what I know about this person, do I think he or she will be an effective advocate for my career?
How to Spot a Scam
Into any industry a little dark underbelly must fall. Unscrupulous humans abound and the publishing world is no exception.
Here are some warning signs* so you can avoid literary agent scams:
* (We borrowed heavily from the SFWA for this list - thank you!)
The agent does not list their clients, or claims their list is confidential. The agent’s role is to promote their clients as vigorously as they can—why would they shield their list from the public eye? Oh that’s right, because they don’t have a list.
The agent has a client list, but most have not been published. That might be expected for a brand new agent, but it suggests something fishy is going on.
The agent uses paid advertising. In your travels as a writer you have probably noticed the extreme mismatch of supply and demand in agents vs. writers seeking a book deal, much in the same way the number of wannabe basketball players outnumber available NBA contracts.
Agents are beating writers away with a stick, so to speak. If they are legitimate, they don’t need to advertise to find clients.
The agent charges up-front to represent you. Many agents teach university courses, run workshops out of their condos, and offer manuscript reviews, then get paid accordingly.
But they never dangle the carrot of a contract for representation in exchange for money. If an agent says he or she will represent you in exchange for money, run away. Agents get paid a commission and only when they land you a book deal.
The agent charges for “author photos,” “editing fees,” or other “bonus” services. This simply isn’t standard. The publisher, when they give you a book deal, will pay for this.
The agent charges a non-standard commission. Standard commission is 15% for a domestic deal (e.g. in your own country) and between 20 and 25 percent overseas (the higher rate is to cover translation and legal fees and the like).
The agent doesn’t have a phone number or physical address. Why not? What are they trying to hide? You shouldn’t expect to get the agent on the phone any time of day, but they should be accessible by more than email.
- The agent is listed on the Beware List or the agency on the Thumbs Down List. Before you sign with an agent, ensure that person is not on this list, associated with a legitimate complaint.
Lastly, trust your gut. When I worked in a government consumer protection office we had a condescending saying for phone clients: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Chapter 4: How to Write a Query Letter
At this stage of the process you’ve created your shortlist of agents who you might want to represent you, and you’ve collected as much information as you can about them.
You’ll want to start reaching out to them, but this is not as simple as picking up the phone. Tradition has established that it’s done through the query letter, hence the term “querying.”
What is a Query Letter?
A query letter (“covering letter” in the UK) is simply a note to an agent, usually around one page long, that summarizes your book and asks, “Is this for you?”
But writing a great one is anything but simple.
Its function is to convince an agent to take you on as a client, but some agents receive 2,000 or more of these every year.
Yours will need to stand out if you want more than an icicle’s chance in hell of seeing a response.
How to Structure a Query Letter (Step by Step)
Most great query letters include nothing more than three main paragraphs.
In the first paragraph, you’ll describe your book briefly, listing its title and genre, and its length in words. It needs to hook the agent, or they’ll stop reading.
This is not a synopsis of your book (i.e. this happens in chapter 1, then in chapter 2...). That’s a separate document. Keep your query short and concise.
Here you can list “comparables,” or books that are similar. For example, you might say, “This book is the Odyssey, but in a universe reminiscent of the sci-fi epic Dune.”
You should always explicitly state that your manuscript is finished and polished (if it’s not, you’re not ready to query anyone).
This section is also where you will want to hone and include your “elevator pitch, a (usually) one-line description of the book.
In the second paragraph you’ll get into more details about the book. Summarize the big beats, but don’t try to include everything.
Stick to the high-level plot, the stakes, the choices the characters have to make, and end it with a cliffhanger.
The third paragraph is where you get to talk about yourself and your credentials. Why were you the best person to write this book? Why are you passionate about the subject matter?
What have you published before? Include short stories, magazine articles, and previous novels (of course), but only those you’ve been paid for. Your weekly rants to the local paper’s “letters to the editor” section doesn’t count.
Don’t have any publishing credits? That’s OK, everyone starts somewhere, and agents are always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing.
Be honest and say that it’s your first book. Just don’t say it’s your last—agents want to know your career has a future.
If your manuscript is non-fiction, here would be a good place to list any experience, degrees or designations that make you an expert on your book’s subject-matter.
What style should you use for your query letter? The standard advice is to keep it professional, and not use your formidable prose.
Definitely do not write it in one of your character’s voices, that’s just annoying.
Still, if you want a leg up, don’t craft a boring business memo. Feel free to be creative and playful (but remain to the point and professional.)
Be pithy. Short and sweet is better than comprehensive and boring.
And keep in mind that, whether it reads like your manuscript or not, agents will be using this letter to judge your writing abilities.
There’s a reason that this chapter comes after the research chapter: your query letter should be highly tailored to each agent you will reach out to.
Though there’s a fairly standard format to the query letter, outlined above, it’s just about mandatory to personalize your letter for each and every agent you contact.
In practice this means addressing your letter to, “Dear Mr. Smith” and so on.
“Dear Agent” is a surefire way to land your query in the deleted folder because it shows them that you’re looking for any agent, not this agent, and that yours is probably a form letter.
Let the agent know clearly why you chose him or her.
Did the agent mention on Reddit that she likes dog memes? Or that she can’t get enough of Miley Cyrus on Twitter? Mention it, and try to build rapport, but don’t force it.
Did he represent your favourite author? That’s a great argument for why this person should represent you.
If the agent is funny online, your query letter should probably be funny. If she speaks formally, you might want to dust off your etiquette guide.
Match your query to the agent. After all, these are human beings, and we all love what is familiar and feels comfortable to us.
Query Letter Pitfalls to Avoid
Literary agents have seen just about every mistake that can be made in a query letter because they see a lot of them. Avoid these common pitfalls to increase your chances of getting a deal:
Make damn sure your letter is polished, and free from typos. Of all people, a wrtier shoul not let tyops slide. Overlooking one in your letter, including spelling the agent’s name wrong (it happens more often than you think!) = instant delete button on your email, and possibly permanent blackballing in that agent’s world (OK, maybe an exaggeration, but why take a chance?)
Don’t let it run on too long. Your query letter should be about a page long. Limit it to what is essential to hook the agent into asking for your manuscript. Do not try to include a synopsis of your book here.
Don’t bore the reader with your life story. God forbid you list your hobbies, or talk about your childhood. Nobody needs to know that you’re dedicating the story to the memory of your cat. The exception of course is if the information is relevant to your book.
Don’t editorialize, or seek sympathy. It’s not your job to tell the agent that this is a guaranteed bestseller, or how best to position the book in the market. Just the facts, ma’am. And do not tug at the heartstrings. It’s sad that you really need the money, but not the agent’s problem. Let your good writing get you the deal.
Don’t write it in prose. Avoid the temptation to get overly creative and write your letter as if it were your novel, or in your character’s voice. Yes it’s creative, but it prevents the agent from seeing clearly the pertinent information about your book.
Don’t mass-mail agents. Agents can spot form letters from 19 miles away because they’re better at this than you. Those that receive them quickly delete them because they want to work with writers who took the time to figure out they would be a good fit. See the Get Personal section above.
- Don’t be obnoxious. Agents will not want to work with someone who comes off as arrogant, dramatic, needy, immature, lazy, etc. If your letter gives even a whiff of negative traits, agents will turn up their noses.
What do Agents Want in a Query?
Sidestepping pitfalls removes agents’ reasons to say “no” to you; but you’ve also got to give them a reason to say “yes”. Here are a few things you should do in your query:
Be enthusiastic. Agents don’t want to work with a silent partner. They want to know that you love writing and your book, because that suggests you’ll be involved in the parts that come after signing the book deal.
Show that you have a writing career ahead. Did you know that an author’s first book usually makes virtually no money? It’s the second, third, and Nth books that bring home the bacon. Agents like money, and want to know you have more books in you after the first.
Mention other writing work. Have you published short stories? Magazine articles? Entered contests? Attended workshops? If I were a literary agent this would help me bet on you as a writer whose career is going places.
Show your personality. We can’t overstate this: the writer-agent relationship is like a marriage. When you find your partner, the ideal is that it’s a match for life. And you want to choose a partner who you enjoy spending time with. Show the agent who you truly are. Even if they don’t like who they see, it will save you from entering the wrong match.
Important: Follow the Damned Submission Guidelines
Each literary agent/agency will spell out in painstaking detail, somewhere on their website, exactly how you should structure your query letter.
One inch margins? Double spaced? Include a synopsis or don’t? Send sample chapters or don’t?
Consider this a very simple “idiot test.” Follow the guidelines to a T, and you may proceed. Miss something, and your hope of bestseller status vanishes.
Look, I can’t hammer this home more forcefully: each time you send a query letter, read the submission guidelines, and following them exactly.
Every year I’m surprised to come across an agent whose “normal” submission package includes something that would be a complete deal breaker for most agents.
Don’t let anyone tell you there are hard and fast rules that apply universally: submission guidelines trump all.
Example: One Great Query Letter
Jericho Writers has put forward an excellent example of a pithy, convincing query letter here.
If yours looks anything like this in terms of length, format, and style, you will have a great shot at piquing agents’ interest.
Chapter 5: How to Write a Book Synopsis
One of the documents that you’ll send to a literary agent, along with your query letter, is a short synopsis (i.e. summary) of your book.
If you believe the common wisdom, boiling your book down to a 1- or 2-page synopsis will be a nightmare. That’s only a mindset problem—if you think it will be a miserable experience, it will be.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Have you ever explained the plot of a movie to someone? Of course you have, and it wasn’t difficult. This is basically what you’ll do in your synopsis, only with a bit more care and forethought.
Have fun with it!
The best article we’ve seen on how to write a synopsis, that we share with writers all the time, comes from author and publishing expert, Jane Friedman. It’s worth the read.
We’ve leaned on Jane’s advice for this section (thanks Jane!) Still, here’s our own take on this critical document.
Why Write a Synopsis?
The purpose of a synopsis is for an agent to get a snapshot of your story from beginning to end. It covers the main plot points, but doesn’t get too much into the weeds.
The agent will use it to understand your characters’ motivations, and reveal any plot holes or problems with the book’s structure.
It will show him or her whether you have a fresh story, compelling characters, and a plausible ending.
If it’s just another boy-meets-girl story they’ve heard before, they probably won’t ask for your manuscript.
Rules of Thumb for Writing a Synopsis
There are some general rules about what agents are looking for in a synopsis, but as with the query letter, each agent is different.
Start by reviewing the agent’s submission guidelines for clues about what is expected.
Unless told otherwise, a great synopsis is typically one page single-spaced, maybe two (500 to 800 words is ideal).
It should be written in minimalist language, not flowery or verbose.
Typically they are written in third person.
You will cover on what is central to the plot, normally including the main character(s) and major plot points. Skip sub-plots and minor characters unless they need to be there for your story to make sense.
You absolutely have to give away the ending. The agent needs this information to fully understand the book. Playing coy only annoys.
Do not try to summarize the whole book or silo each chapter. Avoid stilted, sterile, “this happened, then this happened” accounts.
Tell, don’t show. This is contrary to conventional writing wisdom, but you simply don’t have the space for vivid visuals here.
Include the character’s emotions and motivations. Why do they do what they do?
- Don’t include any dialogue.
What to Include in a Synopsis
This document shouldn’t include the kitchen sink, just the main facts, ma’am. That likely includes:
Your story’s main plot points. This would include the inciting incident (what causes your main character to take action), major turning points, and the climax.
Your main characters—include no more than three.
Your character(s) motivations: What are the stakes? Why do you they do what they do?
The main conflict: every story needs one. What’s yours?
The main character’s arc: show how the protagonist is changed by the end of the book.
Relationships between the characters—as long as these are relevant in driving the plot forward.
- The ending of your story: how is the conflict resolved?
The Synopsis Format (Step-by-Step)
Your story may not exactly fit this mold, but here is a template, in seven paragraphs, that most fiction or literary non-fiction can follow.
Set the stage: what is the situation at the beginning of your book; the status quo? If you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, you may want to write a sentence or two describing your universe.
Introduce your protagonist & explain his or her primary motivation.
Inciting incident: what event causes the protagonist to act? How does he or she react? You may need to introduce antagonists or allies here.
Major turning points: what happens that shifts the direction of the story? Listing three to five major plot points (briefly!) should suffice. Include victories & defeats, surprises & subterfuges.
Climax: Explain the most critical moment in the book.
Resolution: How is the tension resolved?
- Aftermath: Did they live happily ever after? What is learned? What was the moral of the story?
As you can see, this approach is a way of conveying the major “beats” in your story, and not a blow-by-blow or chapter-by-chapter summary of the book, a mistake many novice synopsis writers make.
It should of course go without saying that, like the query letter, this document will be a reflection on your writing ability. Keep it free of typos and other career-busters.
Example: One Great Synopsis
Again Jericho Writers has done a bang-up job of putting together a superb example of a novel synopsis.
It’s near the bottom of the page, here.
You’ll note that it gives only the highlights of this book, not a play by play, and includes nothing superfluous.
Chapter 6: Sending Your Queries
At this stage, you’ve got a manuscript, query letter, and synopsis polished to a brilliant shine. It’s time to push “send” on a few dozen emails!
But before you do take a moment to ask yourself (really do this), “Have I done everything in my power to create the best manuscript, query, and synopsis?”
If there’s more than a hint of doubt in your heart, you may want to seek additional help. If the answer is “I’m good”, let’s move on.
What to Include in a Query
I’ll impersonate a broken record by again saying that each agent’s submissions guidelines take precedence. If they ask for just a query letter, don’t send a writing sample.
However, agents traditionally expect three things to be part of your fiction query (sometimes called a “novel proposal”):
- A query letter (1 page).
- The book synopsis (1-2 pages).
- Your first three chapters (around 10,000 words, or 50 pages).
And yes, these sample chapters must be the first three of your book, because agents know these chapters are what will hook readers or put them to sleep.
Non-fiction differs slightly. You’ll normally send:
- A query letter.
- Your book proposal (detailed at 20-30 pages).
- Perhaps a sample chapter (to prove you can write).
Non-fiction book proposals are beyond the scope of this article. Here is an excellent how-to article from Jericho Writers.
Almost no agents will expect your full manuscript on first contact, so don’t even think about attaching it.
How to Draft Your First Query Email
Open up the agent shortlist you created in Chapter 2, and choose the one you would most want to work with.
Review again the submission guidelines of that agent or agency and follow them to a T. Remember, their guidelines are also used to screen out people who can’t follow instructions.
Compose a new email, putting the agent’s email address in the To: field.
For the subject line, don’t overthink it. “Query” + your book’s title is fine.
Write on the first line, “Dear Mr./Ms. So-and-so”. Use the agent’s last name unless you have a personal connection.
Paste your query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters (as each case may dictate) into the body of your email. Do NOT use attachments unless requested in the submission guidelines. Attachments clog inboxes.
- Hit send!
How Many Queries Should I Send?
Repeat this process with your top-pick agents until you’ve sent 10 or 20 emails.
In a simple spreadsheet or a notebook, make a record of who you queried and when, and other relevant notes. This comes in handy when you need to follow up (and you will).
You can use our agent tracking template. Get it here.
We push pause after 10-20 emails for a very good reason: like a scientist running an experiment, we want to start collecting feedback.
Whatever comes back (even silence) will let us know what, if anything, needs to change in our submission materials.
Refer to the submission guidelines to know how long you should wait for a response. Four to six weeks is typical. What to expect now might be:
Obviously those responses range from best (A) to worst (C).
If You Get No Response
If you hear nothing, this may indicate that your query was so egregious that it didn’t warrant a response.
But more likely it just shows you that agents are human, and incredibly busy. Feel free to follow up after four or six weeks unless this is explicitly poo-pooed by the guidelines.
If no response comes, it means they pass. This is in fact good, usable feedback. It suggests that you need to tweak your query letter.
Give it another read with a hyper-critical eye. Is there anything here that would turn an agent off?
If You Receive Rejections
Rejection is guaranteed to be part of the querying process. Get good at welcoming it in, and don’t take it personally.
Do not argue with agents about this—be cool, man.
But take heart, at least you’re getting a response. Sometimes these will be form letters, and in better cases the agent will drop hints or be explicit about what was good and bad about your submission.
They might tell you that the story sounds hackneyed, or that the market isn’t looking for another apocalyptic Zombie horror.
This information is worth its weight in gold. Be honest: is the feedback fair & accurate? If so, use it to edit your query letter for your next batch of 10-20 queries.
If an agent at agency X sends a rejection, can you send it to another agent at agency X? Absolutely.
When Agents Request Your Manuscript
Hallelujah, a ray of hope.
You’ve clearly done something right, because a request for your manuscript (or part of it) or your synopsis (if it wasn’t requested with the query letter) is a clear signal that your query letter was indeed enticing enough “bait” for someone who receives hundreds or thousands of queries in a year.
If you’re in this scenario, send the agent exactly what he or she asks for—nothing more, nothing less.
Record this milestone in your query tracking spreadsheet/notebook and make a note to follow up whenever an agent suggests you do that.
If they haven’t let you know how long to expect to wait, it’s ok to ask.
I Get Requests for my Manuscript, Then get Ghosted. What to do?
We’ll call this a deafeningly clear subtle hint.
Request(s) for your manuscript means you wrote an effective query letter.
But zero follow-up once you’ve sent your manuscript means only one thing: that your manuscript needs work, and most likely the first 20 pages.
Literary agents tell us that in 99 percent of cases, if you get a request for your manuscript then hear nothing, it’s because your writing, story, or characters need work.
Take another pass at your first 20 pages to ensure that the reader is instantly gripped, the writing is polished and free of hackneyed tropes, and that your book is in line with what the market might expect (i.e. you haven’t written 300,000 words in a genre expecting books of 80,000).
Seek outside help from beta readers or professionals, if necessary. Our literary agents can review your manuscript for a fee.
Get Good at Waiting, But Not Too Good
Suffering the glacial pace of the querying process can be excruciating.
Timelines for a response from your first batch of 10-20 agents are already at four to six weeks, with no assurance that a reply is ever coming.
Then, you may need to wait another several weeks before the agent reads your manuscript.
Unless you’re lucky enough to lock down an agent through this first salvo, you will likely need to fire off a second, third, or Nth batch to cohorts of 10-20 agents.
Should you just sit by and navel-gaze? Not exactly.
Regardless of the response you get in Round One, after six weeks you can (and likely should) send off your second batch to additional agents.
The one exception is if an agent asks you for an “exclusive”, but ensure you set a boundary on how long this will last. Two to four weeks is fine.
If the results were uninspiring the first go-around, change your query letter.
If the results were positive—and even if you got a number of requests for your manuscript—we encourage you to send a second round of queries.
After all, you’re not looking for the first agent who’s willing to represent you, but the best fit for you.
If you already had one or more requests for your manuscript, you can probably send your second-round query letter unchanged.
How many rounds of queries should you send out? As many as it takes to get an offer of representation from an agent that you believe will represent your interests and nurture your career.
This might mean querying 100 agents (but we hope you succeed sooner).
What else can you do while waiting? Write more, of course!
And stay positive—the persistent will inherit the literary world.
Chapter 7: Choosing The Right Agent
It’s almost time to pop the champagne!
If your query does its job and your manuscript is deemed worthy, eventually you will receive “bites” from an agent, either as a request for a meeting or phone call, or if they love your work, in an official offer for representation.
How to Handle a Meeting With an Agent
A request to talk will not always lead to an offer.
The agent may want to “feel you out” first to understand your marketability as an author, how many books you plan to write in the future, how demanding you might be as a client, or your willingness to make major edits to your book.
Take the meeting and see how it plays out. You will want to be prepared with a list of questions, like:
- How accessible are you? How long will it take to get a response from you?
- What’s your preferred method of communication (email, phone, ouija board)?
- Why do you want to work on this book?
- How much manuscript editing will you expect?
- What books in my genre have you sold?
- How many book deals have you signed recently (in the last year or two)?
- What’s your favourite brand of whiskey?
After the meeting, make a list of why you might want or not want to work with this person. Discuss it with your partner, family, and friends. Speak with some of this agent’s clients, if possible.
What does your gut say?
If you work with this person, who will have your career in their hands, it may be for the next decade or more.
How to Handle an Offer of Representation
Do not accept the first offer.
I know it’s exciting to finally have one, but staying cool and collected here will help you negotiate a better deal and/or find the best agent for you.
Once you have an offer, you have leverage.
You can now immediately send emails to other agents on your wishlist explaining to them that you have received an offer for representation, and subtly hint that they should get off their hands, walk over to the slush pile, and cozy up with your manuscript, post-haste.
This is an example of the psychological & sales principles of scarcity & social proof. Your bold act may even create a feeding frenzy to sign you as a client.
Accept new meeting requests that come in, if they feel right.
Repeat the pros/cons/gut check process above for each agent & agency.
Take your time; there’s nothing wrong with considering multiple agents. If an agent bristles at this or tries to make you feel bad, that’s a red flag. Remember, they work for you.
Listen to your heart, but don’t let your emotions drive the decision bus. This attention can be overwhelming, but keeping a cool head leads to better decisions.
An agent who is professional, well respected in the industry, gets back to you quickly and with clear responses, keeps their promises, and is excited about working with you, is a gem.
When you’ve considered all your options, send an email hiring your preferred agent.
Thank the others for their time, and let them know you chose someone else.
Choose wisely. This person should be your champion.
Chapter 8: The Part After You Get an Agent
Congratulations! You’ve fulfilled many writers’ feverish dreams: landing an agent.
Unfortunately, now you’ll need to wait while the agent goes to work selling your book to publishers.
A good strategy now would be to occupy yourself with more writing (your next book?)
Still, you don’t need to be a silent partner while your agent peddles your first masterpiece. He or she should not disappear for too long.
A good agent will send you periodic updates including which publishers were approached and when, let you know about any rejections received, and the publishers’ reasons.
You two should discuss any publisher feedback and debate whether this warrants further changes to your manuscript.
Yes, it’s the agent’s job to support you with manuscript changes, whether that’s feedback from him or her or from a professional editor.
When a Publisher Makes an Offer
Have you received an offer from a publisher? Awesome!
But again, don’t accept it right away. A great agent is also a great negotiator.
Much of his or her value is in being able to skillfully negotiate for you a bigger advance, and better terms.
Ask the agent to show you the publisher’s original contract and which alterations he or she suggests, and why.
If you don’t understand something, ask for it to be explained until you get it. Again, an agent works for you.
A word of caution here: don’t be a pain in the ass. While the agent is hustling for you, don’t make their job harder by calling every day, criticizing, or being a diva. This process will take time.
After a while you two will ideally settle into a positive, healthy working relationship. In the rare chance that you do not, you have the option to fire your agent.
Just know that doing so might give you a reputation in the industry as an albatross around the neck.
Chapter 9: Final Words
When the stars align, the right publisher will offer you the right contract.
Take time to celebrate. Throw a party! Let your friends take you out to dinner! Go to the bookstore and take a selfie in front of “your” shelf.
You’ve achieved something that 99 percent of writers dream about but only 1 percent ever realize.
Too many writers forget to take a moment to pause, and revel in the beauty of having your story alive and breathing in the wide world.
Marketing your book will be a long road ahead, a process with which you should absolutely be vigorously involved.
But tonight, celebrate.
We hope you found this guide nothing less than indispensable.
You are a writer. You can and will publish your book.
The So You Want to Write? community is here to make that happen. If you need help with your query letter, synopsis, manuscript, or are just confused by the process, here’s how So You Want to Write? can assist you:
- Enrol yourself in one of our intensive coaching programs
- Take a workshop, or
- Arrange a 1-on-1 meeting with a literary agent
Or, you can start simply by joining our email list where we send helpful writer tips.
Either way, we hope to see you soon.
So You Want to Write? Inc.