If you want to get published traditionally, you’ll need to know how to get a literary agent for your book. It isn’t easy to get your foot in the door, but if you’re stubbornly passionate and don’t give up, it is possible. This post will be based on my own experience querying and signing with a literary agent and I hope it helps you with your own journey.
I read a ton of “how I got my agent” blog posts when I was submitting to agents (these are pretty popular with writers – you only have to google the term and see the sheer number of them). They gave me hope. Equally, they sometimes had me despairing when I was receiving rejections, because it would clearly never happen for me. I was wrong! If you’re reading this and feeling discouraged about your lack of progress, just know that it’s okay to feel that way. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
To quote Michelle Obama, “Failure is a feeling long before it’s a result.”
Before submitting your book
I wrote my first “novel” when I was sixteen. It wasn’t very good, and it was riddled with newbie writing problems and cliches. But I had fun, I loved writing it, and it taught me how to finish something. Years later, I wrote two NaNoWriMo projects for practice, and in my early twenties, a YA fantasy that I queried and shelved because it was rejected across the board. That was all before writing the manuscript that led to me signing with an agent!
It sounds obvious, but you have to write. Abandon projects. Start new projects. Finish projects. Learn about the craft. This can take years, but you need time to develop, to hone your craft. A pianist doesn’t become an expert after the first couple of tries. Likewise, your first book most likely won’t be the one that gets you an agent. Your second might not either, and that’s okay.
Getting to grips with writing craft takes time. Alongside that, traditional publishing is slow, so you might also be waiting a while for responses. This can be frustrating but it can also be a good thing! Giving yourself time to learn and grow will help you become a better writer.
If you think all of this slowness won’t work for you – and that’s a valid choice – you might be more suited to self-publishing.
If you decide to go ahead, here are some things that you might want to do before you submit to agents:
- Take creative writing courses (if you can afford to and feel you need to). Many of them have workshop elements, which are super valuable for developing your craft. Some of them have elements where they teach you about the industry, too.
- Find beta readers/critique partners. Twitter is great for this – there’s a big community of writers hanging out there on various hashtags, such as #amwriting and #writingcommunity. But there are plenty of others way to find them.
- Get involved with the writing community. Befriending other writers will give you a support network. You’ll need people to share your struggles and successes with. You can do this on social media, or join in-person writing groups and go to writing events.
- Read. It goes without saying that reading is essential for learning about what’s marketable and what makes a good story! Read in the genre and age category you want to write in to get a feel for the market. It can also help to read books on writing craft.
- Work with an editor. You don’t have to do this, but working with an editor can be helpful, particularly if you get a professional critique or a developmental edit. Many agents don’t give feedback, so it can be hard to know where you’re going wrong.
How to get a literary agent for your book
Do your research
Before you submit, do your research so you don’t get scammed. No literary agent should charge you money – they work on commission. Any agent who wants you to pay upfront is a scammer and you should run far, far away.
A great place to hunt for agent details if you’re in the UK is the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. In the US you can nab the Writer’s Market and similar titles. QueryTracker.net is great, too, and free! It lists literary agents all over the world (although some UK-based agents are missing from the database, so do be aware of that). You can even use it to track submissions and replies. I recommend doing this even if you don’t use QueryTracker, such as in a spreadsheet or Word document. That way you can keep up with your submissions and any requests.
Follow the agency’s submission guidelines
Every agency has different guidelines – some want you to send a cover/query letter and three chapters. Others might just want an initial query. Treat these guidelines as law. Be professional in your query/cover letter (read QueryShark, a blog on writing query letters, like your life depends on it, and check out Janet Reid’s advice on writing queries). Get someone to critique your query letter before it goes out. Don’t make it easy for someone to say no!
Don’t send your book to every agent at once
Submit to a small batch of agents first, maybe between five and ten. If you get any feedback, rework your manuscript and then send out a new batch.
You can’t always know why a literary agent rejects a book. It might be purely subjective. Still, you don’t want to exhaust all your options in one go. Try to keep it balanced. Don’t get keyboard happy and send your book to 200 agents.
Be in it for the long haul (and be prepared for rejection)
I submitted two manuscripts over the course of two years, racking up a couple hundred rejections. The first book I queried got standard, copy-and-paste rejections almost across the board (also known as form rejections), although two agents did ask to read it. One of them asked me to send it back after doing some revisions, sometimes called an R&R or a revise and resubmit. I never heard from that agent again, even after several polite nudges.
As for the second book I sent out, there was a flurry of interest. Suddenly, lots of people wanted to read my book. But then the standard rejections started rolling in. I even had a literary agent ask to meet me when she was halfway through my book. Then she called and rejected me after she’d finished reading it. A phone call from an agent is generally a sign that they want to work with you, so that was pretty crushing (and unprofessional to boot).
Some days, I wanted to quit because it felt easier. But I kept going. Another agent called me. We talked revisions. I worked on them for six weeks and we bounced ideas back and forth. She really got my book and what I was trying to do, and she loved my edits. After five completed manuscripts, two and a half years of submitting, and many threats of quitting, I signed the contract.
Don’t reply to rejections
Really. Unless the agent personalised your rejection and mentioned your book/characters specifically – in that case, feel free to send them a quick thank-you note. Never send sassy or scathing replies like “You don’t know what you’re missing out on” or “Your loss, sucker”, even if that’s what you’re thinking. Vent in private. That’s what your support network is for.
If an agent rejects your book, but invites you to submit future work, do it!
They haven’t slammed the door shut, they’ve left a gap for you – and it means they see potential. Keep their name and email address, and when you have a new project ready, send it to them and remind them who you are.
No project is ever wasted. You’ll learn something from every manuscript, and even if you don’t get a literary agent for your book straight away, you’ll be making connections and putting your name out there. Treat your rejections as badges of honour. They mean that you’re still in the game, and one day you’ll get to the next level. And if you decide the traditional path isn’t for you, there are plenty of other valid options for putting your work out there. Good luck!
If you’d like some professional feedback on your work before you submit to agents, check out my editorial services.