My favourite part of YALC 2018, aside from the stacks of £5 books and catching a fleeting glimpse of Tomi Adeyemi, was the publishers’ corner. I took a LOT of notes there, especially during the panel about how to query a novel.

Because let’s face it: I’m an uneducated peanut. I don’t know how to query a novel. (Some days, I feel I don’t even know how to write one.)

All my Instagram pals will know that my big goal in 2019 is to query Lady of Daemons. You’ll also know that I’m reeeeaaaallllyyyyyyyy nervous. My stomach is full of itty-bitty butterflies that have been drinking pure caffeine for the entirety of their flappy little lives. I need all the help I can get.

I’m really glad I took those notes.

How to Query, According to Some Lit Agents that I Met Once*

*These are the opinions of three British lit agents, as they were expressed on one day, over the course of one hour. Please don’t think that these are hard-and-fast rules, or else you may find yourself flummoxed and in despair.

What does an agent do, anyways?

Agents are basically the middleman between authors and publishers. They send books to publishers, help authors secure the best deals, do some editing, and provide emotional support. A good agent will want to help you establish a long career, not just sell one of your books and be done with you forever. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

So how do I pitch a manuscript to an agent?

First – and steel yourself, because this one’s a shocker – you should finish writing your book.

Okay, I’ve finished my book!

Really?

Yes.

You’re sure?

Yes!! Where do I find an agent to send it to?

The entire publishing industry hangs out on Twitter, so that’s a good place to start. Browse the #MSWL (manuscript wishlist) hashtag or visit the MSWL site. The Writer’s Digest website also lists loads of agents.

Choose your agents on the basis of what they represent. If you write YA romance and they only represent books full of crocheting patterns, they’re not going to look at your work twice! Look for agents who represent authors whom you like, or who are complaining on Twitter that they can’t find a manuscript to fill a particular gap in their list.

Pick out eight or ten names to start with, and then get in touch with them.

Um, that sounds scary. How do I do that without having a heart attack?

Okay, deep breath. Deep breath deep breath deeeeep breaaaatttthhhhhh

Here’s how to write the email:

  • To: Just once agent at a time. Nobody likes to be part of a massive email blast.
  • Subject: Either your title and your name, or “Submission: Your Title, Your Name.”
  • Body: Dear [agent’s name], I’m seeking representation for my [number of words] [genre] novel, entitled [title]. (The goal here is to be as clear and succinct as possible. Agents get hundreds and hundreds of submissions every month, so anything that makes an email easier to read will put them in a good mood!)
  • Pitch: Two very intiguing sentences that make them want to drop everything and read your manuscript. (This is, um, really hard. Try looking at the blurbs on books that are similar to yours. Introduce your characters and their challenges, but don’t talk about themes – those don’t really tell you anything about the characters or the plot. A meaningful comp is always good as it helps to cache your book within the existing market. Keep your pitch between 90 and 150 characters and leave the agent desperate to know what happens next.)
  • If you’re pitching a series: You don’t know what kinds of edits will be requested on your first book, so don’t talk about what happens in future books. Instead, focus on pitching your first book. Say it’s the first in a planned duology/triology/series/whaever, and add a line that says, “Broadly speaking, the next book(s) follow X as they do Y.”
  • Other stuff: Tell them anything else about yourself that’s relevant. Do you have any writing credentials? Is your day job is in the same industry that your novel is set in? Is it an #ownvoices manuscript?
  • Then say: I have included a brief synopsis and [requested number of pages or chapters], according to your submission guidelines.
  • Sign off: Kindest regards, Person Whose Manuscript You Would be a Fool to Not At Least Consider Your Name

Remember to always, always, always keep it short and to follow the guidelines!! This should be a ten-second read at most. Agents have a kajillion things to get through and straying from their guidelines will make them not want to read your submission. Which is the opposite of what we’re trying to do here.

Okay, I’ve sent the email! Now what?

You should get a response within six weeks to three months. (The exact details should be on the agency’s website.) If you haven’t heard back after three months, then you can follow up.

Aww, I got a generic rejection letter 🙁

Generic rejection letters are no fun, but don’t take it too personally. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t like it; it probably just wasn’t right for them at that time. It might be similar to something they’ve already got, or they know that it’ll be a really hard sell for them.

It’s also possible that your pitch isn’t strong enough. If you’ve sent out ten queries and gotten ten generic rejection letters, it’s time to regroup. Edit your manuscript, reword your pitch, tone up your summary, and find ten new agents to pitch it to.

I got rejected but it’s not a form letter?

That’s a really good sign! Personalised feedback means they really liked it but didn’t think they could sell it. Keep pitching – there’s clearly interest in your manuscript and the right agent for it could be just around the corner.

An agent requested my full manuscript!

A request for a full manuscript means you might get an offer of representation! SEND IT TO THEM. And then send a quick email to the other agents whom you haven’t heard back from to let them know that someone has requested a full manuscript. That’ll let them know that if they’re thinking they might want your manuscript, they’d better hurry.

I GOT AN OFFER OF REPRESENTATION

Once you’ve finished quaffing champagne and swinging from the chandeliers, get ready to get down to brass tacks.

First, send an email to the other agents from whom you haven’t heard. Tell them that you’ve received an offer of representation, and ask them to please send you an answer regarding your manuscript within two weeks. If you’re lucky, you’ll spark a little bidding war over your work!

Try to arrange a meeting with the agent who wants to represent you. Meet them in person, if you can. Authors can spend their whole careers with the same agent, so you want to be sure you like and trust this person before you say yes.

Offers of representation are never extended lightly. If an agent wants to rep your manuscript, they’re sold on it. They believe in it. They would rather die than let someone else rep this book.

So don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. What’s the commission split? Is their agency part of the Association of Authors’ Agents (or whatever institution governs and regulates literary agencies in your country? What direction do they want to go with your manuscript? What kind of edits do they want to make? To whom do they want to send it? Are they thinking about selling foreign rights, or film rights?

Once the meeting is done, thank them for their time, tell them how excited you are, and, if you’re waiting to hear from some other agents let them know. Just say, “I’m still waiting to hear from some other agents – could I give you an answer in two weeks’ time?” This is standard within the industry and they won’t be offended.

If you’re sure that you like and trust this agent, and that you aren’t just signing on with them because they’ve sold some cool stuff or because they’re the first person to show interest in your work, sign on with them. And then find some more champagne.

So now what?

You’ll probably get some editorial letters from the agent, asking you to make some changes. It’s not personal – it’s just them trying to make sure that your book will sell.

Your agent will them write a pitch for your book and send it to editors, hoping to tempt a publishing house into buying it. This can take anywhere from a week to a year. Traditional publishing is really slow – the process of pitching a novel to seeing it published takes two or three years. That’s why it’s so important not to chase trends – agents and publishers are thinking about the future, not the present.

The wait is long and hard and full of criticism, but remember that your agent is on your side. They’re waiting, too. They want your book to sell, too. They’re working hard and they’re crazy invested in seeing your manuscript succeed.

That’s all I have for now, but if you’ve got any other tips or insights, please share them in the comments!

P.S. – You may have noticed that there were three blog posts this month! That’s because I’ll be on holiday in the beginning of February. Expect the next post on 25 February!