If you want to get published traditionally, you’ll need to know how to get a literary agent. It isn’t easy to get your foot in the door, but if you’re stubbornly passionate and don’t give up, you’ll make progress.
I read a ton of “how I got my agent” blog posts when I was submitting to agents (these are pretty popular with writers, I learned). They gave me hope. Equally, they sometimes had me despairing and wanting to cry because it would clearly never happen for me. I was wrong! If you’re reading this and feeling sad 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.”
I’ve always written stories. I wrote my first “novel” when I was 16. It was about angels of light and darkness and doors to other planets, and it was heavily inspired by Kingdom Hearts, a game I was obsessed with at the time. But I had fun, I loved writing it, and it taught me how to plan and finish something. I wrote three other books before writing the one that led to me signing with an agent.
So basically… 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. Your first book most likely won’t be the one that gets you where you need to be. Your second might not either, and that’s okay. No one becomes an expert overnight.
Here are some other things that you might want to do:
- 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.
- Find beta readers/critique partners. Twitter is great for this – there’s a big community of writers hanging out there.
- Get involved with the community. Befriending other writers will give you a support network. You’ll need people to share your struggles and successes with.
- Read. It goes without saying that reading is essential for learning about what’s marketable and what makes a good story.
- 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 developmental edit. Many agents don’t give feedback, so it can be hard to know where you’re going wrong without professional input.
Finding an agent
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. QueryTracker.net is great, too. It lists literary agents all over the world (although some UK-based agents are missing). You can even use it to track your submissions and replies (I recommend doing this even if you don’t use QueryTracker).
Follow 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. A good place to do this is Agent Query Connect, where you can chat to other querying writers. Don’t make it easy for someone to say no!
Don’t send your book to everyone at once
Submit to a small batch of agents first, maybe between 5 and 10. If you get any feedback, rework your manuscript and then send out a new batch. Sometimes this strategy isn’t very useful. 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. A lot of agents have a policy of not replying if they aren’t interested in a submission.
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).
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 writer friends/cats/brick walls are 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 land a literary agent 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. Good luck!
This post was reworked from an article originally written for The Parlour.