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How To Sell Your Book To A Literary Agent

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Editing and Publishing

The world of publishing is no picnic, and whilst success comes to both self and traditionally published authors, it is no wonder having a team on your side can turn a minefield into an enjoyable experience.


Literary agents are angels sent from publishing heaven to work on your behalf to get your book published - whilst earning you the best possible deal!


Unsure if you need an agent? Find out here: What Exactly Does A Literary Agent Do?


But how does one go about securing an agent in the first place? Sadly, with hundreds - and sometimes thousands - of manuscripts landing on agency desks every month, competition for partnership can be tricky. There are certainly many aspects that will work in your favour, such as having a stand-out story to offer in the first place, but often it will require a good bit of effort on your part.


The good news is that once you have an agent in your corner, the path ahead to publication and beyond becomes a whole lot smoother (and enjoyable!) so putting in the work early is definitely worth it.


Let's break down how you can knock the socks off the agent of your dreams and get the representation you deserve.





Choosing Your Shortlist of Candidates


With location being less and less important when it comes to partnerships, your options when it comes to potential literary agents are nearly endless. To save you time (and heartache from 'reject' responses), shortlist candidates who will be your best shots at success.


What makes a good candidate?

  • An agency which has a reputation for working within your genre or authors you feel most akin to

  • An agency which fits your specific needs, for example a good editing department or solid, reliable connections with publishers

  • One within your general vicinity, allowing for physical meet ups with your agent or at the very least within a reasonable time zone which will allow for daytime video or voice calls

  • An agency with the right number of other clients: smaller agencies tend to give a lot more hands-on support whilst larger agencies usually expect the writer to maintain more of an independent role

  • An agency - or rather, agent - you feel you can trust and maintain a great professional relationship. You tend to find this out a bit later, but research may highlight a few individuals you know you would work well with


I fully recommend arranging these candidates into groups of ten, starting with the agencies you would most like to work with based on the criteria above. I would also suggest mixing bigger and smaller agencies at the beginning as any resulting conversations will let you get a sense of what each could offer.


As you wait for any responses, you can then start working on the personalised submissions for your next batch.


For a deeper dive, check out Choosing The Right Agent




The Title


Take a moment to think of a couple of literature's most famous works, then think about your own personal favourites. Done that? Now be honest: which books would have grabbed your attention by title alone? Whilst there are many 'mundane' titles for incredible books, remember that your story is going in sans reputation, illustrations and any other 'gotcha' hook to get an agent intrigued. Choose a title for your book which dignifies your story and catches attention. Avoid titles which only make sense after reading the story, as unless you naturally cover it within your synopsis (read: not shoe-horning the explanation in) it will only serve as an isolated segment.



The Cover Letter


Writing a covering letter can become unnecessarily complicated, so here we will just cover the basics. If you would like a more detailed outline, check out Writing A Perfect Cover Letter.


Try to get your self-introduction, reason for writing, and your attention-grabbing book hook in within those first two sentences.


EXAMPLE:

'My name is John Smith, and I am currently seeking representation for my debut novel, The Puppet Master. The story revolves around a down-in-the-dumps puppeteer develops the ability to control those around him as easily as he does his puppets, and as heart of gold darkens, so too do his actions.'


This straight-to-the-point opener should then be followed up by a slightly longer blurb-like paragraph.Your synopsis stands as a separate part of your submission, so do not dump it in your cover letter! Instead, pitch your book as a whole. Find books within your specific genre online or in your local library and take note of what jumps out at you in their blurbs and makes you want to find out more, then use these tricks in your overall summary.


Spend a sentence or two explaining why you have chosen to approach this agency over others - a good opportunity to demonstrate your awareness of the agency's special focuses, previous successes within the same genre, and why they specifically would be good for you. This is also the chance to show your knowledge of the book market and your potential place in it. Where would the agent find your book - next to Agatha Christie or J.K. Rowling? Highlight the readership that is already out there, just waiting for your book to meet their demand. This will help an agent convince their marketing team you are a good find. Be sure not to claim your place as 'the next [enter major author here]', in fact don't compare yourself to any author. Instead, focus on the readers. 'My book would appeal to the readers of The Hunger Games' reads far better than 'I am the next Suzanne Collins'


Next, provide a small profile for yourself by including any relevant writing information such as where you have been published or featured elsewhere. If you have no relevant accolades, don't worry! Mention one or two facts about you as a writer, such as a stylistic approach you tend to employ or the genre(s) you write within with strong familiarity. A common mistake many writers make in their cover letter is listing impressive but otherwise unrelated achievements which does the opposite of appealing to agents. The aim of this piece of writing is to sell your book, not yourself. If you succeed in grabbing the agent with your amazing story setup, they will naturally find out how amazing you are as a person in their follow up chats.


Finally indicate what you are/will be working on next. This indicates you are not just in it to publish one book and possibly hang up the writer hat, but instead plan to carve a successful and long career within writing. Remember: This letter is pitching one book only. If you have more than one story to offer, choose the one you feel would give you the best shot at intriguing a reader. If you plan to create a series, focus on the first book with a mention of your intentions to continue the story. If an agent is keen on book one, they will ask you for details of your series. Many agents like to sign 2 or 3 book deals to properly establish a writer's career, with all books aimed at a very similar audience, so choose your genre and readership carefully.



The Synopsis


Your synopsis will the the chronological account of the most important events within your story. Let me repeat: the most important events. This is not the time to show off your wider world or how wonderfully clever you've been in developing all your characters. Spend a sentence or two establishing the overall situation at the start and then hop to key events and changes until you reach the end. Don't worry: agents are very well aware there will be more happening between these events and wonderful aspects which create small influences, and they will get a sense of this in your sample chapters.


Ideally, this should easily fit on an A4 page and you run the risk of it being put aside if it runs longer. Unlike the blurb you have become so good at reciting, this is no place for concealing spoilers or any twists - include everything pivotal to the story so the agent can gauge if the reading experience will be worth it. Holding back key information may lose you a request for the full manuscript.



The Opening Chapters


This is one of the main aspects which makes or breaks your submission, so make it count! Typically you would be expected to provide the opening three chapters of your book. Some agencies do not count prologues as a chapter whilst others do, so bear that in mind.


These chapters have three main objectives:


  • Establish a central character who will help ground the story and who readers will want to follow through the story

  • Kick off a strong and compelling plot which can be understood without screeds of background information

  • Create suspense and intrigue through enticing story-telling


Context and backstories should be sprinkled through your book; if you try to squeeze too much into your opening chapters, you will lose your reader's attention, lose momentum, slow the pace and make the experience a bore. Be selective what information is included. You can ask friends to read these chapters beforehand to find some glaring issues.


Do not be tempted to overflow your chapters to fit more events! Agents aim to read all submissions fully but do not owe you more of their time to make their decision. Too many pages will turn them off before they've had a chance to read your opening sentence. Additionally, don't try to 'entice' with purposefully short chapters. The first three should represent what the rest of the chapters will generally look like, so keep your length within the norm of your respective genre and age bracket.




Final Thought


Much like the struggle to find a publisher, finding the agent right for you may take time. And that's OK. Good things come to those who wait, and if you are careful to take on any notes and constructive criticism to tackle any glaring issues, you may find yourself ending with a better offer than you would have started with. Keep at it, fine-tune when you can, and remember: quality over quantity.


See more on the topic:

What Exactly Does A Literary Agent Do?

Choosing The Right Agent

Writing An Effective Novel Synopsis


The world of publishing is no picnic, and whilst success comes to both self and traditionally published authors, it is no wonder having a team on your side can turn a minefield into an enjoyable experience.


Literary agents are angels sent from publishing heaven to work on your behalf to get your book published - whilst earning you the best possible deal!


Unsure if you need an agent? Find out here: What Exactly Does A Literary Agent Do?


But how does one go about securing an agent in the first place? Sadly, with hundreds - and sometimes thousands - of manuscripts landing on agency desks every month, competition for partnership can be tricky. There are certainly many aspects that will work in your favour, such as having a stand-out story to offer in the first place, but often it will require a good bit of effort on your part.


The good news is that once you have an agent in your corner, the path ahead to publication and beyond becomes a whole lot smoother (and enjoyable!) so putting in the work early is definitely worth it.


Let's break down how you can knock the socks off the agent of your dreams and get the representation you deserve.





Choosing Your Shortlist of Candidates


With location being less and less important when it comes to partnerships, your options when it comes to potential literary agents are nearly endless. To save you time (and heartache from 'reject' responses), shortlist candidates who will be your best shots at success.


What makes a good candidate?

  • An agency which has a reputation for working within your genre or authors you feel most akin to

  • An agency which fits your specific needs, for example a good editing department or solid, reliable connections with publishers

  • One within your general vicinity, allowing for physical meet ups with your agent or at the very least within a reasonable time zone which will allow for daytime video or voice calls

  • An agency with the right number of other clients: smaller agencies tend to give a lot more hands-on support whilst larger agencies usually expect the writer to maintain more of an independent role

  • An agency - or rather, agent - you feel you can trust and maintain a great professional relationship. You tend to find this out a bit later, but research may highlight a few individuals you know you would work well with


I fully recommend arranging these candidates into groups of ten, starting with the agencies you would most like to work with based on the criteria above. I would also suggest mixing bigger and smaller agencies at the beginning as any resulting conversations will let you get a sense of what each could offer.


As you wait for any responses, you can then start working on the personalised submissions for your next batch.


For a deeper dive, check out Choosing The Right Agent




The Title


Take a moment to think of a couple of literature's most famous works, then think about your own personal favourites. Done that? Now be honest: which books would have grabbed your attention by title alone? Whilst there are many 'mundane' titles for incredible books, remember that your story is going in sans reputation, illustrations and any other 'gotcha' hook to get an agent intrigued. Choose a title for your book which dignifies your story and catches attention. Avoid titles which only make sense after reading the story, as unless you naturally cover it within your synopsis (read: not shoe-horning the explanation in) it will only serve as an isolated segment.



The Cover Letter


Writing a covering letter can become unnecessarily complicated, so here we will just cover the basics. Try to get your self-introduction, reason for writing, and your attention-grabbing book hook in within those first two sentences.


EXAMPLE:

'My name is John Smith, and I am currently seeking representation for my debut novel, The Puppet Master. The story revolves around a down-in-the-dumps puppeteer develops the ability to control those around him as easily as he does his puppets, and as heart of gold darkens, so too do his actions.'


This straight-to-the-point opener should then be followed up by a slightly longer blurb-like paragraph.Your synopsis stands as a separate part of your submission, so do not dump it in your cover letter! Instead, pitch your book as a whole. Find books within your specific genre online or in your local library and take note of what jumps out at you in their blurbs and makes you want to find out more, then use these tricks in your overall summary.


Spend a sentence or two explaining why you have chosen to approach this agency over others - a good opportunity to demonstrate your awareness of the agency's special focuses, previous successes within the same genre, and why they specifically would be good for you. This is also the chance to show your knowledge of the book market and your potential place in it. Where would the agent find your book - next to Agatha Christie or J.K. Rowling? Highlight the readership that is already out there, just waiting for your book to meet their demand. This will help an agent convince their marketing team you are a good find. Be sure not to claim your place as 'the next [enter major author here]', in fact don't compare yourself to any author. Instead, focus on the readers. 'My book would appeal to the readers of The Hunger Games' reads far better than 'I am the next Suzanne Collins'


Next, provide a small profile for yourself by including any relevant writing information such as where you have been published or featured elsewhere. If you have no relevant accolades, don't worry! Mention one or two facts about you as a writer, such as a stylistic approach you tend to employ or the genre(s) you write within with strong familiarity. A common mistake many writers make in their cover letter is listing impressive but otherwise unrelated achievements which does the opposite of appealing to agents. The aim of this piece of writing is to sell your book, not yourself. If you succeed in grabbing the agent with your amazing story setup, they will naturally find out how amazing you are as a person in their follow up chats.


Finally indicate what you are/will be working on next. This indicates you are not just in it to publish one book and possibly hang up the writer hat, but instead plan to carve a successful and long career within writing. Remember: This letter is pitching one book only. If you have more than one story to offer, choose the one you feel would give you the best shot at intriguing a reader. If you plan to create a series, focus on the first book with a mention of your intentions to continue the story. If an agent is keen on book one, they will ask you for details of your series. Many agents like to sign 2 or 3 book deals to properly establish a writer's career, with all books aimed at a very similar audience, so choose your genre and readership carefully.



The Synopsis


Your synopsis will the the chronological account of the most important events within your story. Let me repeat: the most important events. This is not the time to show off your wider world or how wonderfully clever you've been in developing all your characters. Spend a sentence or two establishing the overall situation at the start and then hop to key events and changes until you reach the end. Don't worry: agents are very well aware there will be more happening between these events and wonderful aspects which create small influences, and they will get a sense of this in your sample chapters.


Ideally, this should easily fit on an A4 page and you run the risk of it being put aside if it runs longer. Unlike the blurb you have become so good at reciting, this is no place for concealing spoilers or any twists - include everything pivotal to the story so the agent can gauge if the reading experience will be worth it. Holding back key information may lose you a request for the full manuscript.



The Opening Chapters


This is one of the main aspects which makes or breaks your submission, so make it count! Typically you would be expected to provide the opening three chapters of your book. Some agencies do not count prologues as a chapter whilst others do, so bear that in mind.


These chapters have three main objectives:


  • Establish a central character who will help ground the story and who readers will want to follow through the story

  • Kick off a strong and compelling plot which can be understood without screeds of background information

  • Create suspense and intrigue through enticing story-telling


Context and backstories should be sprinkled through your book; if you try to squeeze too much into your opening chapters, you will lose your reader's attention, lose momentum, slow the pace and make the experience a bore. Be selective what information is included. You can ask friends to read these chapters beforehand to find some glaring issues.


Do not be tempted to overflow your chapters to fit more events! Agents aim to read all submissions fully but do not owe you more of their time to make their decision. Too many pages will turn them off before they've had a chance to read your opening sentence. Additionally, don't try to 'entice' with purposefully short chapters. The first three should represent what the rest of the chapters will generally look like, so keep your length within the norm of your respective genre and age bracket.




Final Thought


Much like the struggle to find a publisher, finding the agent right for you may take time. And that's OK. Good things come to those who wait, and if you are careful to take on any notes and constructive criticism to tackle any glaring issues, you may find yourself ending with a better offer than you would have started with. Keep at it, fine-tune when you can, and remember: quality over quantity.


See more on the topic:

What Exactly Does A Literary Agent Do?

Choosing The Right Agent

Writing An Effective Novel Synopsis


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