The most important step in getting published is get the attention of the crucial first gatekeepers – the literary agents. That’s done with a query letter – a letter inquiring about our level of interest in your proposed book.
Now the bad news: most agents see hundreds of queries a week by mail and email.
How do you differentiate yourself from this avalanche of queries?
It’s not by sending roses, money, balloons, chocolate or silly gimmicks, although they’ve all been tried. (But thanks for that Godiva last year, Jim). It’s not fancy paper or a glitzy package that you hope will impress an agent. It’s by having compelling, salable content and a strong author platform. A “platform” means that you are speaking, blogging, promoting, an expert, teaching, writing articles, whatever on your topic. and that other people in the world (who are not your blood relatives) are responding to you and what you have to say.
For agencies like mine that handle exclusively nonfiction, your best approach is to alert us to the size of your market. (NOT the same as how many books sold in your category last year. We need to know how many individuals are out there who need what you’ve got). If the opening paragraph reads “650,000 Americans will struggle with [this problem] this year and my proposed book is the first to address it from this perspective” it will get us to keep reading. Of course, it really helps if you are the leading expert/researcher in your subject area, a celebrity or have some extremely unusual story related to your topic. If so, mention that promptly, identify your platform, and finally, tell us a bit about your content. A rule of thumb is “Audience Size, Your Credentials & Platform, then Your Proposed Content.” Spell check it…twice. Ewe niver knoe wat weel creap intwo yor wrieting.
I’d be much more excited about a query that opens with “I have 42,817 people following my blog on “Finding Romance on the Internet” and I am writing to propose a book on this topic” than “I had a bunch of really bad dates on Match.com and they were so funny my friends said I should write a book about them.” The former, I’ll keep reading. The latter, it’s already rejected – no one in publishing will even read the second sentence. By the way, the content could be identical, but one will sell and the other will not. Nobody ever said life is fair. Start a blog if it hurts your feelings.
If you email it to us, don’t show all the other agents to whom you’re also sending it in the cc: field! And NEVER complain about how many rejections you’ve already gotten – it just makes us think “Millions can’t be wrong” and becomes an instant rejection. Agents scramble for the few great projects that show up via cold queries each year. Agents also figure, “If many think it’s lousy, it probably is.”
How many agents should you approach before you start to wonder a little about your work? Select thirty literary agents who have sold and are currently selling projects like yours. Address each one of us by name, not “Dear Madam/Sir”. Get right to the point (as shown above), don’t try to be cute, never be threatening (it happens!) and don’t promise it’s the next NY Times best seller (chances are, you’re wrong – and if you ARE right, we’ll know it before you do). Please don’t mention that your mom, your friends or the guy you drink beer with after work all think it will be a big success, unless your mom is a C-level executive at a major US publishing house. Be clear about your content and whom it will serve. Tell us how many people you are currently impressing with this content – your platform size. Most agencies employ well-trained assistants who exist exclusively to filter out anyone useless to the agency.
Allow time for all thirty agents to respond. If after two weeks (by email) or six weeks (by snail mail) you haven’t heard from someone, assume they are too busy or not interested. Let it go. It’s like picking out the perfect peach at the supermarket – some are ripe, some are mushy, some are too hard. If you’ve written a great query, and you seem to have a good platform, some agents might request your proposal. Send it along, but never agree to an “exclusive look” – this is an archaic practice that serves the agents but not the writers. Believe me, we know in less than five minutes if you’ve got a prayer of selling your book.
If an agent offers you a contract, it is in your best interests to call any other agencies who are still considering your project before signing. (This is the ONLY time it’s OK to call agents before you are their client.) Give the stragglers a few days or a week to get back to you – mention you have an agency interested, but you don’t need to name names. (But never lie!) Interview those who want to handle you. Ask what kinds of improvements you should make to it before he or she will send it out, what expectations she has for the book – hardcover? big advance? 30 city book tour? (PS – listen to what they say – real agents will all pretty much say the same things). Most of all, ask what you should do to grow your platform between now and publication, and what marketing guidance the agent will personally give you before, during and after publication.
Literary agents are an extremely diverse group of service professionals and we offer a wide range of services and benefits. We have extremely different personalities and work styles. You will be working with this person for many years to come if the book sells. Make sure you have a good fit so the relationship between you and your agent will be a long and happy one. Sign the contract and let them sell your book for you.
The information above is meant to help you attract a literary agent to help you sell your book to a publisher.