11 Steps to Finding the Agent Who’ll Love Your Book

I was ready. I had an edited manuscript. I had a tiered list of agents. I had a spreadsheet. I’d read every scrap of information about getting an agent, and I was prepared, at last, to submit my novel. The process could take months, maybe years, I’d heard. I was in for the long haul, baby. The good news is it didn’t take years to get an offer of representation. The even better news: That offer came in the form of four magic words, words I’d been told to wait for by all the experts: I love your book.

Not just a Facebook-worthy thumbs up, not a “I think I can sell this.” Love. The reason you wait for true love in publishing is because publishing requires it, and not just from the author. Remember the feverish crush that helped fuel your first draft? Your agent needs that same big-eyed reverence for your book to take it out to editors, hoping for another love connection.

So how do you snag one of these lovey-doveys for yourself?

GIVEAWAY: Lori is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Christa4F won.)


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Column by Lori Rader-Day, author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh
Street Books, 2014), which received starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal
and Publishers Weekly. Born and raised in central Indiana, she now lives with her
husband and dog in Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery
Magazine, Time Out Chicago, The Madison Review, and others. Best-selling
author Jodi Picoult chose one of Lori’s short stories for the grand prize in
Good Housekeeping’s first fiction contest. Lori is a member of Mystery
Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers.
Find her on Twitter at @LoriRaderDay.

You’re not ready until you can bounce a quarter off your manuscript. You’ve already revised, I know. Leave it alone for a month, then go back. Make sure your pages say precisely what you meant. Make your sentences sing.

Meanwhile, the best way to see how it’s done is to read. Read widely. When you don’t like something, figure out why. Apply everything you learn to your draft until further ideas ping off it.

Gather your intelligence. Which books are like yours, not just in subject but in tone and style? Who agented them? Read the Writer’s Digest archives. Use online resources to sort through the known universe of agent submissions. Learn as much as you can, and start a list. Rank agents in order of likelihood of love match.

Learn to write a query letter. Write a synopsis. What’s a log line? Get one. If at any one of these steps you find something lacking in your story, don’t ignore the problem. Every step of this process is a chance to get it right before someone else can tell you you’re getting it wrong. Go back over your draft until your product is perfectly packaged for sale. Did your eye just twitch? Get used to thinking of your baby, your life’s creative work, as a prototype that might yet be tinkered with by other people.

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The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.


Time for some allies. If you have a writers’ group, they should have already had a swipe at your pages, but having a writing network isn’t just about first readers. What you want is a group of people who can tell you how the road ahead looks. Research writers’ associations in your genre and beyond. Ask at your local library, bookstores, or universities for writing groups or workshops.

Read again
The guidelines, in this case. This is your last chance before you click send to take a look at your list of agents and take note of what they want from your initial query. Getting through the front door is often about playing by the rules. Don’t send anything less—or more—than each agent has asked for.

Submit to four to eight agents only. Send each a separate email or mailed package (as they requested) with only the information they asked for. Keep things professional. No gimmicks. Save the rest of your list for now.

Start something new. No, really. Go write another book. You need to think about something else and even if everything goes just as you’d like it to on the first book, you’ll still want a new draft in short order.

Keep track of your submission results—and learn from them. If you aren’t getting any page requests, your query letter needs work. If you’re getting partial requests but then nothing, your first pages aren’t snagging the reader. If you’re getting full requests but no nibbles, it’s time to take a look at the full manuscript again. Make note of each reply, give it time, and then—

Submit again
This is why you saved the rest of your list. Submit, again, to four to eight agents only, using every step, every rejection, every encouragement to better prepare your work for the next round (and the next), as long as it takes to find a match.

Just like in love, things might not always go as planned. Keep writing. Maybe the next book is the one that will put stars in an agent’s eyes. Of course, that’s not really why you write, is it? If you commit to writing for reasons beyond publishing, it won’t take you long to find the love of your life, in the words right there on the page.


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46 thoughts on “11 Steps to Finding the Agent Who’ll Love Your Book

  1. Maupassant

    Lori, thank you for a great check list. One missing item is the blog, or platform. Did you have one at the time of your agent search? Was it requested by your agent?
    Just to share the pains of the polishing process, I tried the first review after a week, and most of the writing looked fine. I put the manuscript out of sight for two months, and then many mistakes popped up. I repeated the steps, with less time in-between, and after about the 6th revision, had two chapters reviewed by a critique club, and two pages by a writing coach. Finally I purchased the “editor’s companion” for standards and tips, and now I’m approaching the 10th revision.
    Yes, it’s a much improved manuscript.

  2. H.Stories

    Thanks for all your advice. I have a question as a fellow Chicago dweller well ok I live in the suburbs, but there is a Writer’s conference coming up in October for Chicago writers. Do you feel this is a good conference if you have heard of it? I believe it is run by Northwestern University among other vendors. What do you suggest I do or bring if I go? It’s a scary prospect for me being that I am just starting to query and submit my work places.

  3. suzyann68@att.net

    Lori, thanks for giving us a great checklist to follow. All of us have heard about the work that must be done in order to get that book published, but thank you for really drilling it in that the manuscript must be tied up tightly and neatly as to charm the socks off the agent. We really do want our readers to experience the thrill we had during the writing process, and it certainly does require a second, third, maybe a fourth read. It’s difficult to capture all the passion the first time around in the first draft.

  4. TheWritePlace

    I am OK for the short haul; in my article “How to Write Gooder for Publication” I noted “Revise, Revise, Revise.” However, for the long haul–a full-fledged novel–I have some miles to go before I get to that point. I have to get over thinking that everything I write the first time around is sheer genius. And, yes, I do notice that all my sentences begin with “I.” Yep, I have some revising to do!

    Thanks for all the info. It will go into my “Getting Published” file.

  5. Adan Ramie

    I’ve been dreaming of hearing those four words all my life, far longer than I dreamed of being able to say, “I’m a graduate”, or hearing “I love you” from a romantic interest. “I love your book.” That must have been sweet music to your ears. Congrats on the book (which is on my To Read list), and thanks for the tips!

  6. Equinox

    I have a question regarding one of your replies, you said when the book is ready, its ready to sell… and you mentioned a previous book that had a 100% rejection rate… did you go back, got it ready, and tried again with a different set of agents?

    1. LoriRD

      I haven’t yet but I might in the future. It was pretty messy. I would probably have to write it from scratch, and we all know the draw of the fresh, new story (over a total redraft), don’t we?

  7. Must Love Musty Pages

    These are great! I especially love your description for Revise: “You’re not ready until you can bounce a quarter off your manuscript.” Absolutely! The writing must be tight and concise. No extra words or awkward phrases.

    The Black Hour sounds like my kind of book. I’ve already added it to my goodreads shelf.

  8. atwhatcost

    Silly newbie question. Since I’ll never know if my first query/package works, until it does or doesn’t, should I hit the second tier of agents first? I know who I want to take my novel on first try, but I only get one try at a first impression, so I worry I’ll blow that lousy impression on the folks I want the most. The ones I already love, but they don’t know it yet. 😀

    1. LoriRD

      Not a silly question. It’s a real risk. The best advice I have is to know that you have done everything you can to make your book the best it can be, and then go for your top choice. Maybe save your second choice back in case you learn something from this first interaction. Often you will only learn through rejection. But if you know you did everything within your power to make your book ready, the rejection should sting a little less. Sometimes, a book just isn’t a great fit. Remember that agents have to love it completely, too. And then send it out to your second choice!

  9. Lydia Sherrer

    Thanks for all the advice Lori! I’m far from completing my manuscript, so I’ll be tucking away all this advice for the future. It’s good to be prepared, right? I look forward to reading your book!

  10. Juliana

    Oops, only 4 to 8 agents at a time? 😉

    Seriously, thanks, Lori, for the little nuggets of wisdom, especially getting the “product” ready for sale. I’d love to know how many agents you had to contact before you found the perfect match.

    1. LoriRD

      A pretty small number, but I chalk that up to making sure the book was ready. When I first started querying a few years earlier with another book, it just wasn’t. 100 percent rejection rate. But when the book is ready, there’s an agent out there for it. The trick is sifting through all the agents NOT for it.

  11. annettaf3

    Maybe I will finally finish a book now. I keep stalling or starting a new project because I don’t know what to do if I were to finish.

  12. Brooke18

    Very informative! I need an agent but I’ve been so busy with school! (I’m in college.) It’s nice to see more helpful information on how to FIND an agent!

    I’d also like to win your book!

  13. Dee

    Thanks Lori for your article!

    I’m almost ready to begin submitting my manuscript to agents, but wasn’t sure what to do after getting it edited by a professional editor.

    Thanks, again,

  14. Chadwrite

    Good advice. It’s smart to use a limited field of agents to beta test your material, then fix what’s broken and move on to the next panel. I shall try that!

  15. Debbie

    Thank you, Lori, for all the great tips. I especially like the mention of if you don’t like something, figure out why. Oftentimes, we jump straight to just making a change or rewriting, but not really knowing why. I like to curl up with my dog when I analyze — it’s serine. Thank you again.

  16. The Black Hand

    Hey Chuck,
    So on this list of agents, do you pick the top 4 to 8? Or would you mix it up from the list? My questions stems from the fact that if you put all your “best shots” at the top, and then blow your chance with them, you are moving down the list into less and less likely matches. Thoughts?

    1. LoriRD

      You can decide to hold back a few “top” choices to see what happens, what feedback the other top choices might give you.

      You would blow your chances with agents only if your book isn’t for them…and that’s valuable info to have. You could always go back to them with another project, too. I know that’s small consolation, but it’s true.


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