16 Agents Share 34 Tips for Success: From Studying the Market to Proper Querying

When compiling the literary agent feature for the October 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest, I was overwhelmed with the amount of advice, tips, and thoughts agents were willing to share. We had so much extra content, in fact, that we decided to post it online—most of it couldn’t make it into the issue! (You can order your copy of the October issue, featuring 34 agents actively looking for new writers, today!)

Below, 16 of our agents share tips that didn’t make the issue. Continue reading for advice on doing agent research, working with beta readers, establishing yourself as part of a community, writing query letters, and more:

The Market:

  • Read, read, read! The best way to become a successful writer is to be a passionate reader. —Susan Hawk, Upstart Crow Literary
  • Study the market and submit your best story for that market. Read the type of books you want to write to get a feel for the type of voice, story, and tone those publishers want. Put together the best proposal you can, including a professional head shot with your author biography. Write the proposal in third person. —Tamela Hancock Murray, The Steve Laube Agency
  • Read as much as you can in your genre. —Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, Liza Dawson Associates
  • Be aware of the market, but don’t spend too much time worrying about it – write the story that only you can write. —Susan Hawk, Upstart Crow Literary
  • Walk into a bookstore. Go to the section you think your book would go in. If you have a hard time deciding what section your book belongs in, you probably have some editing to do. It’s always better from a marketing standpoint if you can concretely place your book in a genre, or in this case on a shelf. —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency

Research:

  • Do all the research you can. There are so many brilliant sources out there for free on how to pick an agent, how to write a query, and how to stay positive in a business that can be stressful and (at times) discouraging. And there are a lot of very friendly people in the community who like to give back and offer advice. —Jim McCarthy, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret
  • Do your research. You want to learn as much as you can about publishing, from how to query agents to how to promote your debut. —Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, Liza Dawson Associates

Beta Readers and Critique Groups:

  • I think the best thing a writer can do when they finish their first or second draft is solicit the help of fellow writers, critique partners, and beta readers in revising the manuscript. Agents can always tell when a book has or has not been workshopped and polished with the help of other writers and editors, so this is not a step to be missed! —Hannah Fergesen, KT Literary
  • Join a writer’s group. Getting supportive feedback on your work is invaluable. And, writing can be lonely. Finding your writing family is key to a long-term writing career. —Susan Hawk, Upstart Crow Literary

Community:

  • A literary community is probably your strongest ally. Join writing groups, go to open mic nights, follow other authors online, and just be present. —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Writers should get in the habit of giving back to other writers as often as possible. It’s good karma, and it makes you a part of a community that, when you do publish your book, will help you support it. Your end game isn’t just to be published; it’s about having a career and about being a good member of the community you’ve chosen. Writers are amazing people, and you don’t need an agent or a book deal to be a part of the writing community. —Jenny Herrera, David Black Agency

Platform:

  • Try to have an online platform. You don’t have to have ten thousand followers or know how to market inside and out, but just seeing that you have a workable start helps! —Kaitlyn Johnson, Corvisiero Literary Agency

Editing:

  • A clean query is the mark of an attentive writer. While a small typo probably won’t lead to an automatic “no,” getting the agent’s name wrong from the get-go might. —Amelia Appel, Triada US
  • Put your differences aside and become besties with editing. Even when you polish the thing shiny, your beta readers will have edits, then your agent, then more beta readers, then your agent again, then editors, and more editors. Basically, even when you think you’re done editing, you’re probably not. —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Your manuscript is your resume. It should be as polished as possible and show exactly what your talent is as a writer. —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency

Queries:

  • If you’re querying you should be making regular trips to bookstores. There’s so much to learn just by browsing displays. —Steven Salpeter, Curtis Brown
  • When it comes time to query, make sure your pitch is crystal clear and to the point. It’s said over and over again, but it’s true that agents won’t have the time or patience to read a long wind-up to the book’s description. —Rachel Vogel
  • Once you’re ready to query, try to remember you’re attempting a working relationship with someone. It’s no different than a job interview: practice respect, give your best work, and follow directions given. Agents notice when a writer proves they’d be great to work with, but they also take note when they see the opposite. —Kaitlyn Johnson, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Make sure you are ready to query and make sure you know what you’ve written. There’s nothing as disheartening for an agent as requesting a full manuscript only to be told it isn’t ready yet. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency
  • When mapping out your sections on marketing and promotion, think outside the box: Who is this book written for? Who will those readers recommend it to? Don’t limit your readership by believing only one type of reader would be interested in it such as “romance readers” or “history buffs.” Readers are hungry for new experiences and your book could be just what they’re looking for—but they need to find it first. The more options you add to your proposal, the better armed your editor will be to go in and fight for your book in the war room. —Stacey Graham, Red Sofa Literary
  • I don’t read queries that aren’t specifically addressed to me; that are written in the voice of a character; that admit the manuscript isn’t complete (for fiction only); that are intentionally disrespectful. Your goal is not to shock me with your query, but to get me to read your sample pages. And in those pages, novels that begin with a dead body, a sweeping panorama of an exotic locale, a first person introduction (“Hi reader, my name is…), a character waking up, commentary on the weather or a dump of expository information are not interesting to me. —Noah Ballard, Curtis Brown
  • Even if you’re not certain something would be of interest to me if it falls within my ranges of interests I would always rather see something and decide for myself. When in doubt, query me. —Steven Salpeter, Curtis Brown
  • Agents are notorious for having a wide variety of guidelines. Oftentimes they will be in correlation to the overall guidelines for their specific agency, but they can also be guidelines that the agent has specifically created to further help writers with their submissions. It’s important to remember that these guidelines are there to help you. I understand that it can sometimes feel like a lot of hoops to jump through, but having guidelines allows for you as the writer to be able to create stronger and more impactful queries. When you’re working on your queries, always remember to include the submission guidelines within your overall research. The lack of effort when following submission guidelines is one of my biggest pet peeves as an agent, and if I can tell that a writer blatantly disregarded my guidelines, it results in an automatic dismissal of the query. —Justin Wells, Corvisiero Literary Agency

Agent-Author Relationship:

  • Whether you receive one offer of representation or ten, ask questions of the offering agent to make sure you are a good fit. Speak to them via video call in you’re not in the same city and don’t be afraid to ask for references. An author-agent relationship is a lot like a marriage and you want to make sure you’re partnering with someone who can sell your book and who you trust to advocate for you. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency
  • The Call is when you and the agent assess each other. Do you fit? Are they really offering what you’re looking for? They are wondering the same things. This is a business partnership and like after any interview either party can decide that they aren’t a good match. But when the stars align, you both know it’s a good match, and now you have an agent! —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency
  • Be polite and professional. When an agent takes on a client, they do so knowing that there is going to be a lot more to that relationship than just the written work. If an agent wants to work with you, it’s because they believe in your writing, but also in you. Agents want to take on clients they can see themselves successfully working with throughout their career. Given that, keep in mind that your query letter is your first impression, so it’s to your benefit to make it a good one. —Amelia Appel, Triada US
  • Be prepared to be a partner in your success. Your work as an author isn’t finished when you type, “the end.” It’s not over when you sign a publishing contract, either. Publishers love authors who are willing to learn how to be on social media, who will bring promotional ideas and opportunities to the table, and who can network. Don’t worry, if this sounds daunting, your agent will be there to walk you through it all. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency

Perseverance:

  • Patience is by far the most important thing, for agents and authors. Even if you finally snag your dream agent, the process can be like a sloth using crutches, slow and painful (okay, only slightly painful). —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Just like with finding a job it can be a long road before you get an offer and find the right spot, but it happens. Perseverance, dedication to your craft, adaptation, and a bit of gumption will lead you to success. —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency
  • Hang in there! We completely understand that querying can be a nerve-wracking process and that rejection can be extremely disheartening. But, this is a super subjective business—what’s not right for one agent might be perfect for the next. Be open to feedback and don’t give up! —Amelia Appel, Triada US
  • Prepare for rejection. It happens to everyone, authors and agents alike (editors tell us no, too) and is part of the process of being published. As clichéd as it sounds, this is a marathon, not a sprint—this is especially true if you want to be a career novelist. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency
  • Rejections are opportunities. They teach us about the marketplace, and sometimes reveal insights about a manuscript that can be used to make a book better and bring an author to another level in her or his career. —Steven Salpeter, Curtis Brown
  • As with any job, an agent may read your query letter and decide from there that they are not interested in moving forward to your manuscript (typically a partial). This could be subjective. It doesn’t speak to them. Or you may not have conveyed your knowledge and story in the best light. If an agent does move onto the manuscript and still decide to pass, again this is the subjective part of the job. Your writing could be solid, the story well plotted, but if the agent doesn’t connect to it, if they don’t have passion for it, if they don’t love it, then they know they need to move on. And you should want them to! If they pass on your manuscript this means that you don’t get to move on to the interview stage of the process, which is the call. —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency
  • As cliché as it might sound, I will always encourage writers to never give up. I discuss the subjectivity of publishing, and the agent world a lot with other agents. Once you get your manuscript to the point where you start seeking an agent you really need to remain determined throughout the entire process. The idea that all agents look at manuscripts differently can never be stated enough. Don’t let an agent passing on your manuscript keep you from pursing your goal. I’ve heard of quite a few cases where agents have passed on manuscripts because it personally wasn’t a good fit for them, and another agent felt it was a great fit and was able to land a deal for the author. It all comes down to finding that one agent who falls in love with your manuscript, and will work to get it out there to editors. —Justin Wells, Corvisiero Literary Agency

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If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

 

 

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