All agents, admittedly or not, have a wish list—markers that help us determine which writers are primed for our representation. With hundreds of projects flooding our inboxes daily, writers who follow these simple guidelines can catch the eye of an agent and rise like a lotus blossom out of the slush pile. Here’s how to do it.
—by Literary Agent Kimiko Nakamura
Think of your platform as the foundation you’re building for success. It’s made up of everything that qualifies you to write and speak about your chosen topic (even if that topic is fiction) and that demonstrates your popularity with potential book-buying readers. It comprises ongoing relationships with publications your writing has appeared in, leadership/public involvement in associations with a tie to your work’s focus, classes you teach or talks you regularly give/present and, more and more important these days, a social media presence. Publishing houses think authors with success in social media are a good financial investment because they can see that these writers have a ready-made audience. Think of your social media platform as your virtual business card. People aren’t looking for you in an office building anymore; they’re looking for you online.
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Here’s a breakdown of popular ways you can effectively elevate your platform and visibility.
Essential for all writers, published and unpublished.
A website is the best place to give people a point of reference for your work and connect them to your social media presence elsewhere. Things to include are: contact info, a professional-looking headshot or photo of yourself, blurbs about your projects, a bio, a list of any awards and writing credits, and your social media links.
Who does it well: Geraldine Brooks, geraldine
Essential for nonfiction writers building an audience, or for published fiction writers cultivating readerships.
Facebook is like a public bulletin board. [Note: Creating a Facebook page for a writer or (soon-to-be) public figure is different from creating a personal Facebook page. To create a writer or public figure page, visit facebook.com/pages/create.] Promote yourself by offering posts that entertain and inform your audience. People who enjoy your posts can “like” your page and automatically get notified every time you post something new. But every “like” isn’t an instant book sale, which is why agents look for nonfiction writers with around 3,000 “likes” to start. We’re hoping you’ll double that number (or better) before publication.
Who does it well: Jack Canfield, facebook.com/jackcanfieldfan
Good for nonfiction writers building an audience, or for published fiction writers cultivating readerships.
Twitter is a way to update and engage followers multiple times a day in rapid-fire bursts of short text. Users pick which Twitter accounts they want updates from and receive a news feed where they can click through to interesting articles you’ve posted, see funny comments you’ve made, and know what you’re doing in real time.
Who does it well: Sarah Dessen, twitter.com/sarahdessen
Great for nonfiction writers building an audience, or for published fiction writers cultivating readerships.
A blog can be a phenomenal way to build an audience, but you need a specific focus that directly relates to the book you want to publish. This will show agents that subscribers to your blog have interest in purchasing your book. So remember, unless you’re looking to score a cookbook deal, we’re not curious about what you had for breakfast. Also, before you launch a blog, make sure you have the time and stamina to make a minimum of one post every week or two; it’s necessary to regularly provide new content in order to build and retain a strong readership.
Who does it well: Deb Perelman, smittenkitchen.com
Let’s clear up a misconception about platform and self-publishing. For the average first-time writer, self-publishing is not a reliable way to expand your platform. It’s simply a way to publish on your own, without the help of an agent or the resources of a traditional publishing house. Agents do not see self-published authors as any more serious about finding an agent than non-self-published writers.
Authors with well-established platforms have better odds of self-publishing lucratively and successfully, but it’s important to have a realistic mindset about where you want to go from there. It’s a full-time job to sell books without the backing of a publisher. Selling (not giving away for free) fewer than 10,000 books and/or e-books can demonstrate that your project lacks strong audience appeal. If you then try shopping that self-published book to agents or publishers, they’re likely to view it as “sloppy seconds.” Self-publishing is not a precursor to publishing for writers hoping to secure agent representation. It is the real thing. Once a book or e-book is published and given an ISBN (an industry tracking number), it has a traceable sales history. If your book sales are not a selling point, your work, not the medium used to publish it, will be seen as the cause. Self-publishing can benefit some writers, but if you choose this route make sure you are OK with the possibility that that project very well may not be traditionally published later.
The good news is that even if you have already self-published and those sales were not brag-worthy, most agents will not be deterred from considering submissions for your new, unpublished projects. Just make sure you are transparent about your self-publishing history (without overemphasizing it) and that the new project isn’t intended to piggyback on the self-published work in any way.
Agents look for queries that make us want to turn the pages of your story. That means you need to think of your query as the first and most important page of your manuscript. Not only are you introducing your manuscript or proposal, you’re also introducing yourself as a writer—and as with any first meeting, you’ll want to make a good impression.
A query is a map of your manuscript or proposal, and agents need the keys to understand what direction you’re headed in and decide if we want to come along for the ride.
For fiction, orient agents by stating your manuscript’s stats: title, word count and genre. If you’re not sure what your genre is, pick the one closest to the theme of your manuscript and, if necessary, reference one supporting subcategory. When done well, your query should read like a movie trailer version of your manuscript, not a synopsis. So keep the details short. Identify your main characters and tell us why we’re rooting for them, and include only the most important conflict and action points.
For nonfiction, show agents the scope of your platform and what qualifies you to write about your subject. Also, tell us the clever things we will learn and briefly mention audience potential.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, highlight the unique points of your project—especially if elements of your work are similar to popular books already in circulation. Agents aren’t looking for carbon copies of pre-existing books, but they are looking for new twists on trends that haven’t already peaked. Stay current by reading your genre’s trendsetters and bestsellers. It’s not essential to compare your title to a bestseller, but do let your description show you’ve taken the thread of a popular or emerging market and spun a story all your own.
Whatever you do, don’t blindly pitch your work. Know which agents you are pitching and why. Your job as a querying writer is not to change the mind of an agent who doesn’t rep your genre, but to find agents who do—and demonstrate to them that your work is ready for representation.
Thank us for our time and consideration before signing your query, and avoid the following query sins, or you might find yourself so far at the bottom of an agent’s list, you’ve fallen off:
1. Don’t say your friends and family loved your manuscript. Unless they are industry professionals, this doesn’t mean anything to us.
2. Know that querying via mass email will lead to mass rejections.
3. Stay away from negative statements like, “I know it needs a lot of work,” or, “I don’t have any writing experience.” You might as well say, “Don’t bother.”
4. Don’t send agents links to websites that host your query or sample pages, expecting us to go on a
5. If you’ve self-published Book 1 of a trilogy and want our help selling Book 2 to a publishing house, it won’t happen. You can’t mix and match one series using different publishing models (unless you have mind-blowingly phenomenal numbers on Book 1, in which case you should be pitching us that one first).
The biggest trick to rising up on an agent’s wish list is to wow us from the beginning, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. The truth is that most agents rarely read manuscripts from front to back, and even more rarely in a single sitting. As a writer, you have no control over which pages an agent will read more thoroughly than others, with one exception—without fail, we will always look closely at the beginning pages of your work. Manuscripts and proposals are then set aside into one of two categories: rejection or possible representation. Get past this initial screening and you’ve placed yourself on a shorter list of work that an agent will take more time to consider.
There are tremendous resources available for writers looking to improve their opening pages. If you want an agent, you’ll need to exhaust every one of them. The essentials to have in those make-or-break pages—in any genre—are a clear POV with a strong voice, fantastic language and prose, and a solid emotional connection between your main character and the reader.
Almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back. Most have backstory that is too often “told” instead of “shown.” We’ve seen so many terrible prologues, we reason reading yours will only do you a disservice. If you insist on including a prologue, assume that it might not be read, and carefully craft Chapter 1 as if it’s the first thing an agent will read. Take any shortcuts by renaming your prologue as Chapter 1, and we will know!
After you’ve taken care to craft an exceptional beginning, don’t let rookie mistakes break the spell of an agent reading your work. Typos happen; no writer is immune. If you can’t afford to have a copy editor proofread your work, be extra vigilant about self-editing. Or consider hiring someone to proofread your first 25 pages and then using their corrections as a model of what to look for in polishing the rest of the manuscript.
Lastly, avoid getting too inspired with formatting. Save the creativity for your writing. We need clean, easy-to-read pages to avoid premature graying and permanent frown lines. Misguided “finishing touches” may actually detract from your writing. Please don’t break our immersive reading experience with bizarre formatting, distracting fonts, and more italicized words than we know what to do with. If an agent has not stated a personal preference, pick a simple default-style font to showcase your work.
Handling Rejections and Resubmissions
As disappointing as it is to receive a rejection, how you conduct yourself post-rejection will set the stage for any future communication with that agent. The quickest cure for anger is compassionate forgiveness. The Dalai Lama can back me up on this. Please forgive us for rejecting you. It feels personal, but it’s not. Neither was sending you a standard rejection. We don’t enjoy sending them, and rejections—thank goodness—are not our main job. Our main job is to help promote and sell the authors who we’ve made commitments to, and to find new authors we know we can do right by. Email us a nasty response and we’ll never look at your work again.
Know that every time an agent does give feedback beyond a form rejection, you’ve struck gold—in no way have you come away empty-handed. Some of the advice may seem simplistic or trite. You want specifics! What do they mean the character development was weak? Yes, often the feedback seems basic, but that doesn’t mean the suggestions should be easily discarded. Take these critiques seriously and you may be able to create an opportunity for resubmission.
Sometimes writers take an encouraging rejection and unknowingly use it to their disadvantage. If an agent invites you to resubmit or points out aspects of your work that made an impression, you’ve grabbed her attention. However, after we’ve taken the time to give you constructive feedback, don’t tell us you were thinking the same thing! Why then did you submit your material to us, if you felt it still needed work? Of course, disagreeing won’t go over well either. Get defensive about feedback and you’re showing how you’ll conduct yourself once you really get comfortable with us. Even a rebuttal couched in niceties burns bridges.
To create an opportunity for resubmission, respond to rejections graciously, promptly thanking the agent for his time and consideration. That’s it. Don’t detail other pro-jects you’d like to submit, or say you were hoping we would come to a different conclusion. Just take a breath. Unless an agent has specifically inquired about your other writing, wait at least two weeks before querying a new project. To resubmit the same project, say you’ve used our exceptional feedback to improve your work and would appreciate us taking another look. In either case, trust that the next time we see your name, we’ll remember your thoughtful note.
If an agent comes out and invites you to resubmit a revised manuscript, she might be considering you as a client. Now, assuming you find merit in her feedback and would like to take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate it, you’ll have to show her you’re ready. The biggest mistake a writer can make when sending revised materials is underestimating the amount of revisions an agent was expecting. Make sure you send back a proposal or manuscript that is a significantly improved incarnation of your previous work. But act quickly. If you wait more than six to eight months you risk the market changing and, with it, the interest of your future agent.
Sealing the Deal
What agents won’t tell you is that every email and conversation with us is a testing ground. Can we trust you to handle communications professionally—not just with us, but also with our publishing contacts who would be involved in seeing your book through to publication and beyond? We are well aware that the behavior of our clients can reflect upon us. We want to know you’re polite, open to suggestions, and enjoyable to work with.
To gauge your flexibility, we’ll ask you some questions, and we also expect you to show that you’re thoughtful and savvy by asking a few of your own. This conversation is the final step in making the leap from wish list to client list.
Questions an agent may ask:
- Are you willing to further expand your platform?
- Are you open to revisions? (Basically that’s a trap—say yes and mean it!)
- Do you have the time to revise prior to publication?
Questions you should ask:
- What kind of revisions do you foresee?
- Who do you see as a potential audience for my work?
- Do you have experience selling in my genre? And do you have specific publishers in mind for my book?
If there are other agents you’re waiting to hear from, this is the time to let us know. We’re hoping you can’t imagine anyone else representing you, but we understand that partnering with an agent is an important decision. Out of consideration, set a reasonable timeline of up to three weeks to make a final choice.
Our Wish for You …
Ultimately you are our compass. We’re hunting for buried treasure, so please point us in the right direction. Establish an image, craft your best work, connect with us on a personal level, and your future will shine ahead of you like a sea of glossy book jackets. You can find an agent. We know this because we’re hoping to find you, too.
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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.