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5 Keys to Landing an Agent

What goes into a winning query and how does one go about finding representation?
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Every writer knows a strong query letter is essential for getting an agent. But what goes into a winning query and how does one go about finding representation? Five recently published authors respond in detail. Here are a few of their pointers on the do's and don'ts of querying:

  1. Offer benefits to the agent. Mark Lee, active playwright and now author of The Lost Tribe (Picador, USA), waited three months after finishing his manuscript to start his agent search. "I think writers should put as much effort into their query letter and their contacts with agents as they do preparing the manuscript itself," says Lee, who worked on his query for three days and sent it to about 14 agents. Within this succinct letter, Lee wanted the agent to get three impressions: this writer is not going to waste my time; this writer can make me money; this writer will be a joy to work with.
  2. Set the hook early. For his nonfiction book, The Phishing Manual: A Compendium to the Music of Phish (Hyperion), Dean Budnick had specific criteria in mind when he began looking for an agent: someone younger who had (or who wanted) experience agenting music and/or pop culture. Budnick learned the formal procedures of finding a nonfiction agent through lots of reading and talking with other writers. "All I can tell you is I did what they told me to do and it worked!" Part of what he learned was the importance of the query's lead sentence -- he spent about two days creating a killer first sentence. "I wanted to communicate as much as I could about the band and their audience right off the bat to at least keep [agents] interested enough to read down to the paragraph where I start talking about why I should write the book."
  3. Keep your audience in mind. Donna Woolfolk Cross, wanted Jean V. Naggar to represent her first novel, Pope Joan. "I knew who some of her other authors were," says Cross. "So I knew she handled my kind of writing, these books did well, and these were authors I liked. I knew she ran a well-regarded, mid-size literary agency. That was enough for me." So Cross went for it. Cross captured her audience (Naggar) by being direct, emphasizing her research, and then mentioning some of the more exciting events of the plot.
  4. Find every angle to sell yourself. Knowing what to say in a query is one thing, but making it concise is another. "I think it's really important to work [the writing] to the bone, to really condense it to the essence," says Glenn Kleier, who secured representation for his first book, The Last Day (Warner). Kleier's professional side urged him to look at query writing more from a marketing than a literary perspective. "I had to step into [the agent's] shoes and give her what I thought was important to her," says Kleier. So, he emphasized in his query that the book was both marketable and timely. He was able to support his stance because he referred to current events relevant to his manuscript, a number of which happened to pop up in the media at the right time (e.g., an "Adweek" article on the millennium appeared the week before he sent the query). Such events were incorporated into the letter and gave the query direction.
  5. Don't select just any agent. Faye McDonald Smith advises authors looking for agents to do some research. Find out if the agent's clients are happy with the way they are being represented. Next ask what kind of background the agent has. "I think authors may get excited when any agent expresses interest," says Smith. "But you have to check out that agent, and not just sign up with anybody simply because they identify themselves as an agent. That person may not be working for your best interests and may not be the right person for you. I think it is a matter of trying to have a good connection and the agent's enthusiasm, and not just settling for any agent who responds to you."
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