How to Sell Your Novel, Part 1: Finding an Agent
My journey from sock drawer to bookshelf actually breaks many of these rules, but we'll get to that at the end.
November 13, 2011 - 2:00 pm
Since my first novel was released last month, a lot of friends have asked me how it’s done. When you see a book in the bookstore and then think about the manuscript sitting on your hard drive, the road between the two can seem rather vague.
So how does a book go from sock drawer to bookstore? Here’s the Cliffnotes version:
- Author queries agents.
- Author signs contract with agent whose job is to market and sell manuscripts to publishers, and agent submits manuscript to editors at publishing houses.
- Publisher purchases rights to manuscript, and agent negotiates the contract.
- Publisher then edits, prints and distributes book.
I’ll write periodically in this column with more “From Sock Drawer to Bookstores” writing advice. This week, I’ll focus on getting an agent. Getting an agent is the first step toward publication. Publishers really don’t accept “unsolicited manuscripts,” which simply means those submitted directly by authors. (Full disclosure: my journey from sock drawer to bookshelf actually breaks many of these rules, but we’ll get to that at the end.) Agents work for authors, who are their clients, to sell their work to publishers. But before you can send your cover letter to agents to entice them with your story (a process called “querying”), you have to find out which agents would be best for you.
I owe pretty much everything I know about writing and publishing to my mom, author Libby Malin Sternberg, who in addition to being the writer of many highly entertaining novels also keeps a blog about her observations on writing, publishing, and life in general here.
First: Finding your agent…
1. Finding Your Agent
Most agents focus on a few genres or types of stories that they personally enjoy most and also have the professional contacts to sell. For example, some agents represent only romance novels, so they have extensive contacts with editors at romance publishers but might not have similar contacts with editors of mystery/thrillers.
Start by searching Publishers Marketplace by genre to find agents who are representing books like your own, then search for them online to find their contact information. Another great database is AgentQuery.com. Also look at the acknowledgement pages of books that you enjoy – authors often thank their agents, so you can find out who sold your favorite books!
I’ve also found it helpful to Twitter-follow agents, editors and other writers to hear the latest news on who’s taking on clients, who sold what to whom, and other tips. I even have a Twitter list that I continually tweak of the best writers, agents, and publishers to go to for news and advice.
It’s important for authors to learn about the business and understand how to market their manuscripts to agents. But in this effort to make sure you fit an agent, it’s equally important to make sure you find an agent who fits you. If you’re following an agent on Twitter who says sci fi is a waste of her time, don’t stress out about how to repackage your space opera so she won’t notice the aliens; just find an agent who’s looking for your kind of story. Not only will she be more likely to give your manuscript a look she’ll have the connections to sell it if she takes you on as a client. This applies not just in genre, but in style and tone as well. If you love to write languorous prose, you probably shouldn’t seek an agent who prefers a terse, modern style.
Once you’ve made your list of potential agents, you’re ready to start contacting them to pitch your novel.
Second: The art of the query
I queried forty agents before one made an offer. About a dozen requested partial manuscripts, after which three or four asked to see the whole thing. Finally, Victoria Marini at Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents read my book and loved it. She had a few suggestions which I agreed with, so I neatened up the manuscript, resubmitted it to her, and after about seven months of querying, I had an agent.
I got off easy.
My mom and several of her writing friends put their heads together and estimated that they each, individually, had queried about one hundred agents before signing with each of their own.
At the start of this whole process is the query letter. It’s a one-page cover letter that you will endlessly tweak to personalize for each agent you send it to. If you get the bones right, this won’t be quite as painful as it sounds.
The query letter should have two parts: an intro that pitches your story in a concise and exciting way and then a little information about yourself as a writer and your writing background. Wrap it up with a polite thank-you for the agent’s time and customize your opening pitch depending on which aspects of your story would appeal most to each agent.
Most agents now take queries exclusively by email, so you’ll save a lot of money and time. Send your query letter in an email with no attachments to the agents you’ve researched, keeping a record of when you’ve sent them and any subsequent responses. Trust me, with forty or more queries out there in various stages of correspondence, spreadsheets are your friend.
It’s worth repeating: don’t attach your manuscript. If an agent wants to see it, most will request a “partial,” an excerpt (normally the first few chapters) and a synopsis of the novel. When I got requests for partials, I copied the relevant text into a new word document separate from my complete manuscript and saved it to send to the agent. If an agent wants to see the whole thing, she’ll ask for the whole thing. Agents also sometimes take a long time to decide on a new client. If one is sitting on a partial or complete manuscript, follow up with a polite email in a month.
Most of your query letter should be about the book, but a little bit about it should be about you, too. Most agents aren’t interested in representing one book alone. They want to find successful authors in the making whom they can represent through multiple book deals. Present yourself as an investment. If you’re a regular blogger or you engage in any other regular writing activity, let the agent know. One agent tweeted recently that she wanted to hear that her clients always had something in each stage of the works: a completed manuscript for the agent to shop around, plus a work in progress that she can look forward to reading and submitting afterward.
Third: Avoiding the scams…
3. The Contract
Websites like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Writer Beware are dedicated to listing scammers who prey on aspiring writers, as well as some agents, vanity printers and editors who, while not explicitly predatory, are unprofessional or take advantage of their clients. A few tips should help you rule out obvious scams, however. An agent should never charge you an editing fee. An agent also does not charge a retainer; agents make their money from commission on the sale of your manuscript, and real agents don’t charge their clients hourly or monthly fees. In fact, now that submissions are almost entirely electronic, I would be suspicious of any agent who tried to charge you overhead fees for printing, copying or mailing materials.
Your manuscript is your property. Your agent is selling the right to duplicate, distribute and sell your manuscript in a variety of forms. Most agent-author agreements are standard two- or three-page documents with many common clauses. While each agency and agent works out a unique contract, there are a few things to look for in every one. First of all, an explicit list of what percent commission the agent will keep on the sale of each kind of right to your manuscript: print rights, including hardcover and paperback (which are sometimes sold separately); electronic rights; film or television rights; audiobook rights; and international rights. Another important clause to look for is a statement of how to end the agreement. Just as with any other contract, it’s prudent to have a previously agreed-upon method of terminating the contract if either party wishes to. That means you shouldn’t have to ask your agent’s permission to end the agreement or have your work “encumbered” if you break.That’s why it’s important to make sure that legally either party, acting alone, can terminate the agreement.
There are lots of clauses in standard agent-author contracts that protect authors from unscrupulous agents. But there’s one common clause that just as importantly protects agents from unscrupulous clients. Most contracts will include a clause ensuring that if the agreement ends and the writer sells the manuscript formerly represented by the agent within a certain amount of time after the end of the agreement to an editor previously contacted by the agent on the author’s behalf, the agent still makes a commission off of it. Don’t let this clause throw you. It’s there to ensure that an author who smells a deal in the air won’t unscrupulously dump her agent right before signing with a publisher in order to keep the whole advance for herself. The window of time in your contract could vary from a few months to half a year, and you should negotiate to reach what you think is fair, but keep in mind that the clause exists to make sure that if your agreement ends but you still sell your book based on a submission your agent did for you before the agreement ended, she gets a fair share for her work. Since selling a manuscript can take a long time, several months is not an unreasonable window for the agent to ask for in this case.
Finally: My story — which breaks all the rules…
Now it’s time for my story. I broke all of these rules.
I finished my first novel, half-heartedly submitted it to a few agents I barely researched, then emailed it directly to the publisher who had also bought my mother’s first novel, Uncovering Sadie’s Secrets. I wasn’t confident at the time, and I thought I would let the whole thing molder while I worked on my second novel, which I eventually completed the next year. I did due diligence researching agents, submitted to about forty, and waded through months of follow-ups.
In the meantime, I managed to develop a false memory of receiving a rejection from the publisher I had submitted the first novel to, which is why, over a year after my submission, I was so utterly surprised to get a call from Bruce Bortz offering to buy that first novel, now titled Queens of All the Earth. I gleefully signed a contract with Bancroft Press, and now my book is on the shelves. On top of that, I followed up with one agent who’d been really keen on my second manuscript, Victoria Marini, to tell her the news, and she signed me on as a client after a few revisions. Victoria is now working hard to find a publisher for my second novel, Bulfinch.
My story goes to show that every rule has an exception, especially in the crazy world of publishing. But I also followed a lot of the rules, even while I was breaking them: I didn’t pester agents too frequently while I queried them, I sought ones who liked the kind of fiction I wrote, and I understood that if I wanted to make sure my second book contract wasn’t just a lucky fluke, I’d need professional help in landing it. Today, as publishing is rapidly evolving and e-publishing is redefining the potential for writers to bypass the publishing establishment entirely, many exciting new exceptions are cropping up everywhere. (My parents and I have even started an e-publisher, Istoria Books, to catch part of that wave.) But for many writers, it’s still important to remember: before you change the recipe, learn how to cook! The lessons about how book marketing works that you will learn in your agent hunt will help you throughout your career, whether you go the traditional route, or decide to branch off on your own path to publication.