“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a cheque, if you cashed the cheque and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”
Publishing is hard. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve written, it takes an absurd amount of persistence to publish a novel. This is why I’ve always advised people NEVER to write just to make money. Yes, many writers have successfully capitalized on the current fads, particularly vampires and zombies in recent years, but that doesn’t mean you should. Other writers have found success writing for targeted audiences: lonely women (Nora Roberts), teenage girls (E.L. James), extremely macho men (Tom Clancy) et cetera… but in a world where you have a far greater chance of being consecutively struck by lightning than being discovered by the Hachette Book Group, you owe it to yourself to write the kind of novel that you would want to read. If you write an original piece of fiction with original characters, if you make sure your novel has a point and you work and rework your sentences until they sing, you MIGHT be ready for publication. Even then, I’d recommend having several people read your book: friends or, ideally, an editor. Be extremely careful. Making sure your novel as good as possible is vital. You may only get one chance with each agent/publisher – you need to make it count. Once you’re ready to immortalize your work as is, follow the steps below to get to publication.
Buy Writer’s Market (20XX)
Owning your year’s Writer’s Market is extremely useful. The book contains lists of agents, and even a small number of publishing companies that actually accept unsolicited manuscripts. Also, if you write poems or short stories, it can help get some of that work published. Publishing anything at all can go on your resume and in your cover letter to the agents that you decide to solicit.
Perfect Opening Chapters
Most agents specify how many chapters they would like in a query. Some prefer to receive only a query letter. Others prefer anywhere from 1-3 chapters. Very rarely will an agent ask to see more than that. Go over your first three chapters with a pen, read them aloud and post statuses to Facebook begging your friends to edit them. Be sure to open your book with a powerful line. Ideally, open with action. A standard opening line might be, “Bob Paisley was an average man in almost every way, but, unknown to his friends, he had a dark secret.” Here is an opening that might capture the mind of an agent: “It happened again today.” If you started reading a book and read those four words, could you imagine putting it down? Probably not. Upon reading that sentence, your mind is probably filled with questions... What happened? Why did it happen? Who did it happen to? Was it a good or a bad thing that happened? Once you’ve built the tension, keep it there. If an agent reads through your first three chapters, you want him/her to ask to see the rest of the book.
Get Agent List
Before you prepare your cover letter, you should build your agent list to about 200 names. Don’t listen to anything agents tell you about query letters. Given the rate of rejection, if you did what they said and queried one agent at a time and waited for each to respond (which takes, on average, about three months) than it would take you around fifty years to find an agent. The sad fact is that exclusivity, at least as far as the agent is concerned, spells the death of a manuscript. Remember, regardless of how good your novel is, most agents simply don’t have the time to read it.
So how do you get agent emails/addresses?
You can probably get about 50 solid agents out of Writer’s Market. I’d recommend going for addresses here. Very few people send physical copies of anything anymore, so it puts you ahead of the game. Be careful to select only the agents that take books in your genre. If you wrote a romance novel, and Ralph Schnieder only works with nonfiction authors, by sending him your fantastic novel, you’re only wasting everyone’s time and making it harder for other writers to get discovered.
Your best resource for agent emails is a little known site called agentquery.com. It has a (relatively) up to date list of agents that are currently accepting unsolicited queries. I recommend doing a blank search in your category. Don’t type anything in the keyword spot, select your genre and hit “search”. So, if you wrote a romance novel, how many agent emails would you have?
As of early April 2015, 181.
Draft Query Letter
Before you query an agent, you will need to write a generic letter that can be applied to everyone. Remember, this is not the final query you will be sending, just a template for further use. Here is an example.
Salutation: Dear Agent,
Novel Description: Forever Far is an 72,000 word novel about a young girl who is unable to believe her dysfunctional life with her parents will ever end. She looks for escape in the form of a young boy who sometimes lingers around her school. Upon befriending him she finds he is deeply involved in the sale and production of a drug called “Rapture”. With her help, the drug becomes incredibly popular, and she finally sees a way to escape the life she was born into… but at what cost?
Inclusion: The first three chapters are included.
Short Biography: I am an honors graduate from Occidental College (don’t list your major if it didn’t have anything to do with writing). I have written several short stories and a multitude of poems, and I will be beginning my second novel soon. The completed manuscript for my first novel is available on demand. If you’d like samples of any of my other work, please feel free to contact me.
Closing Note: I hope to hear from you soon regarding Forever Far.
Valediction: Sincerely, Emma Cartier
123 Madup Rd, Big City, Ca, 12345
Customize Query Letter/Send Test Run To 50 Agents
So you’ve written a query letter? Wonderful! Unfortunately, your work is not done yet. Let’s say you decide to send a query letter to one of the most famous agents in the industry today. You think that the likelihood of rejection is so high that you might as well send the query to her email address at query@JanesAgency.com. Great. What’s next? Now it’s time to do your research!
You go to JanesAgency.com and check the submissions tab; not every site has one, but most do. There, Jane’s instructions are clearly written: “Include a synopsis and the first five pages pasted into the body of the email. No attachments.” You see a list of the work she’s published in the past. Most of it is science fiction or fantasy. Unfortunately, there is nothing listed on the site as to the nature of the work that Jane personally accepts. You decide to Google her and find an interview online in which she states that she states, “I’m looking for something out of the box, something that doesn’t shy away from the dark nature of the human spirit.”
Using this information, you can write a phenomenal query letter.
Email Subject: Forever Falls (Query)
I saw in an interview that you were looking for something that “doesn’t shy away from the dark nature of the human spirit.” Your representation of the novelist Pablo Garcia and his work Push the Sun Away certainly attests to that. I’m contacting you today because I’ve written a science fiction novel myself that I believe is exactly what you’re looking for. It challenges the selfish nature in all of us and poses questions about the selfishness inside us all.
Forever Far is an 72,000 word novel about a young girl who is unable to believe her dysfunctional life with her parents will ever end. She looks for escape in the form of a young boy who sometimes lingers around her school. Upon befriending him she finds he is deeply involved in the sale and production of a drug called “Rapture”. With her help, the drug becomes incredibly popular, and she finally sees a way to escape the life she was born into… but at what cost?
As requested on your website, the first five pages are pasted at the bottom of this message.
I am an honors graduate from Occidental College (don’t list your major if it didn’t have anything to do with writing). I have written several short stories and a multitude of poems, and I will be beginning my second novel soon. The completed manuscript for my first novel is available on demand. If you’d like samples of any of my other work, please feel free to contact me.
I hope to hear from you soon regarding Forever Far.
123 Madup Rd, Big City, Ca, 12345
The above is an extremely solid query letter, sure to get the attention of someone who has time to read it and is actually looking for clients at that particular moment. Now it’s time to send a test run of customized queries to 50 agents. Yes, you have to repeat it all over and over again. Nobody said it was going to be easy!
What kind of rejection did you receive?
Form Letter: If it began, “Dear Author, We’re sorry to…” than the agent is simply too busy. There is nothing to be learned here. Take note of the email address and apply again later.
Generic: “Your story didn’t pique my interest”, “we are not taking new clients at this time”, “I’m afraid it’s not the right fit” et cetera… are all generic dismissals. It probably means they’re swamped and didn’t have time to read it. Don’t hold it against them, it’s not their fault. More importantly, don’t send angry messages. Many agents keep a blacklist.
Personal Rejection: An agent takes the time to actually read it, decides he doesn’t want to take it on, and actually tells you why. THIS IS A GIFT. It means your work was better than most of the other queries he’s been reading. If an agent responds with one of these, don’t defend your work. Resist the urge to tell him why your view is right and his is wrong. Instead, thank him for his feedback, do some work on it, and resubmit it in a month or two. Trust me, this kind of rejection is very promising.
An Invitation to Resubmit: Take these with a grain of salt. Most are generic messages sent to everyone and their mother… that said, make a note and don’t be afraid to take them up on their offer.
Glaring Errors: If multiple responses start coming in that say “Your characters felt a little flat” or “I’m not sure this has wide range appeal”, chances are you’re dealing with a flaw in your writing. Try to imagine the writing from an agent’s perspective. What might they dislike? If you left in a few lines of horrific dialogue or choppy description, don’t fret. That’s why you sent your first queries to only 50 agents!
Submit To Everyone
Bring out the rest of the list and send customized letters to each of them. Don’t get lazy and ignore the paper submissions. These can be extremely useful. Contact any friends of the family who are/know agents or publishing affiliates. Take note of everyone who you might submit again to later, and stay on top of your responses. Don’t rush anyone. Agents are busy people.
You’ll be receiving responses for up to a year. If none are favorable, remember that every year the agent list changes. Maybe science fiction just isn’t popular enough right now. Keep writing. Keep creating new material. Rinse and repeat these steps until you make it. It’s grueling and extremely challenging, but at least you haven’t fallen into the trap of submitting to one agent at a time. At least you know how to get your queries to the top of the stack. You have an advantage others don’t have, and you’ve done everything right. Eventually, if you keep working at it, it’ll happen.
Draft your generic agent query and send it in for editing!