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I promised to answer your publishing questions so here are some thoughts about agents.

The first step to getting your book published is finding a literary agent. Why do you need one? Because agents know how to judge if your manuscript is ready to send out, and they know the editors and the publishing houses that are the best match for your work. Most of the big houses won’t even consider looking at a manuscript that does not come via an agent, so this is the place to begin.

So how do you find an agent?

The first thing you do is find the books (hopefully successful ones) that are most like the manuscript you’re trying to sell. Are you writing humorous essays ala David Sedaris? Are you writing literary fiction with Jewish themes ala Nicole Krauss? Are you writing teen vampire stories ala Heather Brewer? Once you find a stack of books that are most similar to your manuscript (i.e. you think you would share readers with that author), then turn to the Acknowledgments page. Sometimes it’s at the front of the book and sometimes it’s in the very back. This is where the author very likely thanked his agent for all of her help. Write down the name of the book, the author and the agent. And keep doing this until you have a list of 5 to 15 names.

Another way to develop this list of potential agents is to join PublishersMarketplace. I think it costs $20 a month, and that fee is definitely worth it at this stage in the game. Once you sign in, you can look up any author you want and find out which agent represents them. You can also see who else that agent represents and what they’ve sold.

Okay. You have your list of potential agents, so now what?

Now you send them a very short letter that gets them excited about your book and about you. Think about how you’d describe your book in a single sentence. And if asked for more detail, how would you describe it in, say, four sentences?

Here’s an example of a letter:

Dear Ms. Agent X,

I thought you might be interested in my newest manuscript because my writing has often been compared to your client, Christopher Marlowe.

I’ve just finished a tragedy called ROMEO AND JULIET about two teenagers who fall in love despite the fact that their families hate each other.

Set in Verona, Italy, young Romeo and Juliet fall in love against their family’s wishes and are secretly married by Friar Lawrence. Later, Romeo interferes in a fight between the warring families and ends up killing Juliet’s cousin, which results in his banishment. Friar Lawrence sets up a plot for them to get back together by helping Juliet fake her own death. Romeo thinks she’s died and kills himself. Juliet wakes up and sees that he’s died and kills herself as well. Their deaths unite the feuding families.

I run a theatre group. I have strong interests in ghosts and sword fighting. And I’ve published my poems in the local newspaper.

Thank you so much for your time, and I hope you’ll allow me to send you my manuscript.

Sincerely,

W. Shakespeare

Is it the best letter ever? No. In fact, it’s all off the top of my head, and I should sit with this for a week or two until I get it right. But it’s short and to the point, and it contains the elements that an agent needs to make a decision.

If you’re really good at these pitch letters, you’ll be able to capture your writing style in the letter. Someone trying to sell satire should have a punchier letter. If you’re trying to sell a horror story and manage to write a summary that gives the agent chills and makes her turn around to see if something is stalking her from behind, then you’ve done well. If you’re like most writers and your letter undersells your manuscript, then include the first two pages of the book in the letter. It won’t hurt, since it may be the poetry and the iambic pentameter that brings the agent to her knees.

And that’s it. You send out these letters, and see what happens. If agents start asking for partials (the first 50 pages), then you know your letter is working. If after reading the partials, you are asked for the entire manuscript or you get detailed rejections, you’re on the right track. If you hear nothing or you get form rejections, that’s a sign that either your letter or your manuscript (or both) need some more work before you continue.

Want to know more about agents? I interviewed mine here. Want to add to the discussion? Jump in!