How to Query Literary Agents

You have an amazing idea for a novel AND you've done what 99.99% of people with great ideas for novels never do--actually write the novel. Having a great manuscript is the first (and most important) step in becoming a published author, but it isn't the only step. If you don't have connections to editors, publishing houses, or published authors, you will need the services of a literary agent. And even if you do have the connections, an agent can help you navigate publishing contracts and negotiate a larger payment on your behalf.

Literary agents are people hired by authors to 'sell' their books to editors at publishing companies. Since literary agents take their cut from the final sale of your manuscript, they won't work for just anyone; they want to work with writers they believe in. In order to find a literary agent who will work with you, you must first send a query letter describing your project. If they like it, they may ask to see sample pages. And if they like those, they may choose to represent you.

If you are a writer with a novel to sell, follow these steps to querying agents.

First, use the Internet to research agents and the genres they represent. If you are a sci-fi and fantasy writer, it won't do you any good to send a query letter to an agent you specializes in non-fiction or chick lit. If you've penned a chick lit novel, don't query an agent who specializes in thrillers and sci-fi medical mysteries. Knowing who wants what will save everybody time and money.

Do your homework on agents to find out who is legit and who is a scam agent. You can look at the "Preditors and Editors" website, or look-up agents registered with AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives). AAR accredited agents agree not to charge reading fees, and most other reputable agents will not do this either. If you are asked to pay for a reading of your first chapters, be wary.

You should also be leery of agents who send advertisements along with their rejection slips, or use other hard-sell tactics for editing services. If the agent makes most of his/her money by hawking writing guides, it's probably because he/she is not a very good agent!

After you've figured out whom to query, write several drafts of your query letter. A query letter is more than a synopsis of your novel. At minimum, it should include a word count, a plot overview, and a brief list of your prior publications. It should also say why you are interested in working with the agent, explain who faces what obstacle in your novel, and how your novel compares to other books on the market.

Writing a convincing query letter is an art, and for help, you can find tons of examples of good and bad query letters online. Some literary agents even keep blogs you can check out.

Should an agent be hooked by your query letter and ask for the first pages or a sample chapter, make sure your sample pages are not a let-down. You must hook any reader (but especially an agent or editor) early on in the story.

Expect to get several rejection letters, but don't take any of them personally. Literary agents reject pitches of novels for many reasons--they have too many writer clients already, they represent an author too similar to you, or they don't think they could sell your book. As the old saying goes, every rejection is one step closer to acceptance.

If you don't have any luck finding a literary agent, you can rework your novel, rework your query letter, get more publishing credits in magazines, or go the self-publishing route. The important thing is to keep writing and keep trying.

© Had2Know 2010