What is this story that you’ve written? A novel, sure. But what kind of a novel? Agents want you to define and categorize your novel for them so they will know how to sell it to a publisher. My first thought was, “I don’t know what kind of novel it is!” I had thought it was the agent’s job to define and categorize my novel. Isn’t that part of the selling process? Don’t agents read the novel? Yes, I believe when an agent requests the full manuscript from you that he/she does read it. But they use what you have used to sell the novel to them to sell it to a publisher. You’ve already done their work for them in that area. I’ve wondered if an agent has ever disagreed with how a writer has defined and categorized his/her novel…I don’t know.
Where to find the definitions and categorizations? Think bookstore. How are books shelved in a bookstore? By categories. This is the through-line from you straight to your readers — agents want to know what your novel is in order to tell a publisher where it will be shelved in a bookstore. If it can’t be easily categorized, that’s a problem for everyone involved in the selling process, but not necessarily a problem for readers, who just want good stories. I have agonized for hours and hours over how to define and categorize Perceval. First and foremost, it’s a novel, a work of fiction. Second, it’s a character study. Third, it’s set in the near future, has elements of espionage, international thrillers, assassin stories, and psychological suspense. But above all, it’s a good story. I wish that’s all I needed to say about it…. What I’ve learned: The more simply and easily categorized the book, the better. Agents can be easily confused. Which may not be such a bad thing — you also don’t want to confuse potential readers. It also helps to spend lots of time in bricks-and-mortar bookstores and learn the categories.
So, you have a list of agents, preferably 40 or 50 to start, and you’ve defined and categorized your novel. Now it’s time to put together queries for each agent on your list — actually, I send out queries in batches of 10. When I’ve heard back from those 10, I have another 10 all ready to go, and so on. Each agent will want something specific in the query, usually a query letter (no more than 1 page) — actually a sales pitch letter, a synopsis and sample chapters up to 50 pages. More and more agents prefer e-mail queries, and in that case, the query would be one long e-mail, no attachments, that begins with the letter, followed by the synopsis and usually up to 10 pages of your novel. I prefer snail mail queries. E-mail queries are far too easy to just delete. Again, pay close attention to what the agent requests in the query and follow those directions. A query is like going to an interview — it says alot about you, and professional presentation is important — no gimmicks. What I’ve learned: It takes time to craft a really good query letter that can pique an agent’s interest. Most agents, though, have “readers,” people who screen queries for them. So, even though the query is addressed to the agent, the agent may never actually see it because the reader has rejected it for him or her. Welcome to sales! You are now a salesperson pitching your writing….
Agents respond when they respond. Some are quite good about responding within the timeframe they’ve published in their query guidelines. Others don’t. I have gotten responses up to a year after I mailed the query. If you receive a rejection, whether it’s a personal letter, a form letter, or a one-sentence e-mail, know this: the rejection is about the agent and his/her subjective taste, not you or your writing. Do not respond to a rejection. At this point, there is absolutely nothing you can say that will change the agent’s (or the reader’s) mind. The best thing to do is send out more queries. If you receive a request for sample chapters (if you didn’t send them initially) or the full manuscript, congratulations! You’ve progressed to the next step. Send requested material immediately. What I learned: Finding the right agent is a crap shoot — one I haven’t yet won. A match depends on timing, the agent’s taste, and luck in having chosen that agent to query. Agents in general are not trailblazers but follow a herd mentality — I’ve heard this description from several agents. Agents and publishers look for the next blockbuster without knowing what the next blockbuster might look like because no one can really predict what the public will want next. This doesn’t stop them from relying on past experience. One more thing I’ve learned: the next time an agent requests sample chapters, I’m sending the full manuscript and telling them it’s the sample chapters plus – the plus being that if they like the sample chapters, they can continue reading without a break to request more.
After all that and sending an agent the full manuscript, what if the agent calls you with an offer of representation? You’ve now won the lottery, my friend….