“Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.” —Frank Sinatra
One of the many mystifying zen koans in show business is, “you have to have an agent to get an agent.” It may not be literally true, but the principle behind the cliche is that you have to be actively engaged in your craft and knocking down doors to get noticed. With so many options available to artists today for self-promoting their work, most agents only want to represent clients who are showing up for their own careers by doing as much footwork as possible on their own. This is especially true in the literary world.
So if you’re a novelist looking to land that major publishing deal with a six-figure advance, consider the following 7 tips for novelists seeking agents before sending out your query letters. You may not sign that six-figure deal first time around, but you’ll be well on your way to getting your work noticed by reps who can help you down the line. Embrace lofty ambitions, do the work, and you’ll land closer to your goal of finding representation and getting your novel published.
Write every day
You can’t hope to get an agent to promote your work as an author if you don’t have anything to promote! The first step is to build a body of work if you haven’t done so already. Showing up to the page on a daily basis keeps your skills nimble and generates inspiration. One excuse inexperienced writers feel safe leaning on is that they’re not feeling inspired to write. If you let your feelings dictate your work ethic, chances are you won’t get anywhere as an artist. Take action by showing up to the work, whether you feel like it or not, and your feelings will follow.
— Writer’s Edit (@WritersEdit) October 21, 2018
Creating a daily writing routine is essential for a writer at any level, especially those who are just starting to take writing seriously. Freeform journaling first thing in the morning helps with building a relationship with the page and developing a unique voice. Emptying thoughts straight from the brain onto the page, without censoring them, is a great way to master the skill of building bridges between thoughts and written words. Doing this consistently, every day, makes a blank page less daunting. Eventually, you’ll have to write every day to keep from going crazy which is a good place to be as a writer. Now finish that novel!
Self-Publish and promote creatively
OK, so you have your daily writing routine in place. You’ve written a novel and you want to get it published, but first, you need an agent to represent you. By all means, research publishers and agents all day long, but also consider this; you might benefit more from self-publishing your first novel. Submitting to agents or directly to publishers can be a long and painful process. Due to the high volume of submissions an agent receives, it may be months before they even see your email in their inbox. If you do get a response from an agent, they’ll probably ask you a question like, “So, what are you working on now?” If the answer is an awkward silence followed by, “nothing,” you probably blew your chance. In the months you were waiting on a response from an agent you could have self-published and started promoting your novel while working on writing the next one.
At the risk of sounding like self-publishing is a “get rich quick” scheme, which it most certainly is not, here are some examples of self-published authors who have had some DIY success.
Author Mark Dawson decided to try the self-publishing route with his second novel after a bad experience with a publisher who put no effort into promoting his ill-fated debut. His follow-up novel, The Black Mile, a period thriller set in London’s West End, failed to gain traction online until he decided to give it away for free on Amazon. Dawson was surprised to find he had “sold” 50,000 copies over the course of one weekend. That inspired him to write and self-publish what has grown into a 17-book series about an assassin named John Milton that has sold over 1 million copies on Amazon since Dawson started the series in 2013, generating a six-figure annual income for the author. Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula, is a wonderful resource for writers looking for some extra guidance navigating the self-publishing universe and all that comes with it. In his (FREE) online course, Dawson shares his own experience and interviews other successful self-published authors offering tips and tricks of the trade, including effective ways for authors to promote their novels with exciting marketing strategies like how to make and promote a cinematic book trailer for your novel. (More on book trailers in TIP #7)
Andy Weir spent a long time trying to get his novel The Martian published before he decided to take the reins and self-publish. In 2009 Weir began releasing his novel through his personal blog, which quickly generated a fan base of sci-fi readers eager for the next plot-expanding post. As his fan base grew, readers demanded an ebook version of the novel, which Weir released through Amazon in 2011 for the lowest price option (other than free) of $0.99 per download. The book’s online popularity soared, quickly catapulting Weir’s The Martian to the top of Amazon’s list of sci-fi bestsellers. The growing online success of The Martian caught the attention of Crown Publishing, a subsidiary of publishing giant Random House, who re-released the novel in 2014, placing the novel at #12 on the New York Times bestseller list. Within the week, a Hollywood producer got in touch to option the rights for film.
“In fact, it was such a sudden launch into the big leagues that I literally had a difficult time believing it,” Weir says of his meteoric rise from self-published author to New York Times bestseller with a major motion picture offer.
The film adaptation of The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, went on to gross over $630 million worldwide.
Author E.L James originally self-published Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011 as an eBook. Her online success attracted the attention of publisher Vintage Books, a subsidiary of Random House, who acquired the rights and turned it into an international best selling trilogy.
Agents want to sign new novelists who have already laid the groundwork for a successful career. They want to work with authors who have discovered their niche and attracted a following, even if it’s a small one. This not only shows you have drive and determination, it makes you a more valuable asset. After all, agents are out to make a living. An audience of any size shows there’s a scalable market for your work. That makes you a safer bet to an agent than an author who is only bringing a .pdf of their manuscript to the bargaining table.
Join a writer’s group
A writer’s group can be an invaluable resource to novelists at any stage of the game. This is a solid way to put eyes on your novel and get direct feedback as part of the editing process before sending your novel to a professional editor. Time is money, and the less time a professional has to spend fixing your book, the better for your bank account. The members of a good writer’s group will have a mixture of experience, from novice writers to authors with several published works under their belt. The comments and support of the group will help you work out any kinks in your story before sending it to a professional editor, self-publishing, or soliciting agents. Better still, most writers’ groups don’t cost anything but your time—treat it like a free focus group for your novel! Of course, you’ll be expected to actively participate in reading and critiquing the work of your colleagues, which is also a great way to expand one’s awareness of how to keep readers engaged with a good story.
Submit to contests
There are plenty of opinions out there about whether new authors should focus on submitting to contests when they could be using that time to pitch their work to agents and publishers. Regina Brooks, one of the top YA literary agents in New York City and founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, believes writers should be doing both.
“Entering writing contests is a strategy to give you a leg up and gain exposure. The most successful agents and editors curate and find the writers they want. We try to find short cuts. Contests are a great short cut because others have evaluated the work.”
Winning an award at a writing competition can help self-published writers legitimize the following they’ve built through social media and by promoting their books online.
Brooks goes on to say,
“Contests are a venue where writers are judged on their writing, not on getting attention, where writing skills and discoverability come together. Agents and editors value winning a contest.”
Do your homework
Twitter is an easy and productive way to start the process of researching the right
agent for your novel. There are a ton of agents on twitter, straight up telling authors what they’re looking for and how they want to be approached. We’re in a beautiful era for the unsolicited query. Never before have authors had the ease of access to agents and their preferences that social media affords. Although the literary market is more flooded than ever, the once mystifying process of querying agents is now clear as a bright blue sky.
Check out this list of literary agents to follow on twitter published by Writer’s Digest last year.
Don’t even think about querying an agent before you’ve had your manuscript worked over by a professional editor, and don’t just go with any old freelance editor you found on Upwork because their rate is cheap. Research carefully and be willing to throw some money into this part of the game—the editor you choose can be a big help in the process of landing an agent. Hire the most reputable, well-established editor you can afford. Such editors have plenty of connections with agents and publishers in the business who come to them looking for the next bestseller. Those editors are out there, and they like to boast about it so they can charge a premium…just make sure their claims are legitimate so you don’t get scammed.
Get an agent by getting your query right the first time
Research how to write a compelling query, stick to the format and get it right the first time. Take a course if you have to! Agents sift through hundreds of queries a month on top of negotiating contracts for their clients and all of their other daily tasks. They will blow right past a sloppy or boring query, so make sure yours is well polished, engaging, and sells your book in under 300 words. Also, it helps to do a little bit of research about the agents you’re hitting up and personalize each query.
Look up #querytip on twitter and you’ll see, one of the most mentioned pet peeves literary agents talk about are impersonal “blast queries” that begin with, “To Whom It May Concern…” Agents are people too, and they’re not nearly as scary as our fears of rejection make them out to be. Make their workday by offering a personal and engaging query that explains why they should put your manuscript in the “YES” pile.
Here’s a #querytip for my new followers: For your synopsis, keep it short and sweet. Don’t waste time speculating how and in what ways a reader will be moved by your work.
— Noah Ballard (@NoahBallard) November 1, 2019
Invest in a book trailer
A book trailer is a highly effective way to get a lot of eyes on your novel. A well-made trailer can help you build a fan base, get an agent, as well as attract the attention, publishers, and filmmakers, all in one neatly wrapped package. They’re easy to promote, and the payoff potential is definitely worth the investment. An exciting, cinematic book trailer might inspire a producer to option the rights to your story to adapt it for the screen, which obviously will take your writing career to another level entirely. At the very least, a book trailer will help you get more fans, and could very well grab the attention of an agent to represent your novel.
As the Senior Content Development Manager at New Leaf Literary and Media, a full-service agency for writers and filmmakers, Kate Sullivan knows what she is talking about. In a blog article for TCK Publishing, Sullivan shares her professional expertise about why great book trailers are effective.
“Book trailers give you a way to combine the immediacy and power of video, with its eager audiences, with the in-depth approach of a book. Plus, they’re a great marketing tool…when done right.”
Sullivan goes on to say, “A book trailer doesn’t have to be super-fancy to succeed. Instead, it needs to wrap up your story in a neat 3-minute package, enticing the viewer to want to know more by picking up the book.”
If you feel like you got something out of this article feel free to leave a comment below.
Further reading: How to Use a Book Trailer to Market Your Book