You’re in the process of writing a book, and you’ve decided to try to get it traditionally published.
Most publishing houses won’t work directly with authors, so in order to get your book traditionally published, you need to get a literary agent to represent you.
Your agent’s job is to get your book in front of editors and negotiate your book deal as well as any other rights (foreign, film, etc.).
The first step landing an agent is to write your book (if you’re writing nonfiction, you would write a detailed book proposal). The next step is to compile a list of literary agents whom you may want to work with.
Once you’ve gathered a list of agents to contact, you can start working on your query letter.
What is a Query Letter?
A query letter is a one-page, single-spaced cover letter (or letter of introduction) that contains a summary of your project and your author bio. The goal of the query letter is to entice a literary agent to read the attached material or request either a partial or full manuscript.
Before you write your query letter, do as much research as possible about query letters. This article is an overview to writing a query letter. If any part of the process becomes difficult for you, dig deeper, pick up a book on query letters, or consult a specialist.
Basic Outline for a Query Letter
There should be six parts to your query letter, including the salutation and valediction:
- Salutation: Also called the greeting, the salutation often starts with Dear… Make sure you address the agent by name; do not use To Whom It May Concern.
- Opening: The introduction of your letter should identify your book’s genre, word count, and any other important details.
- Synopsis: This is not a full synopsis–remember, the cover letter is only one page, so the synopsis has to be tight. Include a quick but compelling overview of the plot, establish the setting, and describe the main characters. You should also identify the core conflict and describe the resolution.
- Credentials (bio): Include your writing credits, education, or experience. If you have a lot of clips, bylines, or publishing credits, only include the most relevant or prestigious.
- Closing: This is where you thank the agent for taking the time to consider representing you and offer to send sample chapters or your full manuscript.
- Valediction: Some common terms used in the valediction are Regards, Thank You, and Sincerely (followed by your name).
How to Write a Query Letter
Here are some tips to guide you as you write your query letter:
- No matter how elaborate your story is or how much you want to tell the agent about yourself, keep it to one page. Do not bend this rule. Be clear, concise, and professional.
- Don’t use gimmicks. Colored paper, weird fonts, and other attempts to stand out from the crowd will backfire. Agents have to get through a lot of query letters, and they know what they’re looking for. Be professional.
- Make sure you adhere to each agent’s submission guidelines–no exceptions!
- Condensing all this information into one page is going to be tricky. Give yourself plenty of time to refine and revise your letter. When it’s done, have a few friends (with strong writing skills) take a look. Polish it until it’s perfect.
- Do not mention your failures or unpublished manuscripts (except the one you’re pitching). Yes, you learned from those experiences, but a prospective agent doesn’t want to hear about them–at least, not yet.
- Do not mention that you’re self-published unless your self-published book was successful and generated loads of revenue.
- There’s nothing wrong with being humble, but a query letter is not an appropriate place for self-depreciation.
- You don’t need to tell the agent your work is copyrighted, and you don’t need to include any kind of copyright mark on the document. Agents are professionals and know your work is copyrighted the instant you created it.
- Do not talk about how you’re going to be the next J.K. Rowling. Do not suggest your book belongs in Oprah’s book club. This kind of arrogance will come off as an illusion of grandeur.
Here are a few more resources that you might find useful:
- Structure of a Basic Business Letter
- How to Write a Synopsis Within a Query Letter
- Samples of Successful Query Letters and 23 Query Letters that Worked
- Recommended reading: The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters
Have you ever written and submitted a query letter to a literary agent? Was it successful? Did your book get published? Share your experiences with traditional publishing by leaving a comment.
If you’ve decided traditional publishing is right for you, then you’ll probably need to find a literary agent.
A literary agent represents your interests and should act as your advocate. Your literary agent will shop your book around to publishing houses and try to land a publishing deal for you. Before doing this, some agents will help you prepare your book to ensure the best possible presentation to publishing houses. For all this, the agent gets a cut of the profits from your advance and royalties.
In addition to selling the publishing rights to your book, an agent may also sell audio, film, and foreign rights, although you may need different agents to represent different types of rights. If you’re an author, you’ll start with a literary agent and may later need a Hollywood agent if you want to try to sell your story to a film studio.
Do You Need a Literary Agent?
If you’ve written a novel or a work of creative nonfiction, such as a memoir, and you want to publish it traditionally, you’ll need an agent. You do not need an agent for publishing poetry, short stories, or essays. Agents primarily represent longer works. You probably don’t need an agent if you’re targeting small press publishers or specialty publications, because they often work directly with authors. Finally, some publishing houses don’t require agent representation for works of nonfiction and niche categories. The best thing to do, in any case, is check the publishing house’s guidelines, keeping in mind that an agent will be able to land you a better contract and offer than you can negotiate on your own.
Finding a Literary Agent
Finding a literary agent could take some time. You might start your search before your book is completed, but you should not reach out to any agents until your project is finished. For novels and creative nonfiction, that means you have a solid, polished draft. For nonfiction works, you’ll usually submit an extensive book proposal.
You’ll want to start your search with the genre of your book, because most agents specialize in specific genres. Here are a few different methods you can use for conducting your search:
- Online search: Try typing your genre with the term “literary agent” into a search engine and see what comes up.
- Similar books: Check books that are similar to yours. Often, agents will be listed in the acknowledgements or on the author’s website. Some authors even name their agents on their Twitter profiles.
- Social media: You can also search social media for literary agents.
- You can use a paid service like Writer’s Market to find reputable agents.
- Agent Query and Query Tracker offer online tools and resources to help you in your search.
As you search, compile a list of literary agents and agencies that might be a good match for you and your book. Try to get as many as possible–I would aim for at least a hundred, because you’re going to have to whittle that list down, and chances are, every agent you contact won’t be interested.
A Few Warnings
Unfortunately, the world is full of scam artists, and some of them pose as literary agents. Here are some tips to help you avoid getting scammed as you try to get your book published:
- Writers are vying for agents, so they don’t need to advertise. Good agents are awash in submissions and queries.
- Literary agents don’t charge authors anything up front. They take a cut of your book sale, after the sale is made. You don’t have to give your agent anything in advance except your manuscript. This includes fees for editing, proofreading, or any other prep work on the manuscript or other related services.
- Agents and agencies should have some type of portfolio, usually a list of authors they represent or a list of books they’ve sold posted somewhere on their website.
- The author-agent relationship is personal. It’s not the kind of transaction that is completed online. You should talk to your agent by phone and if you’re in the same area, try to meet in person.
- Legitimate agents will sell your book to legitimate publishers, not vanity presses. Familiarize yourself with publishing houses by checking the copyright pages in various books with a focus on your genre.
Choosing a Literary Agent
Once you’ve got a decent list of potential agents, it’s time to narrow it down to the agents you want to query. In this phase, you’ll research agents and agencies and assess them, weeding out the ones that aren’t a good match for you.
Start by conducting an online search for the agency or agent’s name. Check out their website and learn more about them. You might also want to visit their social media profiles, which can give you a good sense of their attitude and personality.
As you research the agents, try to get a vibe on the type of material the agent likes and wants to represent. That will help you determine if they are a good match for your project.
IMPORTANT: Be sure to check the agents’ submission guidelines. These can range from simple, electronic submissions to outdated snail-mail submissions. This is most important when you start sending your submissions to the agents, but some may include requirements that are beyond your scope. You may not want to work via snail-mail, for example. Therefore, the submission guidelines may help you narrow your search. In any case, when you do start querying agents, be sure you follow their submission guidelines to the letter, otherwise, expect a swift rejection.
Once you’ve submitted queries, if you’re lucky, you’ll hear back from agents who are interested in representing you. At that time, you may need to further narrow your list. Make a list of questions to ask each agent and beware of any agents who are not responsive to your questions. But be respectful–agents’ time is valuable, so don’t waste it on questions you shouldn’t ask (because you will have found the answers during your research phase).
Create a document where you can store and track the information you collect. Spreadsheets work great for this because you can create separate tabs (worksheets) and break off agents you’ve crossed off your list (but might want to revisit later).
When you do start submitting your work, you’ll most likely need a query letter and a synopsis of your book. Specifics depend on each agent’s submission guidelines. However, you should be prepared to put considerable time and effort into preparing your submission materials.
Have you ever searched for an agent? Did you land one? Did your agent sell your book to a publisher? If you have any tips to add on finding and choosing a literary agent, leave a comment, and keep writing!
We all come to writing for love of the craft. Some of us are storytellers, others are wordsmiths. Some of us have ideas we want to share. But for all of us, it starts with writing.
Once it’s time to think about publishing, everything changes. We have to think about legal issues, like contracts and copyright. We have to consider artwork for book covers. How do we get our books printed and produced? How do we get them into stores? How do we get our writing into the hands of readers?
For centuries, all these considerations have belonged to the publishing industry. Authors wrote the books, did interviews and book tours, but much of the work that didn’t involve writing was handled by the publisher. At the very least, the publisher provided guidelines and navigated writers through the process.
Today, self-publishing has put a tremendous amount of power and control back into the hands of writers. It’s your story. Your poetry. Your idea. If you want, you can retain total control of it. But for many authors, traditional publishing still gives writers the support and guidance they need to get through the publishing process.
Why Authors Want Traditional Publishing
Historically, self-publishing was a last resort, an act of desperation by a writer whose work had been rejected countless times. Now, with the advent of the Internet and ebooks, writers are skipping the submission process entirely and actively choosing to self-publish their books. But for many (probably most), traditional publishing is still the most desired route to publication.
- Validation: when an agent agrees to represent your book and when an editor buys it, you will undoubtedly feel validated. After all, squeaking through the gates of traditional publishing is like getting membership to an exclusive club because your book has been chosen among thousands of rejections.
- Advance: we publish either to reach readers or to make a living with our writing (most of us want both). When you sell your book to a publisher, you get an advance, a sum of money averaging somewhere between $5000 and $15,000 for an unknown, first-time author.
- Editing: it’s inadvisable for writers to polish (edit, proof) their own work and it’s also not the best idea to hand this task over to friends or family. Hiring a professional editor for a full-length manuscript can be costly (expect to pay well over $1000 at the low end). Publishers have in-house editors and proofreaders who will help you iron out the kinks and polish the prose.
- Cover: most authors are not artists or designers, which explains the barrage of hideous covers on self-published books. A traditional publisher will most certainly assume full control of the cover but they’ll also make sure it’s rendered by a professional designer. In other words, your book will look professional, not cobbled together.
- Print and production: before going to print or ebook production, the manuscript has to be formatted and while it may look easy, laying out a book is no small task. Publishers provide book designers to compile an aesthetically pleasing design and optimum reader experience. Plus, they handle the print run. Most self-published authors don’t even bother with print and book reviews often complain about poorly formatted manuscripts.
- Distribution: have you ever wondered about the process that takes books from the printer to the book stores? If you self-publish, your book will probably be limited to online book stores. But a publisher will get your book distributed online and in brick-and-mortar stores, so you get greater exposure to readers.
- Marketing: marketing only gets one spot on this list but it’s really a key factor in a book’s success whether that book is self-published or traditionally published. If your book is published traditionally, you’ll be heavily involved in marketing but at least you’ll get guidance and support. Some authors say that even with traditional publishers, most of the marketing fell on their shoulders, but some help is better than none if you know little to nothing about marketing.
- Cost: If you choose self-publishing, you will bear the cost of publishing your book from editing and cover design to print production and marketing. You’ll foot the entire bill. Most successful authors who traditionally publish also incur expenses (many hire PR firms and do a lot of their own marketing) but at least the publisher foots some of the bills.
- Prestige: The stigma of self-publishing is fading but it still exists. Some people just don’t respect self-publishing and will judge you and your book negatively if you haven’t gone through the gatekeepers. Some book reviewers will not review self-published work. Some book clubs won’t read self-published books. Some readers won’t buy them. Also, some publishing houses carry more prestige than others. If you need a stamp of literary approval to feel good about your book and if you want a shot at every available reader, traditional publishing is a better route for you.
Having said all that, there are just as many reasons to choose self-publishing as traditional publishing. We’ll explore reasons for choosing self-publishing in an upcoming post. Ideally, you’ll research both publishing methods and decide which is best for you and your book.
Have you ever tried to get your writing published through traditional channels? Have you self-published? Share your thoughts and experiences with publishing by leaving a comment and keep writing!