How To Avoid Getting Rejected By Literary Agents
Literary agents are busy people. Along with reading through hundreds of book proposals and query letters a week, they also sell manuscripts, negotiate contracts, deal with author concerns, address legal issues, accompany their big name clients to book signings, and attend several writer's conferences a year. This is why the first step to avoiding a form rejection slip is to know exactly what to send, when to send it, and how to waste as little of an agent's time as possible - which brings us to your 100,000-word masterpiece.
Do. Not. Send. It.
No matter how great a novel it is, and no matter how often your Aunt Frederika told you that you're better than Diana Gabaldon and all fifty-five prophets combined, resist the urge to send in the whole enchilada unless you met the agent and she expressly invited you to do so. Until then, the way to a literary agent's heart is through a well-crafted query letter.
A query letter is your first and perhaps only chance to make an impression on the person you hope will represent your book. Professionalism, therefore, is of the utmost importance. You want to introduce yourself, sum up your story in the written form of what is known as an elevator pitch, attach a brief synopsis, and give the agent your contact information in case he or she should be interested. Anything more, and you risk sounding like a self-indulgent novice. Here's an example of what a bad query letter looks like:
I just finished my first novel, "Ode To A Warrior Woman" which is based on my life as a strong, independent woman in the totally male-dominated world of forensic science. Included in this packet is the manuscript, my photo, a short three-page biography for the back of the hardcover, and my cell number so you can call me and tell me what you think between the hours of nine and five p.m. Everyone in my family thinks this book will change the way women view the workplace, so I'm sure you'll agree. I know it's a bestseller, but since I'm still a new author and you usually only represent children's writers, I'm willing to negotiate your fee. Thank you for your interest in my novel,
Susan Mary-Hildegard Lopez-Spitzwater
I don't think I need to tell you what Susan will find in her mailbox approximately six weeks from now. Here's a better version of the same query letter, this time without the obvious amateurism:
Dear Mr. Darcy,
I am currently seeking professional representation for my semi-autobiographical novel "Ode To A Warrior Woman". The story takes a humorous look at injustices faced by women in the male-dominated world of forensic science and is geared toward a strong female audience with an interest in eradicating the secret politics behind gender inequality in the workplace.
I do not have prior publishing credits, but hold a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from California State University and have been actively involved in the feminist movement for the past twenty years.
Should you find the attached synopsis to your liking, the finished 70,000-word manuscript can be made available to you at your convenience. My contact information is included in the letterhead.
I look forward to your reply,
This is by no means a perfect query letter, but you get the idea - present yourself as a professional writer with a serious interest in publishing your work, and an agent may just take notice.
Looks Do Matter
It's a cruel, cruel world, I know, but the truth remains: how your query letter, synopsis, or partial manuscript looks when it arrives on a literary agent's desk has more to do with your chances of gaining representation than what's inside - at least initially. To that end, please remember the following:
- Pink paper, butterfly stickers, glitter, and sparkly inks were cute in third grade, but they will not get you the kind of attention you want in the publishing world. Use black ink on white paper for all your professional communications, and do smack yourself if you get so much as tempted to attach a sticker to anything. And yes, that includes address labels sporting kittens.
- Refrain from scribbling anything by hand. Typed pages look neater, are easier to read, and present a professional image. Trust me on this - an agent will not squint through two lines, much less two pages, of chicken-scratch to see if you're the next Dostoevsky. Don't kill your dream in a misguided attempt to look avant garde.
- Dog-ears, coffee stains, and white-out are the kiss of death. If you're planning on mailing in a piece of paper marked by obvious sloppiness, your money would be better invested in a nice length of rope from which to hang your career.
- Remember how your mother always told you to wear clean underwear because you never know what'll happen? Do the same thing to your writing. You may not think that an agent will look through all fifty pages of the partial manuscript she requested, but if she does get to the bottom five, they better be as free of typos, grammatical errors, missed commas, and hand-written notes as the first.
- Don't stuff a 50-page partial into a greeting card envelope, and don't send a query letter and two-page synopsis for a swim in a bright yellow, quarter pound, bubble-cushioned, 30-inch manila envelope. Both will cause editorial eyes to roll, and both could be grounds for immediate dismissal. Let the envelope fit the contents.
- If you enjoy writing your story in a 36-point neon pink Curlz font, be my guest, but before you send a partial off to a literary agent, I highly suggest you reformat. The rules aren't the same for every agent or editor, but usually a legible 12-point font (courier is perfect), 1-inch margins all around, and double-spacing will meet their standards. Needless to say, each paragraph should be properly indented, and every page should have the title of your book and a page number in case there is a mix-up.
- Whenever you send out a query letter, synopsis, or partial manuscript, make sure to also send along a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Agents and editors don't have the time or resources to pay for return postage or scour page after page for your address, so make their job easier, and your work more likely to be read, by providing them with the means to contact you - whether that is to send a rejection slip or call you with the best news since the invention of pasta. It shows that you care, and agents love that.
- Paper weight matters. If your 400-page manuscript could be ripped in half by a preschooler with half a mind to ruin your magnum opus so you'll help him build a water park for earthworms, it's time to invest in something with a bit more weight. Go for at least 20 lb. or better, pure white. Nothing less will do.
Mind Your Manners
Be sure to mind your manners. This includes finding out a potential literary agent's full name. Addressing a query letter to "Dear Agent" or "Dear Agency" won't score you any brownie points, so be sure to do your research. Is it Mr. or Mrs.? Is it Mrs. or Miss? Is your agent male or female? Does she spell Anne with or without an E at the end? These may seem like insignificant details to you, but they make all the difference when you're looking for representation.
Finally, begin and end all communications with an agent on a friendly note. You don't have to grovel, and you certainly shouldn't brown-nose (they get plenty of that already), but do act like a human being and extend the proper courtesies. Please, thank you, and "have a nice day" aren't yet out of style (though I fear for future generations) - use them and doors will open.