Going Shopping—for an Agent or Publishing House
Shopping for an agent or an editor is an important step on the journey to getting published. For a lot of writers, it’s the first time they’re getting outside feedback from professionals about their work; for many, it means that countless hours spent in silence, toiling away in solitude, is coming to an end. But when do you shop for an agent? How do you decide whether to shop for an agent or to go directly to an editor at a publishing house? What do you need to have complete before you approach an agent or an editor? And once you know you’re really ready, what are some best practices to keep in mind for keeping track of whom you’re pitching to? This month’s newsletter answers all of these questions and more.
When Should I Shop My Manuscript?
Novelists: If you’re writing a novel (adult or YA), do not shop until you are completely finished with your manuscript. Many agents only require a query letter in addition to your manuscript, but I highly recommend creating a chapter-by-chapter summary of your entire book to send along with your first fifty pages when an agent expresses interest in your work. This helps the agent get a sense of the arc of your narrative without having to read the entire manuscript. If the summary holds together well, they will be more likely to request your full manuscript.
Nonfiction writers: If you’re writing creative nonfiction, a memoir, or self-help, you can shop with a proposal and sample chapters, though some agents prefer a complete manuscript. Critical to shopping your nonfiction manuscript is a proposal. You must have a complete book proposal that includes some variation of the following elements: Overview, About the Author, Competitive Titles, Target Audience, Marketing/Publicity, Chapter-by-Chapter Summaries, Sample Chapters.
Tip: Don’t feel pressured to go out with your work before it’s ready. I have worked with writers who are so anxious to land an agent that they have gone out too soon—before their concept was completely secure, or before the proposal had been thoroughly edited or proofread. Agents are flooded with mediocre proposals. Don’t be one of them!
How Do I Decide Whether to Shop for an Agent or Go Directly to a Publishing House?
The answer to this question has everything to do with your expectations. If you think your work is commercial and you expect a good advance, you must get an agent. If you think you have a fairly niche project and money doesn’t matter that much to you, then you might consider shopping directly to a publisher. Some publishing houses simply do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, making the decision of whether you need to be agented an easy one. If you want to publish on Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, or any number of bigger houses, you have to be agented. If you know that you would like to publish with a small house, and you absolutely feel an alignment to a particular house or editor, consider pitching to them directly.
Tip: Never pitch agents and publishing houses simultaneously. If you pitch to a publishing house and get a rejection, your agent will not be able to circle back around to that house to pitch on your behalf. You never want to be in the position of telling an agent who’s just agreed to represent you that you’ve stacked up a list of rejections from various publishing houses you approached before you approached them.
What Do I Need to Have Complete Before I Approach an Agent or a Publisher?
Novelists: First, you must have a finished manuscript. As I mentioned above, I also recommend completing a chapter-by-chapter summary of your book. Ideally, this is a three- to four-sentence summary of each of your chapters, which you save in a single document called ChxChSummary.doc. Additionally, you must create a query letter. The query letter is sometimes called a pitch letter, and it’s what you send to an agent or publisher when you want to ask them to take a look at your work. A good resource for query letters is Query Shark.
Nonfiction writers: First, you must have a complete proposal. In addition to this, you may opt to complete your manuscript. There are pros and cons to shopping a whole manuscript versus shopping on sample chapters, and some agents and editors have strong feels about which they prefer—and it varies from person to person. Like novelists, you also need to create a query letter, which you send to an agent or publishing house for the purpose of getting them interested in your work.
Tip: Do your research and find out the names of the agents and editors you want to approach. If you are a more casual person, feel free to address them by their first name; if you’re more old-school, address them as Mr. or Ms. Never address a query letter to “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir.” (I have been known to immediately trash letters addressed to “Dear Sir.”) Note that Publishers Marketplace gives you access to agents’ and editors’ full names, titles, and email addresses on their homepage. (Scroll down to the “Quick contact search,” which gives you the option of entering name and/or company to find who you’re looking for.)
What’s the best way to pitch my work to an agent or editor?
When you’re ready to pitch your work, choose ten agents you want to approach. Researching an agent is an important part of this process, so take your time. I recommend spending the $20/month it takes to be a member on Publishers Marketplace. Look at the deals and see who’s buying and selling what. Spend time on The Guide to Literary Agents and zero in on agents whose websites, mission statements, personal statements, and interviews you like. There’s a wealth of information about agents and editors online.
Start your pitching process by pasting your query letter into the body of your email. At the end of your query, you will ask the question: “May I send you the first fifty pages of my novel?” (if you are a novelist), or, “May I send you my complete proposal?” (if you are a nonfiction writer). Then you wait to get an affirmative response.
Once you get a “Yes, you may send me your first fifty pages,” or, “Yes, you may send me your proposal,” you follow up by saying, “Thank you for agreeing to take a look at my chapters,” or “Thank you for agreeing to take a look at my proposal,” and you attach the work as an email attachment. If you are a novelist, this is when you attach your chapter summaries document as well, and make sure to note that you are taking the liberty of attaching a chapter summary document in addition to the first fifty pages of your novel.
Tip: Name your document appropriately. If I wrote a novel called Book Blazer, I would call my document BookBlazer_1st50.doc or BookBlazer_Warner.doc. Or if my memoir were titled, Confessions of a Booklover, I would title my document Confessions Booklover_Proposal.doc or Warner_finalproposal.doc. Avoid sending your proposal to Agent Frank Gage and titling it FrankGage.doc.
What’s the best way to keep track of the agents and editors I’m pitching to?
I mentioned above starting with just ten agents or ten publishing houses. The reason for this is because this process gets very messy very fast. It may seem like it’s not a big deal to pitch to twenty agents, but what if they all get back to you right away?
You’ll want to create a spreadsheet that keeps track of each agent’s name, email address, and the date you sent the query. Then keep track of whether they respond yes or no to receiving your work. If they respond yes, note what date you sent them your material (attachments). The normal amount of time to wait before hearing back is four to six weeks. Once you hit the six-week mark, it’s completely acceptable to send a follow-up email.
Once you receive five or more rejections, send out to five more agents at a time, never having more than ten open queries at a given time. Once you receive notice that an agent is interested in representing you, consider the Five Questions You Should Ask Your Would-Be Agent.
Tip: Use your spreadsheet to keep track of what you like about the agents you’re pitching. If they represent an author you admire, write that down. If something they said on their website resonates with you, take note. It’s very easy to lose track of who’s who when you’re juggling multiple agents, so get organized early!
Good luck in this process. It’s exciting and terrifying, and hopefully somewhat comforting to know that everyone who’s ever gotten published before you has been subjected to this process.
Until next month.