To get published, the most important thing is to WRITE A GOOD BOOK.
Obviously. That comes before anything.
But what happens once you’ve written something you deem worthy of publication? Firstly, you need a literary agent. You could go straight to the publishing houses, but your novel will most likely languish in a slush pile somewhere. And even if your magical masterpiece finds its way out of the slush pile, the publishers will probably offer you a shitty deal because they assume you don’t know any better. A literary agent helps to cut through all the bullshit. Not only that, but they’re in this to make money, which means they’ll try their hardest to get you as much as possible — after all, they only get a ten percent cut.
And in order to get an agent, you need to construct a query package.
But how do you do that?
The other night I attended a Guardian Masterclass, fronted by Juliet Mushens, called How to Find a Literary Agent. During the class, Juliet broached the subject of query letters and explained a few of the DOs and DON’Ts of writing the perfect query (the pictures throughout this post were taken from her list). I’ll go through some of them below, but the most important piece of information to me was: Your query letter should be ninety percent about the story, ten percent about you.
Plenty of writers waffle on in their query letter, saying shit like: “I’m a new writer but my family all think I’m great, and my best friend Bob — who hates most books — thinks my novel is amazing, and you just have to read it. I studied English in college and I have pink hair and one time I cut my toenails and sprinkled the pieces all over my dog and the look he gave me was hilarious, which shows I’ve got a great sense of humour and blah blah blah —” No one gives a shit about your life story. Shut up and tell them about the book. Before anything, they want to know what the novel is about, what genre it slots into, where it might fit in the current market, and if they’re interested in reading it.
They’ll worry about whether or not they like you later on.
You should start your cover letter with an introduction about your book.
Dear [insert agent name], I would love for you to represent my novel [insert title]. It’s an action-thriller set in Germany during the Second World War . . .
And then, once you’ve briefly explained the story (two paragraphs should be enough), you can tell the agent a little about yourself. If you have no writing background or previous experience, that’s okay. They won’t reject you just because you haven’t got your foot in the door yet. But if you do have any relevant experience or magazine sales, it’s helpful to mention it. Or if your story was inspired by something in your life, then add that in. For instance: “I was a general in the Second World War, which I think gives the novel a sense of authenticity.” Or even: “I’ve been teaching for the past twenty years, which has helped to shape my novel about the problems of inner-city children.” Or whatever. If you can link your career or passions with your book, then do it.
If you can’t, then write something simple: “I’m an unpublished author with a passion for words. I’ve been writing for five years and hope to pursue it full-time one day.”
It doesn’t have to be amazing. You’re not auditioning for The X Factor. You don’t need a sob story to win.
And once you’ve done that, you’re almost ready to send it to an agent.
But you need to do some research first.
It’s imperative to follow the correct procedures when sending off your material. Make sure you check out what each particular agent requires: this is usually a cover letter, a synopsis, and three chapters — or fifty pages, whichever comes first. Don’t send three chapters if they’re only a page long, but also don’t send three chapters if they’re two-hundred pages each. You want to aim for around the 50 mark.
But all agents are different.
So comb through their website for their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. If you can’t find the information on their site, or in The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and you’re sure you’ve looked thoroughly, then email or call to find out what they need from you. If you follow their instructions, you’ll at least have your query letter/submission read (in most cases) and that’s all you can ask for: a chance to impress.
Also, try to tailor your letter to each specific agent. Writing Dear Whomever It May Concern probably won’t get you very far. Throw in a personal touch, something like: My work is similar to some of the authors you already represent, such as [insert author’s name] or I’ve read interviews of yours and you seem like someone I’d get along well with. Just don’t go overboard with compliments. And no matter what you do, DON’T try to subvert the norm to stand out.
It’s not cute, it’s not funny, and it won’t work.
For some reason, lots of writers think the way to an agent’s heart is through a variety of abnormal methods: flattery, arrogance, stalking, death threats, love letters, anthrax, dick pics — they don’t work.
Some will write in their query letter that the agent Better sign me up because I’m hot shit and you’ll be missing out if you don’t. Or they may write If you sell my book, I’ll make you rich. Or they’ll slip in a picture of them at a barbecue with their query letter. Or a poem. Or they’ll send it in a pink envelope which has been spritzed with perfume. Or they’ll send a fluffy soft toy as if they’re trying to impress a potential Valentine’s date. Or they’ll ‘accidentally’ bump into the agent in the street (after hunting down their schedule and cyber stalking them) and try and convince the agent to sign them up. These people all suffer from the same thing: idiocy. But not just that — a lack of faith in their work.
And that’s all the agent cares about. Well, maybe not all: I’m sure they want to work with reasonably sane and gentle people, too. But for the most part, in the initial stages, all they want to know is if you can write, and if your novel will make money.
And your work does all the talking on that front. Anything else is overkill and will irritate them, so if you’re that guy (or girl) who does stuff like this, just stop. Don’t even consider doing it again. Just quit while you’re ahead. You’re only hurting yourself.
Like with most things, there are exceptions to the rules. Every now and then someone sends their manuscript in a cute pink box slathered in Chanel No. 5 and it delights the agent. Maybe that day, for whatever reason, had been pretty terrible and the manuscript showed up at just the right time to put a smile on her face.
It doesn’t matter: the work still only sold on the basis of its merit, not because of the cute pink box it came in.
And that’s the most important part to remember: your work won’t jump to the top of the pile; the agent won’t give your novel more thought or effort (she might very well do the opposite, assuming it to be the work of an amateur); the agent won’t shove her current reading duties to the side out of eagerness to read the pink box lady’s writing. She’ll either find it funny (rarely), or it’ll give her a negative starting point for reading. Is this risk worth it? There’s hardly any gain, but everything to lose.
If you follow the correct procedure for sending your work in, you’ll immediately be in the top fifteen percent of people anyway — plenty of authors fail to follow simple guidelines, which is ironic considering they’re writers and therefore should be great readers, too.
Follow the rules and you’ll instantly gain credibility. Deviate and you risk losing that.
Only a braindead idiot would bet their career on being an exception.
Just make sure your novel is the best it can be, and you’ll do fine.
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