Finding and following submission guidelines
Every literary agent has different specialties, likes and dislikes. You want to customize your submission to each agent individually, so the first thing you need to do is research them thoroughly. Not every agent will be right for you based on their sales, communication style, and even personality. You want to do more than just read their guidelines on their website—although that’s very important and the first place you should look. At the bare minimum, you need to read the agent’s biography, read a few of their agency’s bestsellers, and look into who they represent.
Websites like QueryTracker and AgentQuery make this easy, as is having a subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace. You can sign up to have a basic version of Publisher’s Marketplace’s deal notification called Publisher’s Lunch. It’s a free newsletter that will send you a daily email about the latest deals that agents have made with publishers. This gives you a real-time idea of what is selling and by whom. Then, you should head to social media and follow the agent you are interested in on Twitter and Facebook. This will give you a good idea if you will work well together based on their personality and posts.
Every agent, though, is looking for a book they can sell to an acquiring editor. In order to figure this out, they ask for a query letter which is a one-page summary of your book. The query should give the agent enough information so they know what the book is about. Your query and submission package needs to tell the agent four things.
1. What is the story about?
The agent needs to know who your protagonist is, what they want, and what’s stopping them from getting it. That will tell them the plot, the main character and the antagonist.
2. Is the voice strong and the tone suited to the story?
The words you choose and your phrasing of situations will show the agent your voice, as well as the tone of the story. If your story is a comedy, make the agent laugh. If it’s a horror novel, use your words to set a spooky and suspenseful tone to the query. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is very important in the query. Don’t tell the agent your young adult book is modern and edgy—show them it is in the way you depict what your story is about.
3. How marketable is this book?
The next thing an agent is looking for in the query is the salability of your manuscript. Where does it fit into the marketplace? How does it stand out in a crowded genre? Is it high concept enough? The best way to figure this out is to find two bestselling novels that closely relate to your story. Bonus points if that agent or the agency represented the books. Then mention it at the end of the query that your book will appeal to readers of those books. For example:
THE COWBOY’S DAUGHTER is a 60,000-word romance that will appeal to fans of Lori Wilde’s Handsome Devil series and Vicki Lewis Thompson’s The McGavin Brothers series.
4. Is the book going to be a satisfying read with a logical sequence?
If your query excites the agent, the next step is usually to have you send sample pages and a synopsis. In some cases, the agency wants you to send all three initially. The pages requested will always be the first ten pages, the first three chapters, or something along those lines—but it’s always the first pages. You don’t get to pick and choose which scenes to send in. The agent will let you know what they’re looking for.
Always follow their guidelines.
Most agencies with a web presence will have specific guidelines how to submit to them. Some agencies want a certain font and size for the type. Others may want email attachments or have you paste the pages in the body of the email. Always spell the agent’s name correctly.
Those first pages have to be polished and edited. They must hook the agent into requesting the full manuscript. The pages need to flow and be easy to read. You need to make the reader emotionally invested in your characters and what happens to them. You can do this by showing what the stakes are right away. This is not necessarily the time to go into backstory or concentrate on setting or scenery to the detriment of propelling the story forward.
If the agent likes the pages they see, you will be asked to send in the full manuscript. The agent is hoping that the book will fulfill the potential of the query and sample pages. This is why you never want to hire someone to write your query letter for you. The voice and tone of the novel will not match the quality and the promise of the query if you do that. The agent, at this point, wants to see if your ending is satisfying and logical. They will be reviewing it to see if you’ve completed the internal and external character arcs and tied up all the loose ends.
Throughout all your interactions with the agent, they’ll also be looking at your professionalism, both in keeping deadlines and maybe even checking out your posts on social media. There’s no guarantee that the agent will follow you on Twitter or Facebook, but it’s possible that they’ll look. Make sure your social media posts don’t depict you as a flaming train wreck with a bad attitude. No one wants to work with someone like that. Alternatively, you also don’t want to be fake or false online. Just be yourself. Smile from the wrists down and keep writing and working on your craft until “the call” comes.
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.