1. Finish your book.
While non-fiction books are generally sold on proposal, novels are not. With fiction, they don’t just want an idea of what they’ll get, but they’ll want to read exactly how the whole thing pans out. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the execution we all struggle with.
2. Patiently revise your book.
The number one thing I see getting in writers’ way is lack of patience. God knows that was my problem for far too long. You want to finish the book now! You want an agent now! You want to get that book on the market now! I get it. Think back to past accomplishments, maybe a college degree, mastery of a foreign language, getting up to speed in a new career, starting a business – how long did that take? I’m willing to bet it took many, many steps (and years) to reach that goal. Because publishing doesn’t have clear-cut steps or a consistent time frame, it can be tempting to rush. I’ve seen giddy, eager writers submit first drafts, and I’ve seen exhausted writers submit books they know aren’t working because they’re just so sick and tired of revising. I understand both types of writers and their hope to be “good enough.” I implore you to wait until you’ve gotten distance, worked hard on revision, and both you and at least one beta reader feel good about what you’ve got. That’s when it’s finally time to start your search.
3. Know how your book fits into the publishing world.
First, know how your book would be categorized. If possible, niche down from your main genre. For example, if your book involves a mystery, is it more thriller, cozy mystery, noir? If it’s historical, is it a romance or upmarket commercial fiction or literary fiction? If your book is literary could it also be described as workplace satire or maybe family saga? Although marketing categories can be artificial and frustrating, they help agents, editors, bookstores, and readers find the right books.
You should also be able to describe your style or tone and know which authors share that style. Is it edgy? Inspirational? Tragic? Experimental? Not only will doing this legwork help you write an accurate and concise query, it will help you find agents who are looking for books like yours… which brings me to strategy.
4. Have a strategy.
Don’t leave your fate up to something as weak and arbitrary as the shotgun strategy. You’ll have a much better chance of getting the right agent if you target a smaller list of agents who have shown an interest in books just like yours. I will write much more about exactly how to do this in the next few weeks.
5. Stop the desperation.
Repeat after me: A bad agent is worse than no agent. I say this all the time because it is 100% true, yet desperate authors don’t believe me.
Here we go with another marriage analogy: At a certain age, after a certain number of bad dating experiences, you might feel ready to get married RIGHT NOW! Before it’s too late!!! That can lead to some really bad marriages – from financial mismatches to lifestyle mismatches to loveless relationships to abuse. Here’s how that can look with an agent: agent won’t return your calls or emails, agent represents you and your work in a way that embarrasses or upsets you (or worse, alienates others), agent doesn’t get your vision and wants changes you hate, agent won’t tell you what he or she is doing to sell your book, agent just throws books out there to see what sticks, agent is incompetent, has no contacts, or can’t sell a lifejacket to a drowning person.
In other words, this is a two way street. You want a good agent as much as they want a good client, and you both want a healthy relationship. If you feel uneasy about an agent but fear they’re your only option, Do Not Sign a Contract. Fix your book instead.
6. Dial in your mindset.
Will you be rejected?
I’ve never, ever heard of a writer who queried multiple agents and got offers of representation from every single one. Now, a seemingly similar scenario can happen if agents come to you – maybe you’ve won a contest or written a high profile piece seen by millions. For example, after my essay was published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, I got several emails from agents asking to read my manuscript. It was vastly preferable to the query-and- wait approach (I experienced that with a previous book that landed an agent but not a book deal and now peacefully rests on my hard drive), but it doesn’t mean every agent in New York wanted to work with me. It means the ones who weren’t interested didn’t get in touch with me.
Here’s why. Agents can only take on a few clients at a time, and they will only choose projects that fill two requirements: First, they are madly, desperately head over heels in love with the book and, next, they think they can sell it. This means that sometimes an agent will think your book is terrific, but it’s still not right for them. Have you ever gone on a date with someone who ticks all the right boxes, who doesn’t have a flaw you can point to, but you just don’t feel the love? I have. I’ve got this friend, let’s call him Chad. We met a million years ago (okay, in 2000) and went on a couple of dates. He’s fabulous! He’s smart, he’s fun, he’s nice, he’s even successful and rich, but we just didn’t have the chemistry. Over the years, when we were both single at the same time, we’d go out on what you might call a date to see if there’d be a spark. There never was. To this day, I can’t tell you one thing I don’t like about Chad (he may be able to name what’s wrong with me!), but I couldn’t love him like that. Luckily his awesome wife thinks that’s insane. And after nine years of marriage, I’m still wild about my husband. Thank goodness Chad and I didn’t settle for each other.
So, an agent isn’t going to scoop up every good book. And you shouldn’t settle for just any agent.