So you thought the hardest part of becoming an author was writing your book—and you’ve done it! You’ve surpassed all your friends who feel they have a novel in them but can’t muster the self-discipline to sit in a chair every day and produce. Now all you have to do is get it published, and how hard can that be? Every writer you’ve heard of is published. According to this source, there are 28 million books currently in print; according to this source, over 275,000 new titles and editions were published in 2008 alone, almost 50,000 of which were novels. How hard can it be to add your unique snowflake to that blizzard?
Since you’re reading this, you’ve probably realized that it can take as much time, effort, and talent to get a book published as it does to write one in the first place, even for writers who eventually become as successful as James Joyce or Jonathan Safran Foer. This series of articles will list the steps in getting a manuscript published by the traditional agent-to-publisher method, give one or more estimates of the odds that your manuscript will advance past each step, and then suggest ways of improving those odds (to keep my entries from being too long, I’ll post each step separately). Since I’ve never published anything, I’ll give as little of my own advice as possible—I’ve tried to make this article a compilation of advice from more credible sources, which I’ll link to.
Step 1: The Query Letter
What this is: Literary agents expect you to query them before you send them your book. According to AgentQuery.com (an excellent FREE resource for this step), “A query letter is a single-page cover letter, introducing you and your book.”
The odds that you’ll get to step 2: Step 1 is where the toughest cut is made. This source offers the daunting information that the average agent receives 27 queries per day, or roughly 10,000 per year, and that only about 1.8 queries per week are answered with a request for a manuscript (about 0.95%).
This source opines that 99.5% of queries are rejected; this source puts the rejected/received ratio at a minutely more encouraging 99%. But the former goes on to give an interesting, hypothetical breakdown of what proportion of queries are unanimously rejected, what proportion receive a number of positive responses, and what proportion fall in between. These proportions are guesstimates, but their upshot is valid: querying is not entirely a game of chance, because not all queries are created equal; most go straight down the toilet wherever they’re sent, while the standout ones can receive positive responses as often as 75% of the time.
How to improve the odds: AgentQuery.com gives a number of basic but valuable tips for query letter composition. Some of these could almost go without saying (e.g., spelling and grammar are important, and you should always research and follow an agent’s submission guidelines, and you should only query agents who are looking for books in your genre), but slush pile readers report that a terrifying percentage of writers disqualify themselves by ignoring these obvious points.
Interviews with agents are another excellent source of querying tips; there are so many aspiring authors creating demand for these interviews that most agents have given at least one—just Google your target.
For example, Mollie Glick (an agent with Literary Foundry + Media) emphasizes that your query letter should have a polite and professional tone and should demonstrate that you’ve researched the agent. (She gives a number of other good tips, too, at the link above, and I can testify that Mollie Glick’s querying strategies work on Mollie Glick’s assistant.) The website of Stringer Literary Agency makes the latter point more forcefully: it claims that the best way to increase the odds of having your manuscript requested is to research the agent.
This advice is echoed all over the web (e.g. here, here, and here), and it’s rooted in the obvious: an agent will be more likely to request a manuscript if it’s of a kind she likes. Agent interviews are an excellent resource for this research: find an interview with the agent you’re querying, look for the part where she describes the kind of work she’s after, and then use your flexible fiction-writer’s mind to explain how your book grants her wishes (the more honest you are, of course, the better your chances of passing step 2).
This excellent resource gives the results of a survey sent to 100 agents asking, “What is the single biggest mistake writers make when querying you?” Highly recommended!
Alex Glass of Trident Media Group told Writer’s Digest that a good way to get an agent’s attention is to list some publication credits in your query. “Have your talent validated elsewhere,” he says, and goes on to recommend submitting stories to literary journals. This advice sounds obvious, but it’s not repeated as often as it probably should be. An agent will be more likely to look at your manuscript if you can present some sort of evidence—beyond your query letter itself—that you know how to write. You can find a good list of literary journals here.
Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management told the same publication, “Particularly for first-time authors, there’s no better way to get to an agent than at a [writers] conference.” An agent will be more likely to request your manuscript if you can remind her in your query that you met her at a conference and she invited you to follow up with her about your book. If you can’t track down the agent herself, try pitching to one of her clients: referrals work wonders.
Up next: Step 2: Submitting a full or partial manuscript