1. Check out the agent’s website to get a sense of what they represent – many agents will list their interests, the kinds of books and authors they rep, and the books they’ve already sold. Don’t assume an author who reps women’s romance will also be interested in YA romance – an agent will try to sell to editors he/she knows in particular fields, and may not feel they have the right contacts out of their genre area. Look on for initial information and searches, then go to the agent’s website.

  2. Follow the agent’s specific submission guidelines – some will only accept subs by snail mail, some prefer email subs. Some only want a query, some want sample pages. A few agents now have an electronic sub process. Follow directions! If they want sample chapters, they mean Chapters 1-3, not 1, 15 and 24. Check if they want a synopsis. Usually their initial interest will be in the book idea (described in your query letter) then in whether you can write or not (which can be seen in the first few pages). For example, Stephen Barbara at the Donald Maass Literary Agency accepts email queries and you can include the first five pages of your manuscript in the body of the email. Most agents will not accept queries with attachments.

  3. Address your letter or email to the agent by name, and make sure you spell it right. If you’re not sure if the agent is male or female (e.g. if their first name is Chris), Google them to find out. Don’t write a generic letter that is obviously something you’re sending out to all and sundry. Think about what this agent is looking for, and address this in some way (see 4).

  4. Start by clearly describing your book – title, genre, word length and target audience. Don’t make up a genre because you can’t decide where your book fits. Do some research and make a reasonable choice.

  5. Tell the agent why you are submitting to him or her – have you researched and seen on that they have repped similar books? Do they represent your favourite author? Did they say on their website that they were looking for this particular genre right now? Show you have done your homework.
  6. Work on your pitch paragraph until it sparkles. Focus on conveying character and plot and conflict – be specific about what happens in the story. Don’t go into explanations about theme and deeper meaning, or ask a series of rhetorical questions. Pitch your book in a way that will make someone respond ‘I’d like to read that – it sounds really interesting’. It might take you a week to get it right. It’s worth it.
    If you’re still not sure what a pitch paragraph is, try reading Miss Snark’s blog – starting around 20 December 06 (archives), she ran a Crapometer focused on the pitch paragraph. There are approximately 650 examples – bad, good and excellent – in a range of genres, with comments.

  7. If you have relevant publications and writing experience, tell the agent about it. If you have none at all (common for first novels), say nothing. However, if you are selling a non-fiction book or proposal, work out what your platform is – what do you have that backs up your book? Credentials? Experience? A website that receives a large number of hits? If you don’t understand what a platform is, go and find out first. Don’t include personal stories about yourself, or your writing process.

  8. If you have written a memoir, it should be pitched in the same way as a novel. But first, understand what a memoir is (in the publishing world). Agent Kristin Nelson has a great explanation on her blog –

  9. Where does your book fit on the shelf in the bookstore? You don’t need to describe your book as ‘Jaws crossed with Bridges of Madison County’ but you should be able to say what genre it is, and who the audience would be. And the audience is not anyone who likes reading, but it could be readers who enjoy Tess Gerritsen and Tami Hoag (this information could go in para 1 or after your pitch para). Don’t compare your book to a classic, such as Catcher in the Rye or 1984.

  10. If you have an endorsement from a well-known writer who has read your manuscript and is happy to be quoted, include it. Avoid endorsements or quotes from family and friends, no matter how great they are. Especially avoid them if you are writing children’s books and they are from your children or grandchildren.

  11. Proofread your letter. Get someone else to proofread it for you. Any mistakes in your letter usually mean there will be mistakes in your manuscript, and this is unprofessional. Your query letter should be no more than a page, single-spaced. Don’t use coloured paper, fancy fonts, or any kind of decoration. Don’t send a photo of yourself, or your dog, or even your cat.

  12. Understand what it is that an agent does. Understand how payments work (i.e. what their percentage is – in the US the average is 15%, and 20% on overseas sales). Some agents will ask you to sign a contract, some will be happy with a verbal agreement. Many agents talk about helping to build an author’s career as the main part of their job. They like to have input into your future and help you plan ahead. They will also give you editorial assistance. Other agents are very ‘hands off’ and only want you to present a saleable manuscript to them. You need to understand that each agent works differently, and you need to decide what you want first, then find out if an agent who is offering to represent you will provide that kind of relationship. Understand that it is a relationship – a business one, first and foremost – and that how it works needs to suit both parties. Your agent will not be your best friend. But they will hopefully be your best business partner in the writing and publishing industry.

  13. Be aware that there really are agents looking for good clients. The top agents will have very little room for new clients, but new agents are looking to build their lists. However, most work on commission only, and only have so many hours in the day. They will still only take on authors whose work they feel very confident about selling. Your job is to write the best book you can, and present it in the best possible way. That’s how you get an agent to notice you.

  14. An agent who ‘rejects’ you may do so for a number of reasons, but the most likely is that they have to feel enough passion and commitment about your book to be able to pitch it successfully to editors. Imagine yourself cold-calling editors to try and sell a new author’s book. That kind of endless enthusiasm and excitement about a book can’t be faked! But if an agent loves your book enough to want to do this, you’ve found what you’re looking for (and then check No. 12 again).

  15. The most common reason I have heard agents give for ‘rejecting’ a writer’s manuscript is It’s not ready yet. This means you may have a great idea but your writing is not of a publishable quality yet (but you can always get better if you work hard). Or you have a possibly great idea but you haven’t fully realised its potential or developed it enough. Many writers get excited about actually finishing a novel and send it out too soon. Take the time to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, until you get yours to the absolute best it can be.

(c) Sherryl Clark, 2008.

(This information compiled from my session notes and handouts from Emmanuelle Alspaugh (Wendy Sherman Associates) and Stephen Barbara (Donald Maass Literary Agency) at Pima Writers’ Workshop 2007, as well as a range of other sources).

As well as the blogs mentioned above, you may also find the following useful:  (Cheryl Klein – editor for Arthur A. Levine)  (J.A. Konrath – crime/genre writing)  (an anonymous editor)  (agent Rachel Vater who has just moved to Folio Literary Management) (Bookends Literary Agency) (agent Lori Perkins) (the Knight Agency – various agents blog here)  (Dystel & Goderich Literary Management)