Welcome to this edition of the Real Fast Results broadcast. Dani Hedlund is here today to share her secrets on how to get a literary agent. This, of course, is very important to know if you have a desire to become traditionally published. Let’s see what she has to say…
Today I’d like to talk about how you go about getting a literary agent. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not a writer should seek out an agent, or whether or not they should go to an independent publisher, or even a self-publisher. It’s the stance of my company, and myself, that the best way to go about getting your work out to the public is going through an agent. The reason for that, agents are your best avenue to a large traditional publisher.
Frankly, if we have ideas that we want to put out, maybe that’s through a quirky sci-fi or a deep-rooted memoir, we want as many people to read that as possible. What we are aiming at, as authors or editors, is to get that to the largest house that can give us the most proliferation. That is always a literary agent. Your top five, or top ten, publishing houses do not accept unsolicited work. So, these agents are the gateway into that larger avenue.
Literary agents have kind of a horrible reputation of being these, you know, heartless bastards that are exploiting the great writing of these new creators. However, in a lot of ways, literary agents are the new editor. They are the people that you call in the middle of the night, and you’re drunk, and you don’t know if you’re going to have to kill off that character. Your agent is going to be the one that’s like, “Okay, calm down. I don’t know. That character kind of needs to die, but let’s drink and talk about it.” And, they’re also there to make sure that you don’t get screwed. They are there to verify all of your contracts, to make sure the house that you’re at is the right one.
Also, now that there’s this huge avenue for writers to go from book deals to film deals, an agent is going to be the one that makes sure they can navigate that new space. I mean, we’re writers; we all wanted to grow up to be Hemingway without the shotgun. We don’t know these sorts of things. So, we need someone to be our conduit through it all. Literary agents, in that respect, are the goldmine of being able to help a really great author get everything they want out of the industry.
Finding the Right Literary Agent for You
Let’s say that you have a great book, and that’s going to be where we’ll start. The end goal will be that you have an agent that signs you. I’m not going to do any of the “write a book well” sort of talk. We are all starting from the point that you need to sell it. This is a very common situation, where I will come into work and have a really brilliant novelist who has the “Great American Novel,” and this person can’t get an agent to reply to them. A big thing with that is just forming the query.
The way that querying used to work, like back in the day, before the 90’s, was you wrote a good book, you summarized it in a page, and then you sent it. Agents just wanted a good book, so they would read an interesting description, they’d ask for pages, and then they’d buy it. That world is no longer the world we’re living in. We’re now living in a publishing world that’s inundated with so many books and so many queries that agents are trying to make their jobs as easy as possible on themselves, which means a query letter has to do two things.
- It has to do the old thing it always did, which was making a book sound interesting,
- but it also has to make an author seem marketable.
Writing a Good Query
The first thing about making a book sound interesting is you have to sell it in a way where it’s not just like the back of the book blurb. It has to be, “Here’s a new interesting idea, and then here’s possible ways it could go,” without actually telling the agent anything about the ending of the book, and never, ever telling the agent how to do their job.
A very good query starts out straight in, and it’s going to say, you know, “Sandy McClain was a woman who always knew her place in the world, until the day she discovered a letter written from the future.” Yes, that’s a terrible line, but it’s going to show you instantly that I have a character and here’s why I care about them.
That’s going to make up one or two paragraphs of the query, but a lot of times an agent won’t read those first couple of paragraphs. They’ll skip right to the third paragraph. This is the crux of selling the author. This third paragraph just says where else the author has been published. That’s called a publishing platform.
It’ll say something like, “This author has been published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review,” or any literary journal or anthology. What this says to an agent is, “Okay, somebody else has already taken a chance on this author. This author clearly can write well, and they’re already developing a fan base. Great. Most of my work is done for me.”
After they see that, then they’ll go back to look at what the book is about. A lot of really great authors will even sell their books while developing the query, but since they have no publishing credit, an agent would be like, “Ugh, I mean, that sounds good, but do I really want to waste the hour it would take me to read the first couple of chapters?” And, often times, the answer is no. Definitely when you’re querying an agent, make sure that you’re selling the book well and that you’re selling yourself well.
Another weird thing that’s emerging in the industry right now is social media platforms. Again, before the 90’s, publishing houses were big enough, and they had enough money, that they had really large marketing departments. That meant you could take a totally unknown author, buy their book, and then marketing people would market.
Nowadays, people are reading less and that’s hemorrhaging from the company. So, large publishing houses are taking that out of marketing and publicity. Which means that the author has so much responsibility now to market themselves and so does the agent. That’s why an agent makes a larger percentage now, because they do a lot of the marketing work.
One of the things that a lot of agents look for is they’ll have their secretaries Google your name and then write down the number of Twitter or Facebook followers at the top of the query. I know so many agents that just discard anything with under 1,000 Twitter followers, which is crazy. They don’t even read the query letter.
It’s very important for an author to make sure that they are creating a professional social media platform. There are so many young authors that I run into, and their social media handle is like “SweetCheeks5”. Like that’s the first thing I do… I’m like “No. Use your name. Be professional. Reach out to other people in the industry.”
A very important thing, in writing a good query letter, is selling yourself as well.
- Get good publishing credit.
- Have a strong social media/marketing platform.
- And of course, sell the book well.
I know that I could talk about any of those aspects, but I think it’s most essential that we go over having your own platform because a lot of authors have trouble doing this. You must market your stuff, and parcel with that is developing a fan base, a rabid fan base that wants to buy anything that you create, pretty much right out of the gate. If you can do that, then you are so much more desirable for an agent and a publishing house because you have inbuilt sales, or at least that’s the thought. That’s the reason why you need to do this.
How to Make Yourself More Attractive From a Marketability Standpoint
The most common thing that is done is to get smaller publications. That’s submitting to literary journals, submitting to contests, submitting to anthologies. The big reason for that is you have people in the industry taking a chance on you and publishing your work. That allows you to build a fan base, but mostly it just shows the agent, “Okay, that person writes well enough that someone bought something they wrote.” It can be a literary journal that no one has ever heard of, or it could be a very prestigious literary award, it just has to be something.
This is especially true for literary fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction, you need publishing credit because that is one of the most difficult industries to both make money in and to find representation. That’s just because it doesn’t sell near as well as the other aspects. So, that’s publishing credit, and that’s very important.
A really great thing about publishing credit is that if you’re writing shorter works, you’re growing as an author. I could just kick myself because my first work, right out of the gate, I wrote a novel. If I were writing and published short stories first, I would have learned all of the very stupid things that I was doing in a short, manageable way that didn’t make me think, “Oh my God! I have to get rid of the last three years of my life.”
I highly encourage writers to always be making short work, and it’s a great emergence into the industry, and it’s another way to make contacts. A lot of the time, you can get published in a literary journal and an editor will be like, “Hey, I was so excited to publish it, can I help you in some other way?” The moment someone in the industry turns around and says, “Can I help you,” that’s a wonderful moment. That’s a big aspect. Especially if you’re writing nonfiction. Blogging and building up a blogging fellowship is also incredibly helpful.
You look at The Rules of Inheritance, which is a beautiful memoir that was published a couple of years ago. Jennifer Lawrence ended up insisting that the film rights were purchased, and it will be a wonderful film, and Claire is a wonderful writer, but she didn’t [need to work on getting] an agent because she ran one of the most successful grief counseling blogs in California, at the time. So, she got to pop that into her query and say, “Hey, I already have hundreds of thousands of followers that care deeply about my grief counseling, and I want to write a non-fiction book about losing my parents to cancer.” And, the agent was like, “Okay, I’ll book the writer. You instantly can sell.”
I know that blogs get a lot of crap in the industry, but they’re great. If you can make people care about you, that is wonderful, and social media is the same sort of thing. If you’re writing quick little things about your cat that, you know, 70,000 people like, cool. Good. I mean, if you write about physics, at least 10% of those are going to come along. So, those are great aspects to grow, and depending on what you’re writing, you can build up that sort of awareness in other arenas. For instance, if you were writing historical fiction about the Roman Era, and you’re a Roman critic at Oxford, that’s going to lend a huge amount of credibility to an agent being like, “Okay, you’re definitely the person to write this.”
That works in a lot of different arenas. You know, if you’re writing a feminist non-fiction piece, and you’re the head of a feminist group in your state, then great. So, anything that could help an agent paint for themselves, “Okay, this person obviously has the ability to write this book, and they have credibility that I can market,” is really good. There are certainly unconventional ways to build publishing credit, but those tend to be the ones that are the most successful and the most accessible to agents.
The other thing that I would say, that one of my authors pointed out to me a couple of years ago, and it always really stuck with me. His name is Scott O’Conner, and he wrote Untouchable, which was a totally wonderful book. He’s brilliant. I love him… But, he told me that the most successful thing that he ever did for his writing was to be “a good literary citizen”. I’ve always loved this.
He ended up landing, essentially, his book deal because he stalked his local bookstore. He went to every single reading, every single time someone came out. He read their books. He went and he talked to them, and book signings, honestly, aren’t very popular. So, you’ll end up having a really great writer that has, you know, ten people come to the book signing, and you talk to them afterwards. You talk to them about things they care about. Suddenly, you have an arsenal of people with power and influence who like you.
He ended up randomly getting his book deal because the bookseller was like, “I want to pick up this book. What do we need to do about it?” And, he just stalked this book store for like five years. Giving back to the community in that way, going to signings, reaching out and doing reviews of books, and you can build that on your blog. If you’re a young person, get involved with your literary journal at your school, intern somewhere. This is just a game of who you know, and who you can grow from, and who you can lean on when it matters. Clearly, use those connections. Anything you can do to build connections is the right way to go.
Where to Send Your Query
We’ve discussed, roughly how to construct a letter. You sell the book well. You sell yourself well. But, who in the world are you going to be sending it to? Where are you going to find a good literary agent? This is one of the most common steps I see authors struggle on.
The first thing they usually do is list to me their favorite writers, which it’s everything from Neil Gaiman to Stephen King, and they think, “Well, I kind of write it like that. I want that agent.” exceptions to that rule, but generally, if you are the sort of agent that represents really big names, you may only have five clients. That’s all you need because you are pulling in 20% of these enormous deals.
Take into account where you are as an author, and then try to reach out to an agent that’s in a similar place. There’s a really wonderful website called AgentQuery.com, and it lists pretty much all of the agents out there and the genres that they like, and what they’re looking for, and whether or not they’re actually open. I would recommend going in there. There are great little checkmarks where you can say, “I write fantasy. It’s magic realism. I’m looking for this kind of an agent.”
Put together a very nice spreadsheet. You have to be so organized about this stuff and figure out when they’re open for submission. And, it’s very important to specify why you are submitting to that particular agent. That means it’s a lot of research. If you see an agent that fits all of the things that you’re looking for, and you read their description, and they want, “Character-driven sci-fi that has reflections on society,” and you’re like, “Oh my God! That’s what I just wrote,” you can’t just put down, “I read those things, and that’s what I wrote.” You have to put in the time. It’s a lot like dating. You have to listen to what they want and then know things about it.
Go look up the titles that they represented, and then figure out whether or not that’s the sort of thing that you fit into. That way, in the letter you can say, “Dear Mrs. Johnson, I would be really keen to be represented by you because you published this book, and it does this thing, and my thing is like that.” Then the agent will be like, “Okay. You put in some time, and you actually know what I do for a living. You respect me, so let me show you respect.” That’s a very common thing that new writers don’t do. They just assume, “I’m going to be making the agent money, so why would I have to do that?” It’s not like that at all. It’s a mutual relationship, and if you start with respect, they will give respect you back.
The best way to find an agent is by looking at the books that are most like what you write, and go to the back of the book, to the acknowledgement page, because every writer acknowledges their agent. Then, look up that agent directly and figure out what they are doing. I find that [looking in] Barnes & Noble’s “Discover New Writers” section is a super great way to poach agents in the way that you know that those agents care about new talent. They’re looking for new voices, and they are usually pretty new in the industry because that’s who deals with debut talent.
Go through and find books that are your book. Read all of the descriptions, or order the books and read them, and then really care about querying to those agents. New people in any agency, like always junior agents are lovely. They’re still not broken inside, so they still read most of the queries. Make sure you’re querying to the right sort of people. Also, there’s just a couple of things you should never do.
Never, ever use the words, “I think this will be a bestseller,” and never say it has “film potential”. Agents hate it when you tell them how to do their job, so never, ever do it. I find that comparative lines, and by that I mean, if I say that I have written Fight Club meets Grapes of Wrath, that tends to work pretty well on East Coast agents, but like UK agents hate comparisons. It’s a very weird sort of thing. But, kind of figure out what demographic [book fits in].
There are so many great resources online. QueryShark is one of them. It’s a wonderful New York agent who, essentially you just submit queries to her, and she chooses them, and then she just rips them apart online. But, it’s the most helpful way to figure out what you’re doing wrong.
There are a lot of weird sorts of things for that, and there are a lot of resources. Just make sure that you’re not falling into the pit holes of telling an agent what to do, and make sure that you are querying to agents that actually care about the stuff that you care about. That is, along with showing the fact that you have publishing credits, you have a marketing platform, and of course, your work has to be really good to start with.
Steps to Finding Literary Management
- The first step is writing the query exceptionally well.
- The second step is making a list of all of the agents that you want to reach out to and doing the actual research.
- Then, the next step is sending your queries out.
I would never recommend sending a batch of more than 5-8. You have your whole list of all of the agents that you could possibly want, and then the middle ground people, like the B-quality people. Send out 5-8 query letters, and make sure that you’re catering them correctly. The reason for that is because, inevitably, the first query letter that you write, no matter how much you love it, is probably not going to be good enough. You only learn that by getting rejected.
Then, some agents promise to get back to you in three months, but some of them are six months. It’s kind of insane, but send it out and see if you get rejected, see if you get comments back. In a month go back and make revisions to the query letter. Make sure that you’re sending it out to everyone you know, not just the literary people that you know, but send it out to some of the readers you know because they’ll be good at telling you whether or not it would make sense. Keep doing what you’re doing and adding more people to your list. Usually, you’ll get to a point where you haven’t heard anything back and you’re just kind of confused. That’s the time to kind of seek help. Like I said, there are lots of great online resources that can help you get good at this stuff.
This is usually a sign that you’re selling your book wrong. The primary way that someone is usually selling their book wrong is they’re not identifying the genre correctly. Like I said before, literary fiction, you can sell some, but to get a literary agent to be like, “Okay, I’m going to take a huge chance on someone, who even if they are Don DeLillo, are not going to make me very much money.” So always go back and look at your genre, and see if there is a way to pitch your book in the best possible genre. If you wrote a literary fiction book that is 5% fantasy, you pitch that thing as a fantasy novel. You pitch it to a genre agent because that’s the way someone is going to be able to justify taking a chance on you.
One of our writers is amazing, Emily St. John Mandel. She wrote Station Eleven, which you know, won like every award known to man last year. It’s a very beautiful, post-apocalyptic book about a Shakespearean troop, after the apocalypse, traveling around. It is straight up literary fiction. Half of it is written in poetry. It’s like a mystery, sci-fi. That’s what you need to do. You need to figure out the most sale-able thing about a book and then you push that. That’s just a matter of a writer letting go of their ego and saying, “Hey, I’m not selling out, but I’m trying to figure out how I can push this book in a way that matters.”
Then, I say go through the entire process again under a different genre. Seek out new agents, and make sure that you’re being as marketable as possible. If you’re still hitting a whole bunch of walls, it might be time to think about bringing in an editor, or think about bringing in someone who can tell you whether or not the problem is your first couple of chapters, because some agents will ask for a chapter sample right up front with a career letter. Maybe the career letter is too long. A lot of times that doesn’t mean that your work isn’t great or that it won’t find a publisher; you just haven’t figured out how to sell it correctly. Because, why would you know that? You’re an author. Like, you wanted to be an introvert for the rest of your life, and now you’re expected to get up and sell something?
During that entire time, what you should be doing is building the platform. You know, you’re submitting things out, and you put your soul on a query letter before passing out into the darkness. The only thing that’s going to keep you sane is progress. So, keep submitting to literary journals. Keep building that platform. Keep being a literary citizen. Build your blog. Build your social media. That way, every time you go through a round on a cruise, you get to add another line in. “I got to publish at this new place,” or “I have this many followers.” Or, “I met someone great and they said they’d pass it along to their own agent.” That does miraculously happen sometimes.
As long as you are constantly keeping progress, and you’re making sure you’re growing, I swear if you’ve written something good, someone will take a chance on you. It’s just that you’ve got to be ready for rejection, and don’t give up. It’s just like business. You have to just believe in what you’re pushing enough and just keep fighting because the world is hard and you’ve just got to be harder.
Genres that Sell
There are certainly statistics. You can just, essentially, Google how many sci-fi titles got moved by Penguin or all that jazz, and they fluctuate a little every year. I can tell you with certainly, the thing that sells best in all of the book world is non-fiction. That’s everything from memoirs, to celebrity memoirs, to cookbooks. It sells significantly better, but in terms of what sells for fiction, it is without a doubt genres like mystery and fantasy. The thing that sells the absolute best is YA (young adult). Young adult books can reach into so many different demographics, and that tends to sell exceptionally well.
If I had to go back in time and tell you that you need to create a bestseller and make as much money as you possible because your life is on the line, I would have you write a YA book because I know that’s where the money is at. It’s really where it’s at. If you really want to sell, write a YA series. Anything where you can have the same characters for as long as possible, it’s a win. But, aside from YA, our genre really sells about the same. From fantasy to romance, it’s very similar demographics. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is less than 10% of the market, and especially anyone that goes out and gets an English degree, they pop out wanting to write literary fiction.
You know, we all want to be Dickens and Hemingway, and that’s fine. You’ve got to write what you feel. You know, if you wrote Brickhouse, you put down that you wrote a murder mystery. You do not write that you wrote literary fiction. Pretty much, don’t write down “literary fiction” on anything, ever, or at least not anything if you can avoid it.
Find Writer Friends
I think that’s what I would recommend, more than anything, is to go out and find writer friends. I know that might seem contradictory of all the very process given, but this is a very difficult process. One in a million get an instant acceptance. Their uncles are literary agents, and you know, they went to the Iowa Writing Workshop and walked out with a contract. You’re really going to start doubting yourself. You’re going to doubt whether or not you’re a good writer, you’re going to doubt whether or not you made the right move when your mom was begging you to become an accountant.
It’s going to be so hard, and the only thing that’s going to get you through that is to be able to lean on people that care about the same things that you care about, and that care about you as an artist, and that are going through similar things. I remember going through this process, and I had friends that were going through the same things. We would go to the pub and buy each other a shot for however many times someone got rejected. You have to lean on each other because this is going to hurt so badly, but it’s worth it. If you have something great that you’ve written, it deserves to be in as many hands as possible. You have to put in this hard work now. Be open to revisions, and be open to change, but keep believing in yourself and lean on the people that believe in you. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be worth it.
Thoughts on Self-Publishing
I have a really hard time with self-publishing in the respect that there are a lot of times when a self-published book falls on my desk, or even an independently published book, and honestly, it’s one or two edits away from being picked up by a big house. I look at the print numbers, I look at circulation, and this book that could have changed the way that people think, it sold at its max, maybe 1,000 copies. I know, as a publisher, that this could have gotten a major distribution. It really breaks my heart because this author not only has shot himself in the foot for this book, but he’s come onto the scene as a debut author, which is one of the only aspects of publishing that still has any marketing oomph.
You sell well as a debut, or you sell well as established. This middle ground is the really, really hard part. Honestly, it breaks my heart. And, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some books that are brilliant and no traditional publisher will pick them up because no one wants to take chances. There are times like that where I will advise an author and be like, “Hey, you’ve written something brilliant, and it’s insane because I don’t know of any way to get it published. The only way is for you to go out and just do it yourself.” But, I’ve said that twice in my 12-year career. I definitely think that if you believe in yourself, and if you’re getting feedback where people are saying, “Hey, this is good. This is worth it,” just put in all of the rounds of revisions.
It sucks and it’s heartbreaking, but do it because your work deserves it. Honestly, going it alone is so hard. A lot of people think that it’s easier than surviving with an agent, but if you really want to get out there and get your voice heard take the hard road.
Connecting with Dani
I run a non-profit called Tethered by Letters. We are an international company that helps people do exactly the things that I’m rambling about. We run full editing workshops, we walk people through the query process, and we are, you know, the strange, loud advocates for, “Hey, you’ve written something really well. Let’s help you get it published.” You can find us at TetheredbyLetters.com, an internationally distributed literary journal. It is the fastest-growing literary journal in the states. We just found that out, and we’re so excited that we’re going to get it tattooed somewhere. So, if you’re looking for some way to get that publishing platform credit and certainly try out F(r)iction. It’s totally lovely, but I’m completely biased. So, reach out. We’re always happy to help. That’s what we do.
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