Congratulations! You have finished writing your novel—and it’s fabulous. Now it’s time to get an agent. Your first step to getting an agent is to write a query letter that rises to the top of a thick slush pile so the agent’s assistant asks you to send in the full manuscript.
But success here requires different skills from the ones that helped you write your terrific manuscript. Now you must think and act like a strategic deal maker with a brand new product. When I finished my new thriller, The First Secret of Edwin Hoff, I did several things that made seven of the industry’s top agents respond to my query letter and request the full manuscript within 48 hours of receiving my letter. Do these five things and I bet you that great agents will ask for your manuscript too!
1) Become a “deal junky.” Many writers submit good query letters, then wait months for responses, feeling victimized and unfairly doubting the quality of their excellent work. My advice: get active. When you seek an agent, your primary job is to make a strategic deal out of nothing. You must laser focus on this single goal: get strangers to read—and love—your query letter more than any other in the stack of hundreds that it will land in. A query letter submitted without strategic planning will languish in the pile. But there is so much you can do to succeed.
2) Use connections, if you have them. Just like pitching a product to a new customer, or looking for a new job, the target is much more likely to respond to a letter that begins “Your client, Hudson Davenport, my friend from college/neighbor/former boss/acquaintance suggested I contact you about my new book, The First Secret of Edwin Hoff.” Most people are very happy to help you make a connection like this.
But—most new writers without agents do not have these connections. I had only one when I submitted the query for Edwin Hoff, but otherwise approached agents cold. What then? Here’s what:
3) Research “natural” strategic partners—agents who are likely to like your work. Readers have different tastes; agents do too. Do not waste their time, or yours, by submitting your thriller to agents who primarily represent non-fiction policy books. A “natural partner” for you 1) already loves your book’s genre; 2) does NOT represent John Grisham, Dan Brown, Lee Child or Harlan Coben—because that agent will be too busy for you; but 3) may be in the same firm as the agent with rock star clients, a competitive client who is looking for their own rock star client—you! Your essential research tool is Publisher’s Marketplace. Join it and research all of the agents who have closed deals in the same genre and the authors they and their firm represent. Pick agents who have had success, and who are hungry for more.
4) Study query letters for form, then write a fabulous one. Keep it to a page, just four paragraphs that read like a book jacket you’d carry to the register. Start with the hook, then the book, then a little about you. Summarize the plot in an exciting way—tell a little, but not all. Leave cliff hangers. There are lots of great examples on the web. Keep it on one page.
5) Find leverage and use it! When an agent asks you to send in the full manuscript, your deal junky adrenalin should spike. Now you have something to work with. Now you can offer your targets something they need—an edge over their competition. I was lucky to get immediate requests for the full manuscript from two agencies—one old contact and one cold query letter. So I sent them each the manuscript. Then, I picked up the phone and called all of the agents to whom I had submitted query letters. I called information to get the office numbers for the agencies that did not post them on their websites. I left polite messages with the assistants saying something like this:
“Hi, my name is A.B. Bourne. I just submitted a query letter and under normal circumstances I would heed your website’s warning to ‘never call this office,’ but I wanted to let you know that one agency (or two or three—the number rises as you make calls!)—has asked me to submit the full manuscript. While I am thrilled with the interest, it’s important to me to find the right partnership. Would you like me to submit the full manuscript to you as well?”
Within 48 hours, seven agents had asked for the full manuscript.
Note: Do not bluff this. You must really have the requests you say you do. But there’s no reason to sit silently on your early success. Recognize your potential agent’s own professional goals, and use the tools you have to help them. Most agents are delighted to hear that they are in the mix for a hot new book. These first interested agents—and your call—have saved them a lot of work. They haven’t missed a good opportunity in the pile.
Congratulations! Your query letter has surfaced in the slush pile, and agents want to read your manuscript. Now what? Next time we’ll talk about “The Top 3 Signs You Found the Right Agent, and How to Close the Deal.” This too, depends on your skills as a strategic deal maker.
Thanks for coming! Please email me your thoughts at email@example.com.