The 5 Essential Steps to Getting a Literary Agent
It was seven years ago, but I can remember it like it was today. I woke up on the day before Thanksgiving, booted up my computer, and saw the e-mail in my inbox. "I have reviewed your query letter and the first five pages of your manuscript and I would like to read more; can you please e-mail me the first 50 pages along with your author bio and and a list of comparable titles."
Now, by virtue of the fact that you are reading this blog on QueryTracker, I suspect you all have received similar e-mails and realize that this was no big deal. But it was a big deal to me at the time, and it is still something I remember fondly. I had sent this--my very first--query to Writers House (I am sure you all know what Writers House is) and gotten a request for a partial. Things fell apart from there, of course--the I regret to inform you e-mail followed shortly--but it was the first step of the 5 Essential Steps to Getting a Literary Agent.
Step 1) Getting Your First Rejection.
Why, you ask, is this the first step? Well, consider the number of talented writers I know who have never received a rejection. The obvious reason is that none of them have ever sent a query letter in the first place. And why haven't they? The list is long--too much work, such a small chance of success, and not wanting to be slapped in the face top the list--but the reason doesn't really matter. If you are going to be a successful, agented and traditionally published author, you have got to put yourself out there--again and again--and in so doing you will be rewarded with rejections, apathy, criticism, (Sounds great, huh?) and the occasional positive response. Cherish the positive responses. Enjoying the small successes is the best way to keep on going.
Step 2) Getting Your First Partial Request.
A request for a partial is not a guarantee you are going to be the next James Patterson or Daniel Silva, but it isn't a bad thing either: Someone (likely an intern or an agent's assistant) Somewhere (likely in NYC or San Francisco) thinks you can write. It is a validation of what you have known deep down all along. It is not a good thing: It is a great thing. But let's take a step back for a second, and do some math. Yes, yes, I know, they said there would be no math, but it is simple stuff and it makes my point. You sent out 10 queries and received 5 requests: What can you glean from this? You did a good job writing your query letter. On the other hand, if you sent out 20 queries and received just the 1 request, your query letter isn't any good. Revise it. (Here is the link to the QueryTracker Forum, where you can get great advice on how to improve your query.)
Step 3) Getting Your First Submission Request
After reviewing your partial, 10 agents have requested your full manuscript (this is what is called a submission request) but you get nothing but form rejections, lack of enthusiasm and, in many cases, nothing, in response. The fault here lies in your manuscript. I am not saying that your manuscript isn't any good, I am saying that it isn't good enough... yet. Getting an agent is a hard thing to do: Take a look at the acceptance rates on QueryTracker (and don't even consider the querying process without having QueryTracker on your Favorites list.) Many agents sign only one or two writers a year, some less than that. And many of the writers they sign come from referrals, not the slush pile. I am not saying you can't do it: my agent found me in the slush pile, and if I can do it, so can you. But you have to learn from the failures along the way. Kabitzing about how unfair the process is--or how arbitrary, or how frustrating--gets you nowhere. Asking yourself how you can improve is the correct approach. Go back to the comments you may have received; what are the agents telling you? Where is the weakness in your manuscript? Are your characters well-developed? Is your dialogue genuine? Is your prose tight? This is where you become a better writer: Don't waste the opportunity. Stop querying agents until you have fixed the problems with your manuscript; there are only so many agents who represent your genre. Stop querying. Start revising. Then query again. I say this from experience--this is the exact approach that worked for me in the end.
Step 4) Getting Your First Revision Request
You may see this referred to as a Revise and Resubmit, but be careful: agents are very savvy about how they manage a writers expectations. You may need to read between the lines of their comments to realize you have received a revision request. What do I mean? Take my case. I worked very hard on revising my manuscript after it was rejected two dozen or so times at the submission level. I was fortunate to receive a lot of comments with the rejections, both good and bad, but let me tell you something: It is the bad comments you should be paying attention to. It is something you can work on. One agent told me: You write well, and I like the premise, but the main character isn't strong enough. That, my friends, was a revision request by my way of looking at it. So, that's what I did: I spent several months making the characters stronger and I sent it back to her with a carefully worded letter explaining that I had addressed the weaknesses of the manuscript and would she be interested in taking another look? (The key here is to be professional and polite.) In fact, I sent my revised manuscript to all the agents who had taken the time to make some comments (don't bother with the ones who sent form rejects or who didn't respond at all--they have no interest) and to the one agent who had specifically asked for a revise and resubmit. The agents who made comments were interested enough to spend some of their valuable time to help you: You owe it to them and to yourself to give them another shot. But only after you have worked hard to address the shortcomings in the manuscript.
Step 5) Getting Your First Offer of Representation
Interestingly enough, the one agent who had specifically requested the R/R never even responded to my letter. Even when the offers started coming in and I let her know that I had several offers of representation, she simply said she was 'no longer interested.' (I wrote her back to thank her for help, by the way.) Her lack of interest didn't phase me, however, because I had received an offer. What to do in this case, when I still had another ten or so submissions out there? You want to let the agents know you have received an offer. They will either bow out (and save themselves some time) or expedite the reading of your manuscript in case they want to make an offer. I ended up with six offers in the next few weeks. (But just so we are clear, these six offers represented five years of querying, ten years of writing two different manuscripts, two writers conferences, and several laps of the earth trying to hike away my angst.) It can be done: You can get an agent through the querying process but it can only be done with a lot of hard work. Their are no shortcuts, no head starts, no tricks or gimmicks.
Just five steps.
Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at firstname.lastname@example.org.