13 Ways to Convince a Literary Agent to Represent You

13 Ways to Convince a Literary Agent to Represent You

You’ve been trying to crack the code for getting an agent’s attention, whether in a query or a face-to-face meeting, right? You’ve been searching high and low for the secret to making an agent sit up and say “Wow!”

Well, since I’m in a good mood, I’m going to risk ostracism from my colleagues by breaking the Agent Code of Secrecy. Here you go: 13 surefire ways to impress an agent.

1. Make sure your idea feels fresh

Everybody knows there are very few completely new ideas.  That’s okay — you just have to present your idea from a new angle, with a different spin than what’s already out there, and with a fabulous writing style that’s uniquely YOU.

Even if your topic is one for which there are already numerous books, make sure it doesn’t feel derivative. Whatever makes your book unique, highlight that in your query, pitch and proposal.

2. Follow submission guidelines

This is SO obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people never read them. Virtually all agents have submission guidelines on their websites, letting you know what genres they rep and what kind of materials they want you to send.

3. Know your audience

Who are you writing for? Your pitch should demonstrate that you’re aware of what your audience looks for. If you’re writing non-fiction, you clearly address the “felt need” of your intended reader. If you’re writing fiction, be aware of other books your audience may be reading, and know where your book fits in with them. (Click to tweet this idea.)

4. Have some social media presence…

…and include concrete stats where appropriate. This means number of followers on major social sites and information about blog traffic and comments. If you’re a novelist, it’s not necessary to have big numbers, but it’s still important to show you’re comfortable interacting online — you’ll need this skill when your book comes out. However, if you’re a non-fiction author, you may want to wait to query until you…

5. Have an impressive platform

You might have a strong online presence through blogging, YouTube, Facebook and other social media. Or you may have a real-world platform in which you speak in front of audiences or write for major national publications. Maybe you have a database of 10,000 email addresses you’ve personally collected through networking, or perhaps you’re a credentialed or award-winning expert in your topic.

Whatever it is, as a non-fiction author, you have the best chance of success when you’ve already built an audience of potential buyers for your book.

6. Include links to videos where the agent can see you speaking

Speaking of YouTube, it’s always nice to have some presence there, particularly for you non-fiction writers. Or you might have some videos in other places online. The point is, it’s to your advantage to show yourself speaking or interacting, since this will eventually be part of promoting your book.

7. Show some familiarity with today’s marketing requirements for authors

We’re past the days when you could say, “I’m willing to go on that 12-city book tour the publisher arranges.” It’s to your advantage if you can indicate that you’re prepared to dive in and personally promote your book via your networks and sphere of influence.

8. Show at least a cursory familiarity with the agent you’re pitching

This doesn’t mean you have to mention their dog or their latest Tweet about Nutella. (I hope I’m not the only agent who does that.) It means you should have some idea of what they represent, who their agency is, and whether they’re one of the many agents who blog. For extra credit…

9. Visit the agent’s blog

If you’ve commented more than once on an agent’s blog, chances are good they’ll recognize your name when you query or meet them at a conference. A little familiarity is a good thing. You’ll also have a better feel for who the agent is, and whether they might be a good fit for you.

10. Send chocolate early and often

10. Take the craft of writing seriously

An agent wants to see a well-crafted and edited manuscript. Keep in mind that you may not have a realistic view of your writing without getting feedback from someone else, hopefully someone intelligent, relatively objective, and able to tell you the truth.

11. Know your competition

Agents and publishers are very aware of the wide range of books out there, and they’re also extremely skilled at researching on Amazon. Don’t you dare say, “There are no other books like mine” and leave it at that. You need to be aware of books from the last five years that address the same topic or are similar in theme or subject matter, even if they don’t address your book’s specific niche.

With non-fiction books, these are “competitive” titles, whereas in fiction I prefer to think of them as “comparable” titles because they don’t directly compete — readers are more likely to buy both, not just one.

12. Present yourself professionally

We want you to have a personality — professional doesn’t mean boring. But be aware that we’re looking for authors who are serious about the publishing journey and who are ready to commit themselves to the months and years of hard work ahead.

13. Have a great book

Of course.

Now that you know how writers can impress agents, tell me: how can agents impress writers?

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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109 comments

  • Rachelle says:

    Hi Rachelle!

    It’s nice to meet another Rachelle. I’ve just published an illustrated children’s Kindle book. I’d love to make an interactive iPad version of it.

    Here’s a link to it:

    http://amzn.to/1dGXv9U

  • Liss Thomas says:

    I thought the first #10 was a good idea! #6 scares me cause I don’t look good on video – at least to myself. But no harm in giving it a try.

  • Naomi Musch says:

    I posted a couple of book reviews and a slideshow of my books on Youtube some time ago, and now I’m determined to get back to doing more of that. Great post. Thanks!

    • Marilyn Dennis says:

      I’m taking your advice on responding to an agent’s blog. I thought it was informative and I’d love to start a blog of my own but don’t know how to go about it.

  • Sandra K-Horn says:

    You sure you want to take Chocolate number 10 off? Agents have to have energy too.

  • Jodi says:

    Thanks for good, concrete tips. This helps more than you know.

  • Oh, my, Rachelle. Does this mean that if I don’t like Nutella, I can’t submit to you? Just kidding. Thanks for the list. It’s a keeper.

  • Cyndi says:

    Solid suggestions which I always try to follow (except the YouTube thing…seriously?! *sigh* another social media to conquer), but alas, no takers – yet.

    As for ways agents can impress writers? PLEASE respond to queries (especially if you ask for pages), even if it’s a form rejection. The no-response-means-no trend is frustrating and (IMHO) disrespectful of our efforts. We’re all busy, but a polite response is only professional.

    Thanks, Rachelle!

    • JEN Garrett says:

      As another writer, I agree! Just a form rejection is fine, if you are passing.

      As a side note – any communication tends to impress me. If you have an auto-“I Got It” response set up because I put the word Query in the subject line, points for you!

      One time I’d messed up on the subject line and resent with an apology for cluttering, and the agent took the time to shoot me a quick. “No worries. It’s in the right folder and I’ll look at it when I can.” Now, that was impressive to me, and I’ll give her more time before I nudge.

      Another tactic that impresses me is when agents post on their blog/website/social media where in the queries they are. Some post a date, for example, and anything sent before that date is due for a nudge because the agent has already cleaned out their inbox up to that date.

      One agent closed for queries so that he could catch up on them. I’m impressed with that because it tells me this agent respects all writers and knows his limits on time.

      I’m looking for the right agent, just as you are looking for the right client. If you are willing to communicate with me before you accept – even if it’s just your computer sending the “be patient” email – then I’m more likely to put you higher on my “let’s work together” list.

  • Marilyn Luce Robertson says:

    In honor of #9…
    Hello, Rachelle. My name is Marilyn, and I’m pleased to meet you 🙂

  • How would an agent react if you came to them with a contract in hand and needed representation?

  • I guess chocolate melts too easily, Sandra. 😉 Have to keep in mind an agent must be polished at all times, and chocolatey fingers don’t fit the image. (That is saved for private. 😉 )

    Great list Rachelle, and most of them are really just common sense, aren’t they?
    Though I hadn’t considered the link to video thing… that’s a new thought. I can see how it would be a scary one for a lot of folks, too!

    Thanks for always having interesting posts.
    Elizabeth

  • Carissa says:

    Thanks Rachelle! Wonderful post for aspiring authors such as myself! To answer your question, “how can agents impress writers?” – take the time to care for us as a person with a passion, rather than just another number. I know this may be easier said than done, given how many proposals/manuscripts you guys get, but if at all possible, communicate with us! Oh, and sending chocolate as a rejection gesture, or “congrats on our contract” maneuver is always appreciated as well. 😉

    • Deborah says:

      Nice idea Carissa, but don’t hold your breath. Rachel’s comments on her own blog (a must read) how she gets hundreds of inquires a week, making such nice responses oftentimes impossible. I gather most agents are in the same boat if they’re any good. A form-letter is nice to end the waiting, I agree. Welcome to a writer’s life. 🙂

  • GREAT information, not just for new/aspiring authors … but also for writers thinking of making a change. NOT THAT I AM. 🙂 The publishing world is changing so quickly that I think it’s good to read this sort of fresh perspective every now and then. Nice!

  • Thanks for the tips. So timely with writers conferences increasing in the coming months. Sharing this post with my writers group!

    As for how agents can impress writers – keep lines of communication open and flowing. Silence leads to assumptions and we all know what happens when people assume!

  • Kim says:

    Hi Rachelle,

    I’m a blogger working on a travel-based memoir about a gift that was given to me before I left to travel the world. The short version: It was a gift of money, given to me by a very special person in my life with instructions to give the money away around the world in any way that felt good and right (http://www.so-many-places.com/2012/05/the-gift-that-changes-everything/). The book is the story of how I’ve given the money away.

    Anyway! That said, I have two questions. I only have a draft of the first half of the book but would love to pitch to agents. I’ve heard that memoir is a gray area: sometimes you should pitch your idea and sometimes you only pitch once your book is finished. What are your thoughts? Pitch now or wait until the book is finished to pitch?

    Second of all, what do you consider an impressive platform? I have a popular blog but by no means have 10,000 people on my mailing list.

    (Oh, and what kind of chocolate do you like 😉 Kidding. Sort of.)

    Thanks for your thoughts and time.

    Kim

    • Julie Weathers says:

      Kim,

      It’s really poor form to pitch an agent on a media site unless they are sponsoring a pitch contest or something like that. That being said, good luck with your work though I would wait until it was finished, edited, re-edited, revised and polished to pitch.

      • Kim says:

        Julie, I wasn’t pitching her. But what hurt can it do to put my idea in front of someone who can bring it to life? I thought that this website was a forum to ask open and honest questions to people in the publishing industry?

        Anyway, it’s really disheartening how secretive and elitist this industry can be- and now I need to know the special knock in order to leave a comment on a blog?

        • Julie Weathers says:

          It sounds like you have a fascinating story, and I wish you well with it. It very much did come across as a pitch to me, but maybe that’s personal perception. Regardless, it’s your work and career.

          There is no secret knock to posting a comment here. I was simply passing along some advice.

          I would suggest if you want to get it in front of her to go to her site, read her submission guidelines and submit.

          This is the most open and enlightened the industry has ever been. With very little effort any writer can find out up to the minute information on thousands of agents and agencies. They can find out exactly what the agent wants and how they want it presented. Query, query plus pages, query, pages and synopsis; whatever the agent wants is spelled out plainly and they even sometimes post a special, “I’m especially looking for this right now.”

          There is nothing elitist and secretive about the process. It’s a simple take the time to look up the agents who rep what you write and follow some very plain and easy to follow instructions.

          Even when you follow all the instructions to a tee, you may still be rejected for any number of reasons. Sometimes the agents will tell you what they thought was lacking for them. I’ve noticed fewer of them do this these days partially because their taking out time to explain why gets responded to with angry rants.

          Rejection is part of the journey, dejection is a choice.

  • It never occurred to me that an agent might want to see a fiction author speaking, or that they would check you out to that degree before offering representation. What a great and useful tip. Thanks, as always, for your candor!

    By the way, I love the clean, uncluttered look of this site so much, I might have to spend the afternoon redoing my blog!

  • AK Anderson says:

    Great list, Rachelle. I appreciate that you’ve split out the differences for non-fiction vs fiction. As I’m currently in the research process to figure out where to send my agent queries, I love your question about how agents can impress writers.

    Please be Findable: Some agents are on agency listings or in databases, but have little to no online presence themselves. It makes it hard to gauge how well we would work together from a blurb and an unused Twitter handle. If I can’t find enough information about the person, I move on.

    Please note possible flexibility: As a cross-genre writer, I get frustrated that very few agents represent all of the things I’m working on. It helps when I can discover that if I get my foot in the door with one genre, they might be willing to stretch a little to represent me with another genre that’s not on their list. (I know that without an agent to start, this might be thinking too far ahead, but it is supposed to be an ongoing working relationship. I’ve found 2 agents that would represent all of my current projects. TWO.)

    Please respect our time: I’ve spent years writing as a second job to make it to the point of sending queries. Many of us have. Please send rejections (no response at all is so frustrating) so we can keep moving forward.

    • April C Rose says:

      I agree with “Please be findable.” I know there are tons of agents out there. There are many agents who are awesome, but we don’t find some of them because there isn’t a true online presence. Maybe it’s because I’m in my 20’s and I’ve almost always had the internet. I suppose you can say I expect people to have a greater online presence than some do. It’s almost to a point where if I can’t google you, then I assume you aren’t legitimate. We expect all the businesses–even little home-owned ones–to have a website. Maybe it’s too much, but it’s true–especially for us younger people.

  • Thomas Ryan says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if you could hire an agent to prepare your submission for other agents. I fear I have lost the drive when it comes to chasing agents. Not that I wouldn’t want one but just can’t be bothered trying to find one anymore. But if there was someone out there who could fill the role of writing the submission and the synopsis etc I would pay. In the meantime I shall continue on with self-publishing and see where it takes me. But thank you for the advice Rachelle. I will pass on the info.

    • Neil says:

      Sounds like a business idea to me…but isn’t it already being done? Dunno. Kinda makes you think, if you’re going to all that work – and it is – just to get an agent, why not go ahead and self-publish?

    • Julie Weathers says:

      There are all kinds of businesses that will write your query, synopsis etc and even query for you. These canned queries are not well received. You’re the only one who truly knows your book. There are lots of workshops and sites that help with queries. Query Shark is a great place to learn how to query.

  • Joanne Wiklund says:

    Rachelle: An agent needs, I think, to be real and to be approachable. Giving us an opportunity to have real communication with you and ask you questions and get answers is so satisfying.

    As for real, The Velveteen Rabbit became real only when his hair was all rubbed off and he had fulfilled his purpose. May we all be real every day we can! j.

  • I have a question about Tip #7.What do you recommend as a marketing strategy for a non-fiction book on analyzing poetry?

    Obviously, book-signings at college, university and local libraries is a given, especially since this type of book is written for students of literature. However, what else could I do to market this type of book?

  • Great tips, Rachelle, thanks 🙂

    As for how agents can impress writers…

    1. Have very clear and specific query guidelines, eg: do you want sample pages pasted into an email or attached? Also, please list genres and what you are open to representing in an easy to see point-form checklist, rather than just in a paragraph of written text, as when a writer is researching agents it gets very time consuming and if you can see at a glance whether an agent represents what you write instead of having to wade through paragraphs of text, it’s so much easier!
    2. Set up an auto-response email (like a vacation reply). It is so easy to do but not everyone does this. It reassures writers that their query has been received, and also saves agents the hassle of having to respond to writers who ask if their query has been received. Not knowing whether your query has made it through makes authors worry! There have been times I’ve sent things and on checking in later on have found they weren’t received in the first place, so an auto-response gives everyone peace of mind.
    3. Have an approximate time frame that an author can expect to hear back, instead of just ‘we will respond if interested’.
    4. As well as the agents usual submission guidelines, do the occasional ‘wish list’ blog post with more specific things you’d like to see, and things you’d like to see less of. Then writers can better match their work to a particular agent.

    Hmm, maybe I should write my own blog post with all these things! 😉

  • Julie Weathers says:

    First:

    Thank you for doing this. I think people need a good, solid, plain spoken list of what to do. If you haven’t met Rachelle, she is one of the most gracious agents around as well as being top of the line. It would do well, to pay attention.

    Second:

    Hi Rachelle!

    “It’s nice to meet another Rachelle. I’ve just published an illustrated children’s Kindle book. I’d love to make an interactive iPad version of it.

    Here’s a link to it:

    http://amzn.to/1dGXv9U

    One of the first rules of interacting with agents. Never pitch your work in a social media unless they specifically ask you to, ie they are holding a pitch contest.

    That made me cringe and I’m not an agent.

    Third: What agents can do to impress: Answer queries even if it’s a form letter.

  • Julie Weathers says:

    AK Anderson says:

    In a previous life when I was querying, I had a suspense and a children’s book. Finding an agent to rep both was nigh impossible so I queried them separately and got different agents for each one. I loved the rapport I had with both, but the children’s agent was a true doll.

    • AK Anderson says:

      That’s probably the way I’m going to have to go, based on the likelihood of one of the two agents I found actually picking me up (I am not a gambler, I’d prefer better odds).

      Thanks for the reply! I really appreciate knowing that there are others out there like me 🙂

      • Julie Weathers says:

        This really is the most remarkable time on earth to be a writer. We have so much information at our fingertips. There are so many opportunities for us. I wish you great success with your career. You just have to keep trying. Persistence will serve you better than talent. Without it no one will ever see your talent.

    • Deborah says:

      Who was your children’s agent? And do you know any artists? thx!
      mailto:deborah.dinzes@comcast.net

  • Jan Cline says:

    I think the advice to know something about publishing and the writing world is so essential. I harp on that to the writers in my group and always provide that kind of information at my conference. I find so many isolated writers that have absolutely no idea what the biz is all about or what they are in for, not only for impressing a writing professional, but for their own career mapping. DARK Chocolate…nuff said.

  • Great list! And a good reminder even for those of us who’ve been published for over a decade to consider when looking for a new agent.

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