Agents are the gatekeepers to most fiction being published today. It's possible to publish your novel without one, but you won't be published by the larger publishing houses. Here's how to secure a good agent for your novel and increase your chances of publishing with a large, legitimate publisher.
Finding an Agent for your Novel
Write your book.It should go without saying, but many would-be authors begin contacting agents before their book is polished and ready to submit. Be sure your manuscript (or MS) is the best it can be before contacting an agent.Researching agents, writing query letters, and submitting manuscripts is a long, tedious process. Get to work on your second book while you are doing research for your agent.
Do your homework.Seeking agent representation can be a frustrating process, but a well-researched and thoughtful search will pay off. Begin your search using a reputable website such as www.agentquery.com or www.literarymarketplace.com. (The latter may require a paid registration for complete listings, but will make your search much easier.) Agents are not created equal--choose agents who represent your genre. For example, sending a fantasy manuscript to an agent who only accepts romance or how-to books not only wastes your time, it makes you look unprofessional.You can also visit your library and look at a book copy of the Literary Marketplace (or LMP) rather than pay a registration fee online. This book lists agents from all across the nation. Create a list of the agents who represent your genre, taking careful note of how to spell the agent's name.
Write your query letter.A good query letter has three components: Introduction, brief synopsis, and closing. This is a business letter, so write it like you would for any job interview. Be professional, polite, and concise.Always address the letter to a specific agent, by name, rather than "Dear Agent." Next, state the purpose of your letter. "I am seeking representation for FIRST TIME BOOK, a 100,000 word mystery novel."You synopsis should include the main characters, what the protagonist's goal is, and what stands in her way. This paragraph should come in at 100 to 150 words or so. Pare the story down to its essential elements, leaving subplots out. It might help if you summarize the plot for yourself like a TV listing. "A girl from Kansas must combat a wicked witch when she finds herself transported to another dimension."Close the letter with an invitation for the agent to read the manuscript, such as "I would be happy to send you the manuscript to review." Include your name, address, a phone number, and e-mail address.An e-mail query should follow the same guidelines. You query should be one page long on paper--don't assume you have more latitude with an e-mail.
Follow directions.Agents who list their information on agentquery.com or the LMP will typically include what type of books they represent or are looking for, how to contact them, and what to include in your submission. Follow the agent's directions exactly. Most agents do not want a full manuscript sent or e-mailed to them, preferring to request a full or partial MS based on your query letter. Many agents do accept e-mail queries, but some do not. A snail-mail query is always acceptable, but do not e-mail a query or MS unless the agent specifically permits it.
Spend no money.There are only two things a writer should ever spend money on when pursuing agent representation: postage and photocopies. Never sign a contract with an agent who demands money up-front, or who "recommends" a writing class, editing service, or other "help" that costs you money. Money flows toward the writer, always. Agents get paid when they sell your book to a publisher.Your money is better spent joining important web-based databases (such as the LMP or Writer's Market) or creative writing classes from professional instructors. The first thing you need to secure an agent is a great novel. Write one!