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August 19, 2010

The great agent hunt

Yes, I've finished the novel. And polished, tidied and trimmed it through multiple drafts.

That was just the beginning.

I'm dedicating my first post to my search for an agent because this is the area which has, I think, devoured the most hours of my time in recent months.

Sometimes when I'm talking to a friend, they'll ask how the writing is going, and when they hear that I've finished my latest novel they immediately ask whether I'm planning to send it to publishers.
"Oh no no no, you can't do THAT," I say, and watch their eyes glaze over as I attempt to explain how the publishing industry really works these days.

The sad fact is that there are thousands of us wannabes out there writing these days, and publishers can't deal with the mountains of unsolicited manuscripts they get sent. Many of them no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts at all...which leads us to literary agents.

If you've succeeded in engaging the services of a literary agent to represent you, publishers are willing to look at your manuscript, because by then it's already been vetted, checked and judged by the de facto 'gatekeepers' of the industry to have some merit. It's they who take on the job of sending your manuscript around to publishers - if and when they think it's good enough. Not you.

"Great," I hear you say, "I'm gonna go get me an agent."

Easier said than done, I'm afraid. It's not quite as simple as sending off your precious manuscript in an envelope and waiting for the bottle of champagne and enormous advance cheque to arrive back by return post. In fact, hunting for an agent to represent you is more like looking for a job. Time consuming, demoralising, and just as frustrating.

First, you have to write a killer query letter. This one page masterpiece, much like the humble CV of a job seeker, is your calling card, your introduction to the person you're writing to. It has to say a little bit about you, and briefly describe your project, including details of length, genre and so on. I won't go into any more detail here, but invite you to enter 'query letter' into any internet search engine and enjoy perusing the gazillion or so hits at your leisure. I know I read far, far too much on this subject, and spent months on perfecting the query letter itself. In fact, I could probably have written at least half of another novel if I hadn't spent so much time getting that one page of text just right.

Quite a few agents also ask for a synopsis - basically a brief, present tense account of what actually happens in your novel. Hopefully you've already finished your novel, so you'll have something to write here.

So, you have a query letter which shines, and a brilliant, concise synopsis? Great, now you're ready for the next step; researching which agents to query. Much of this can be done via the internet, though there are of course printed publications which provide this information too.

As I'm Australian my first port of call was the website of the Australian Literary Agents' Association. I also researched agents on US sites like the Association of Authors' Representatives site, and Publishers Marketplace. The all important part of this stage is formulating a list of agents who not only are willing to consider new clients (and some won't, except through referral), but are interested in representing authors in your genre. If you've written a romance novel, there's not much use querying an agent who only represents non-fiction authors, or authors of literary fiction.

Though most agents ask for a query letter first, many ask for something to go with this, whether it's a synopsis, or the first five pages of your manuscript, or the first chapter. So you need to check and conform to each agent's individual requirements when you send your query. Confusing matters just a little is the fact that some agents only accept queries via email, while others refuse to look at anything via email and only accept queries by post.

One thing most agents will agree on is that they really don't want the whole manuscript sent until they've asked you for it. You don't want to get this one wrong or your beautifully printed single sided, double spaced, 14 point Times New Roman manuscript is going to be shredded, unread. (Yep, that's what they say they do to them. Personally, I think they keep piles of unwanted manuscripts to prop open office doors. Or stack them to use as makeshift chairs.)

Anyway, back to my story. I'm part way through this merry journey. I've researched a list of agents, and emailed off over twenty queries, together with whatever synopses or pages or chapters each requested in whatever format they wanted them. That was back in March and April this year. Of that twenty plus agents, many didn't even reply. Others sent me polite rejections. My novel "wasn't what we're looking for". A few to whom I'd sent only a query letter asked for the first chapter or three - and after they'd read that, told me very kindly that my novel hadn't quite lived up to their expectations, for whatever reason.

One wonderful agent, however, read my first chapter, and then asked to see the full manuscript. I was pretty much dancing when I sent it off, but unfortunately the agent hasn't actually read it as yet. These things seem to take a long, long time.

So I'm waiting, and hoping, while the great agent hunt continues...


Rachael Harrie said...

Best of luck with your agent hunt, Adina. It can be disheartening to get those rejections, but I know you can do it!

Adina West said...

Thanks Rachael. Sigh. Know it's a numbers game, and I just have to keep plugging away. Wish it didn't take such a long, long time...

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