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. ()

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 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?

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109 comments

  • Kate Johnson says:

    Great words of wisdom. I am always looking for helpful tips, and these fit the bill. I’ll hold on to them. Thanks!

  • Rachelle, thank you for another really helpful post. And thank you for the graciousness of your question.

    As a writer without an agent, what impresses me (and you are a great model of this) is kindness and approachability. Clarity about what you want to see, both in genre and submission guidelines is part of this. More important is keeping a tone of gentleness and positive interest in writers and their writing. Some agents, whether in blog posts or agency websites, make it sound discouraging to even try.

    I didn’t query more than a small handful of agents before I had a contract on my first book without one. I would have been more impressed if they had responded to me. One had apparently handed off my query to another agent in the same firm, so I got a rejection from someone I’d never queried. A kind and generous editor at a major publishing house, to whom a friend introduced me, tried to smooth the way for me with two or three others, but even with his help I could not get replies.

    Thanks for what you do!

    Gary

  • Great advice, Rachelle. I recently met an agent at a local event, and when I said my name, it was clear he recognized it. He paused, tilted his head, and finally said, “I’ve seen your name on my blog.” Not that that’ll necessarily result in a contract, but I can vouch for #9 in that it made me stand out. (And it wasn’t hard–I read your blog and his because they’re chock full of information.) But of course the most important thing is #13–have a great book.

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Rachelle,

    Thank you for this clear, specific and informative list.

    In regards to #6, would vlogging be an acceptable alternative to YouTube?

    How can agents impress writers? I think the answer to that question can be found at the Books and Such blog (as well as your individual blog). Not only are the agents approachable, they are generous in giving a Master’s degree level education in The Business of Writing to anyone who chooses to follow the blog. If a writer studies the agency website, she will find evidence that the agent’s know their stuff and are passionate about books, writing, writers and are serious about their roles as agents. The thing that especially impresses me is how they take the time to respond personally much of the time to the commenters. And they temper honest, realistic answers with compassion and encouragement. Because of my genre, there is only one agent at Books and Such whom I could query when my novel is ready to be shopped, but I read all of the agents’ blogs because they offer such incredible information and insights. (For example, Rachel Kent’s blog today. It is on how writers can keep themselves and their families safe in this world where identify theft and stalking are realities.) Conversing and connecting with the agents who I know are not going to represent me (because they don’t rep my genre) has been a privilege and a blessing. I am continually enriched by the experience. And just think–they take the time to talk with me about writing even though they know I’m not a potential client. That more than impresses me.

    In addition to visiting the Books and Such blogs regularly, I also follow a number of agents on Twitter (mostly those who DO represent my genre and who are “on my list”). I do enjoy reading about Nutella (and chocolate) and a young daughter’s fascination with the new puppy as well as tweets about the writing business. The tweets about Nutella tell me that the agent is a real person who is comfortable being a real person. Obviously, the agent needs to be aware of what NOT to say online, but I think it’s good for agents to let writers know that an agent is a human being as well as a writing professional.

    Blessings on this new venture, Rachelle, of posting here as well as on your blog and on the agency blog. I don’t know how you can manage all of that as well as everything else you have to do, but I know your level-headed enough to figure out a schedule that will work for you. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, wisdom and experience.

  • K.L.Parry says:

    Hey there, Rachelle. Most of your suggestions seem “common sense”. Does a Cooking Demonstration video make for adequate YouTube presence? My sister and I made a few of those. Lol! But seriously, as a fiction writer what should I be placing on the net. An interview, a reading – can you be more specific?

    • Deborah says:

      I think a cooking demonstration sounds interesting! (A lot more so than an interview or a reading — unless you happen to be Brian Jacques and can recite your books with Shakespearean theatrics. 🙂

      Seeing you do something your interested in and interact, and have a life outside writing (!) sounds great.

  • Rachelle,
    I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above that advise agents to follow these common courtesies:
    1. Notify authors that you have received their material.
    2. Send an eventual reply, even if it is a form rejection (ie. material does not match my genres, not accepting new authors at this time but try again in 6 months, not interested in representing series, writing needs work then resubmit, shorten submission and resubmit, look at submission requirements and resubmit, etc.)
    3. As a side note, with the popularity of series in the fiction genre, add to your submission information how authors can query regarding a series rather than a stand alone book.
    As you know, authors spend years working on their projects, investing time and money in their craft via workshops, conferences, etc. Then they spend hours/days drafting a submission to ask you to please take their material and make money off of it yourself too. With the face of publishing changing radically as social media becomes a primary (if not THE primary) method of promoting books, traditional houses now require their authors to do much of the work in the area of generating sales. With POD producing books that are literally identical in quality to traditional type set, and with competition driving prices down in that option, more and more authors will realize they do not need to wait years to find a traditional house and/or agent to get their work into print and into the hands of readers via social media promos. Just as authors must adjust to the changing landscape of publishing and the demands of the social media bandwagon, investing huge amounts of time and effort to promote their traditionally published or POD self published books, so agents must flex to recognize their new and ever shifting roles in a rapidly evolving marketplace. It would speak reams of respect to authors if you acknowledged their submissions and took a few moments to check a box on a form rejection letter such as those suggested above. When you say that no response within three months equals rejection, you send the message that your time and position is much more valuable than authors (without whom you would not even have a job).
    As time goes on, agents will need to actively pursue authors more and more, rather than vice versa, and you will need to sell yourself to them. Hopefully you will receive the courtesy of acknowledgement of your queries from those authors, and they will communicate value to you the way you can communicate value to them now at this pivotal time in the evolution of the publishing realm.

    • Julie Weathers says:

      Some agents will respond with a note as to what was off, but many don’t anymore due to the vast number of authors who then respond with, “What do you mean the pacing and dialogue were slow and stilted? Me grandmother who was an English teacher for 60 years loved it! What do you know, you stupid hag! Where’d you get your degree from, a box of Cracker Jacks? I hope you burn in….” Or the endless “follow up” emails to ask if the agent is sure she didn’t mistake your submission with another or can you revise and resend. You can have a revision to them tomorrow.

      I’m amazed at how many agents do actually give a personal response.

      “As time goes on, agents will need to actively pursue authors more and more, rather than vice versa, and you will need to sell yourself to them.”

      I’m sorry, I laughed.

      • Rosemary says:

        No worries, Julie. Your comment brought to mind the old adage ~ He who laughs last laugh best. 😉

      • Samantha says:

        We already see agents seeking writers. If you are an established writer/agent, you will be sought by new (non-established) agents/writers. But, while a writer can have more than one agent, an agent almost certainly will represent more than one writer. Thus, as long as agents are needed, the balance of power will lean that way. There may indeed come a time when an agent is unnecessary to publish your book. But we all know the adage about a Doctor who treats himself, or a lawyer who represents herself in court. How would you monetize your work?

        • Samantha says:

          I am sorry. That last line should have been a separate bullet. The prior statement would be about objectivity.

  • Excellent list. Having at least a cursory knowledge of agent you are querying is only smart. Not knowing the agent you are signing on with is like having an arranged marriage. Who knows what you’re signing on for?

  • Rob Holliday says:

    Rachelle,

    This is a great list.

    I’m a bit baffled how #2 (submission guidelines) gets overlooked; those guidelines help me feel less nervous. In my eyes, those guidelines help me narrow down my list, especially if they are specific in genre and theme- the more specific the better. I hate to feel like I’m wasting others’ time.

    As Syliva said (waaaay up top), definitely a keeper list; it shall forever hold a place in my notebook of wisdom aka, stuff I’d forget that I really need to remember.

  • Donna K. Rice says:

    Thanks Rachelle! I’m gearing up for ACFW and this list was timely and helpful. It added a couple of things to my To Do List. Back to work… 🙂

  • Cindy Patterson says:

    I love your blog and always look forward to reading your helpful advice!! Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us:)

  • Thank you for the great advice, Rachelle! I always welcome constructive tips!

  • Awesome tips, Rachelle!

  • Lisa Evola says:

    Great tips Rachelle,
    I think that what we would like in a literary agent is simple….someone who is honest, but kind. Encouraging, but real. Helpful, but to the point. I must say, this has been the most difficult thing I have ever done!

  • Kelly Kuhn says:

    Thanks for another great post, Rachelle! I appreciate you taking the time to inspire and help writers!

  • Thank you so much for addressing my topic. I do read your blogs, and I do take the craft quite seriously. However, the task of landing an agent is daunting. Your list gives us dreamers hope.

  • #5 makes me want to quit writing, especially because it comes so far ahead of #10. I teach at a writing conference, and stupidly I teach writing rather than platform building. What a waste of time.

  • Rachelle I love the new writing-gig.
    A little less sniping by pseudo-experts would be nice.

    Kim, your actions, your story and project sound awesome. You were and are very brave. It’s a winner, go for it, good luck.

  • Evan Lorentz says:

    I respect that this is an honest representation of what you feel impresses an agent, but I must say find some of it off-putting. Point #5 is a great example. If I already had an impressive platform of people to sell my book to, why would I need an agent?

    To a lesser extent, some of these other points strike me the same way: like you’re saying that the perfect way to impress an an agent is by demonstrating that you don’t actually need an agent. Yes, some writers excel at selling their own work through public speaking, social media, and so forth. And I understand those writers would stand out from the rest of the class as “A students.” But to a large extent, isn’t that sort of thing exactly what the agent is for — to help the writer sell his book because his own salesmanship skills alone aren’t up to the task?

    To that end, I would say that the way an agent can impress a writer is to convey a sense that he’ll provide meaningful services and assistance to the writer. No one would want an agent that’s going to just do nothing, sit back, and take a percentage.

  • AFord says:

    A wealth of useful info in this insightful post. Thanks for sharing it. Like your wit and sense of humor exhibited with your initial thoughts on No.10

  • Rachael Dahl says:

    Not sure if I completely agree with the one about leaving comments on the agent’s blog, especially if they have a large amount of commentators. Obviously, I’m not against leaving comments, but I doubt they would remember your name unless you are constantly posting on their site.

  • April C Rose says:

    I’d like to add another thing. Even if you don’t like a particular genre, don’t make fun of it. I know most agents are very professional, but some aren’t.

    One of the agents I was following on posted a few months back a rather snide comment about the genre I write, which–being the overly sensitive person I am–I mistook as being directly aimed towards me. I mean, I know it’s not true; that agent has no clue who I am and I’m certain had no mal-intent. And I know her bio said that her tweets are her own and don’t represent her agency. But when a few more agents I was also following “favorited” her comment, I started to feel really small. I would have preferred to see a small blurb on their websites saying they didn’t want that genre than to learn of it from a not-so-nice tweet.

  • Jasmine Littlejohn says:

    I’ve been wanting to get involved with YouTube, I just have absolutely no idea where to start. I have spent some time trying to find comparable books for the story I’m writing (trying to write).

    From and agent – even if they end up not representing me – I would want them to present themselves as a person who is professional and helpful. I am young, but I really take writing seriously and I get scared no one else will take me seriously. That sounds way more cliched in writing. Anyway, if an agent doesn’t want to or can’t represent me I would love to see one refer me to someone who might help me. I haven’t done much research yet, but I’m not sure how many people would want to attempt to publish an incredibly dark romance-free modern fantasy murder thing. I wouldn’t pitch it like that of course. I think I’m rambling.

    These tips are quite helpful. My only curb is the vagueness of number one. I don’t know what makes my book unique becasue I haven’t looked to see what else is out there on a similar topic. I know what makes my characters unique. So I’m not too far behind. It would also be helpful to get some tips on how to build a platform. It’s not typically something a person can just sort of do.

    Great post. I’ll stop talking (writing) now.

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