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

  • Elke Feuer says:

    Hi Rachelle,

    Great post! This comes at a great time as I’m about to pitch to an agent and would’ve left out important points about myself. Thanks for that.

    The biggest thing for me is to make the services you provide as a literary agent clear. Not all agents have the necessary s or experience in say foreign or film rights. It would be good to know that ahead of time so no ones time is wasted.

    Knowing if an agent is interested in building careers and not just selling books is another important one for me.

  • Ashley Brooke says:

    I came across an advertisement for this site while on Facebook and thought, “Hmm I haven’t spent much time recently trying to do anything with those 383 pages I wrote last year. What is this about?” I feel like I’ve all but given up on trying to find an agent for my first novel. I was so proud of myself for completing it over a year ago, but after spending so much time writing agents just to receive rejections or no response (and it may have been even worse after two agents asked to see the whole manuscript and then decided against it), I started to seriously assume my book must just be crap and maybe I’m a crap writer. (But I’ve seen some of the work that DOES get published, and I am fairly confident there is a strong market for crap writers and their corresponding crap readers. Just saying.)

    I do realize that people are dealing with this every day and even some phenomenal books (that I can’t even pretend to compare my work to) were at first rejected many times. But after reading this post, which I am sure is truly great advice, I don’t understand what the point of working so hard to find an agent even is. If you have to first build your own giant network and create a worldwide presence to even get an agent to NOTICE you, then why are you bothering? If you have that kind of network, and will have to do your own self promotion anyway, why can’t you sell yourself? Isn’t the reason for a traditional publishing house to GAIN that kind of network? I guess this was just even more discouraging. How would you have followers when you aren’t published? “Hi, I’m Ashley and I think I’m a decent writer. Follow me because one day I may have something available for you to read.” “Hello, here I am speaking at a conference of… my own living room because I don’t have anything published and therefore do not have anyone to read to.” It’s sort of like when you get out of college and no one will hire you because you don’t have experience and you cannot get experience because no one will hire you.

    OK, depressing rant over. I’m gonna go eat some chocolate now.

    Does playing the piano mediocrely and singing along mediocrely count as a YouTube presence? I get a few views here and there….

    http://www.youtube.com/my_videos?o=U

    • Jon says:

      Ashley, in answer to your question “How would you have followers when you aren’t published?”, have you investigated the thousands of blogs, websites, FB pages, Twitter feeds etc. etc. currently in use by unpublished authors? I started blogging a year ago, am not yet published and have a decent following.

      It’s important to start building an audience before you’re published, otherwise your newly-published work runs the risk of languishing on the shelves while you go about publicising it. Building an audience from scratch takes time and the unfortunate truth these days is that a publisher will expect you to do much of that work (if not all) yourself. The way to gain followers pre-publishing is to offer insights into your writing journey, challenges, successes. You’d be surprised how much camaraderie and empathy is out there.

      It is, of course, more difficult to build a following of pure readers (although writers are readers too…) but as a writer you’ll already have content you can use to entice readers to your platform. Give them snippets of your writing, before-and-after edits, short new pieces not connected to your main work…

      Hope that’s of some help.

      • Michelle Joseph says:

        Thank you, Jon that actually answered my question as well. I have much material to build a blog and a website about my book, but I was not sure if I should begin building a media platform without a book in hand. This is very informative.

  • Katie says:

    Lots of good tips in this post and inspiration. I definitely need to come back and re-read it.

    Thanks Rachelle!

  • Sandra says:

    These are great points — some are obvious and I hope most of us writers out here would know them already, but the new world of social media is untested ground for me. I’ve only recently set up a account — I would never have thought to comment on an agent’s page until I read your blog. I’ve been following agents to see what they are commenting on, following others who are publishing books that I read or are in the same genre I am writing. As a writer looking for helpful insight from the agent’s side of the book, I find your blogs particularly helpful and am always glad to see your name pop up in my email box. Thanks, Rachelle, for taking the time to reach out to us.

  • cjoy says:

    Excellent tips! Thank you!
    (And I promise not to tell the other agents you broke the code…)

  • Michelle Joseph says:

    Great post, love # 13, but I have a question about # 4. How do how do you have media presence with no book. I can understand having a blog, a You Tube presence, and a website, but how do you convince people about a book they can’t buy? From what I gather it could be 6 months to 2 years before you have a book in hand.

  • Claire Cooper says:

    Really helpful list and I loved the comment about persistence being more important than talent. I once thought that actually writing something novel-length that told an interesting story in a competent way was going to be the challenge – having just completed my first draft, I felt pleased with myself for a whole thirty seconds before realising the error of my ways!

  • MartiC says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these recommendations. I will follow them to the “T” when it is my turn to look for an agent. So very helpful.

  • Cindy Brown says:

    How can agents impress writers? Great question, agent Rachelle.

    Pick a blog post, any blog post (of mine, of course). Show me the money. In other words, sell it for me. Then, promote the crap out of it and me and pique the world’s interest in my brand of life humor and inspirational writing, thus growing my following before you even sign me on as a client.

    If an agent shows me that he/she is capable of selling just one of my random blog posts and that he/she believes in me enough to promote me without yet taking a cut, I would consider that proof positive that they could be a benefit to my career and that I should strongly consider allowing them to represent me. If they can detect success in me as a writer just based on my blog posts, they will have confidence that my future books will be stellar best-sellers.

    Then, we’ll be ready to rock.

    • April C Rose says:

      Here’s my disclaimer: I really don’t want to cause an issue or anything like that, but here’s my take on this:

      The idea of having an agent sell something for free is like asking me to spend hours upon hours to write a quality book, then ask me to give it to everyone. It’s that friend of mine who said, “When you publish your novel, I’ll read it…if you give me a copy.” The biggest difference here is that I have a day job, so if I gave my book away I’d still pay the mortgage. If the agent gives away her services for free, how’s she going to feed her kids? Agenting is her day job.

      And let’s face it–writers don’t get paid much and agents get paid even less. Let’s just say the writer manages to publish 4 books a year (wow), and that each of those books makes $10,000. The agent pulls in 15% of that, so the agent really only makes $6000, and then the agent pays about 20% in taxes, so that’s only $4800, or 4 months of mortgage payments: on 4 books! So that’s saying for each book an agent sells, she can keep her house for another month.

      I mean, my numbers are probably wrong, but you get the point. Agents have to live too. If we don’t want to give up our hard-worked books for free (and many of us can because we have day jobs), why should an agent give up her hard-worked sell for free? She’s not going to buy a mansion in California with what she makes from selling our books because most of us aren’t going to be better than bestsellers. Shouldn’t she get paid for the work she does?

      • Cindy Brown says:

        LOL, I’m sorry. I forgot to introduce myself as a humor writer! That response was a bit tongue in cheek. I never would expect that out of an agent. The question was, “How can agents impress writers?” I answered honestly. That kind of above and beyond would surely impress me!

        I am reading a lot of Jack Canfield right now. He says many wonderful things, but one of them is that you can dream a big dream just as easily as you can dream a little dream. Rachelle’s question allowed me to dream big and I thought, “Okay, what would my dream agent do to truly impress me?”

        Sorry if you were offended. That was not my intent.

        May I note that some people, however, DO go above and beyond just because they are darn good people and they have the big picture in mind, not short-term temporary gains. I understand that we all have to make a living, but when I used to do freelance graphics, I would tell new clients that if they wanted to give me a try and they didn’t care for my work on the first job, they didn’t have to pay me. I felt that was a way I could impress upon my clients that good work deserves good pay, but if they aren’t satisfied, I am not going to waste their money.

        Steven Covey would call that a win-win. I nearly always got paid full price :0)

  • Anne B. says:

    Um…if you don’t want that chocolate, maybe you could send it my way. And where does one learn the secret handshake?
    Ha! just kidding. Thanks for the great article. All really great advice, (except for the video thing geesh, could I get a stand in?)

  • Christine Hammond says:

    I wonder if more people would buy books if they came with a piece of chocolate… Thanks for the helpful hints on writing a query. I’ve read so many of your posts that it feels like we have been talking for the last couple of hours. Blessings.

  • Teri McDevitt Orlando says:

    Wow! I know by the comments that some may find fault in your list, but I used #9 right out the gate and marked off an agent from visiting his/her blog! I knew my book had some controversial subjects and threw the “F” bomb around, so I knew by reading a few of her blogs, that it probably wouldn’t work out.

    BTW, I’m reinstating the crossed out #10 and putting it as #14. MORE CHOCOLATE!! LOL

    Thank you for taking the time to help out us “newbies.” It is clear you love your work and are willing to be a mentor and role model to others.

    I’m starting a list of role models. You will be #1.

    Ciao!!

  • Kiercy Collins says:

    Really love the tips but I am sixteen and want to get my book published should I be concerned that an agent may not take me seriously because of my age?

  • Carlos Rodriguez says:

    Excellent post, I think all the numbers are very important, and you can’t miss any. I think an agent can impress me on the solidity of her background, but even more if they reply even when the result is negative, as this can make you improve as a writer. Once you’d searched for your correct niche, made your homework by creating audience, social media and self webpage it is time for agents to impress us. Thank you Rachelle for your guidance in this posts, I’ll be really aware of them when in search of the accurate agent. 😉

    • Heather van der Hoop says:

      Good luck in your search for an agent, Carlos! Keep an eye on TWL — we have more posts from agents coming up.

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • becky bartholomew says:

    What does the publisher do? I mean, if the author does the conception, writing, marketing, networking, platform creation, speaking, tweeting, blogging, fan mail answering, and coming up with the next book, why would s/he give a publisher 90% of the book price???

    • Heather van der Hoop says:

      Great question, Becky — it’s one that has inspired many authors to experiment with self-publishing.

      To each their own — some authors love the freedom of self-publishing, while others enjoy the benefits of traditional publishing, and still more use a hybrid model. Chuck Wendig, over at Terribleminds, has some great posts on the pros and cons of the different publishing options (though some of the language is colorful).

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • E liquid flavours says:

    Such a great blog ….i visisted too many websites n blog …but not satisfied … but when i see your blog … i relalize that your contain is informative

  • Michael Jude says:

    I wrote an small, VERY obscure book in 1990 that never made it into the public domain but somehow that did not stop the History Channel, Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, various documentaries, television shows, a certain mathematical physicist and a certain particle physicist from taking my theories and running with them

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