Getting an agent

PGW has asked me to chat about agents this week, and I'm really glad to have the opportunity to do so. Getting an agent is the first stepping stone to getting published, so it's a pretty damn important topic.

My experience of finally getting an agent was not totally normal. I sent The Bone Season to just one agent and he signed me up within a few days. I was lucky, and I've never taken that luck for granted. I did, however, experience the whole process with Aurora. Writing to agents, getting rejected, trying again, getting a sparkle of interest but then losing it – I know how it feels.

The world of agents can be terrifying, especially to a new writer. I've been there, guys. Trying to get an agent on your side can be a frustrating, hair-pulling, heart-crushing process. Like banging on a door that will never open.You have to send an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) if you want your MS returned, which means double postage, and the first three chapters can make for a reasonably heavy package. So you're throwing cash at agents, giving them a glimpse of your work, and they're turning you down. It's shit. I can't think of any other word to describe how miserable it can make you feel.

So here's hoping I can help you out. There are a few sections to this blog post; do skip as appropriate.

  • What is an agent?
  • Rejection and waiting
  • The query letter
  • Sample query letter
  • What to do
  • What not to do

What is an agent?

A literary agent is someone who provides services to an author, most notably in representing their work to publishing houses and film/stage producers. They also protect an author's rights when their work goes to the publishing stage and beyond.

The agent takes his or her payment as commission – 15% is standard. So don't approach an agent and ask if they take credit cards.

Most publishing houses will not look at your work without a referral from an agent.

Rejection and waiting

There are a number of different responses you might receive from an agent. This guide is great in working out how to deal with each one. Most rejections are the standard rejection, which normally reads something like "Thank you for submitting your work. Unfortunately it's not right for our lists at this time", or similar. Basically "thanks, but no thanks". It's a polite response, but it still hurts like hell when you've poured years of your life into this novel. You might respond with anger, or even hatred towards the agent. You might think they're being hard-hearted or snobbish, or that you deserved a more personalised response to your manuscript. Agents would love to give that response – they just don't have the time.

When I first got rejections for Aurora, some people suggested persistence – the kind of persistence that involves sleeping outside the agent's office until you get a positive response. Don't do this. Agents do not appreciate being approached in person if they've rejected you. Only go to their office in person if they ask you to see them. You'll come across as intrusive and will not enamour them to your cause. There was a nasty incident recently when agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg was attacked by a rejected author. This was her comment on it:

"It's hard to be rejected – just as it's hard for agents to be rejected by publishers on the books we've acquired."

Agents are human, too. They didn't reject your manuscript to be nasty. They run a business and they have to keep it going. They also have to feel true passion for your book, or they won't be able to support you. Remember, they have to sell this book on your behalf, sometimes in more than one territory. You need your agent to be pretty damn obsessed with your work. That's why some agents will say "no" even if they liked your manuscript. They have to love it, not just like it.

I can't speak for all of them, but my agent, David, is a great guy. He's supportive, welcoming and works extremely hard for his clients. His agency, DGA, receives several manuscripts every day. That's a big stack by the end of the week. Inevitably they go on the dreaded slush pile, a kind of limbo for the humble manuscript. I was on slush pile duty a few times during my internship, although I never made decisions by myself about whether to accept or reject – most agencies will have a staff member assigned as their "reader", who will go through every query when they get a moment. Different agencies work at different rates, but the average agent will be flooded with queries and may not have enough staff to get through them. That's why the waiting time can be 6 weeks or more.

Of course, you guys know this. You've read it everywhere and you appreciate that agents are busy, but you still want an answer. So how do you make them want to read more?

The query letter

All agents require you to write a query letter, usually accompanied by 1-3 chapters of your manuscript, when you approach them. Some agents accept email queries; others want a hard copy. Play by their rules and you're one step closer to being in their good books.

At David's agency I read several queries, but one really stuck in my mind. The author offered me a packet of digestive biscuits if I'd take a look at his manuscript. I was intrigued and read it. It was a hilarious book. It wasn't David's cup of tea, so I had to let the author down, but I let him know how much I'd loved it. He thanked me for reading and emailed me a few days later to update me on the MS. He ended up getting invited to the US by an agency there, so here's hoping he did well.

Quirky queries don't always work. Depends what you call "quirky". Some queries were downright creepy – I'll never forget the Cambridge student who included an A4 picture of his face as his query letter. Don't try to stand out by writing from a character's perspective or writing in Pig Latin or terza rima. It's usually best to play it safe. I just discovered a Tumblr called SlushPile Hell, which shows some of the more creepy methods of querying that you should absolutely, definitely avoid.

Sample query letter

I didn't actually write a letter to David for The Bone Season – I just emailed him with the manuscript and asked if he'd mind checking it out. That was because I already knew him and the need for formality was gone. I do, however, have my old query letter for Aurora. This might seem a bit useless, as I never got an agent for Aurora, but I did get some positive responses (i.e. "yes, I'd like to see a bit more"). So here's the skeleton of a half-decent query.

Dear [agent's title and surname],

My name is [name]. I'm a [profession] from [place] and currently work for [company].

For the last [number of years] I've been working on a [genre] novel called [title]. It follows [protagonist], [something about the protagonist], as she [something the character does]. The novel is set in [year/time period] and is [word count] long.

I attach the first three chapters and a short synopsis for your consideration.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name]

It's short, polite, and gives the necessary info about the book. VoilĂ . Do include any interesting, relevant information about how you came to write it.

What to do

1. Do read the submission guidelines. They might be different for each agent. Some agents want email submissions, some don't take sci-fi or fantasy. Don't start your email by saying "I know you don't take romance novels, but you'll change your mind about mine".

2. Do be confident. Not arrogant. Confident. Don't lick the agent's boots in your query, or sound depressed because of previous queries (i.e. don't start by saying "You'll probably hate this" or "It's not very good"). Don't sound obsessed. Don't blow your own trumpet. Go for CCC: Calm, Confident and Courteous. It will do wonders.

3. Do give information about the book – but not too much. Don't go on. State the title, the word count, the genre, and give a short synopsis. Most agents will ask you to include a page-long synopsis as an attachment, in any case.

4. Do give information about yourself – but again, not too much. Your occupation, how you came to write the book, and where you live should suffice. It shouldn't take up more than 1-2 sentences.

5. Do be unique. Don't, for example, say "I know Stephenie Meyer's books are really popular so I've written a book about a girl falling in love with a vampire". You can use an author as a comparison point, but it should be phrased more like "I hope this will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer". Books do get published because they fit a popular genre – tonnes of vampire romances have appeared since Twilight – but saying that you wrote it because of that isn't likely to thrill an agent. If you are writing within a popular genre, make it clear why it differs from other books.

6. Do be polite. Don't use the agent's first name – you're not their friend and it's not professional. On the flip side, don't just say "Dear Agent" or "Dear Sir/Madam". Use their title and surname.

What not to do

1. Don't submit more than one piece of work at a time. Remember, agents are short on time. Just submit your magnum opus.

2. Don't act like you're God's gift to literature. You'll come across as arrogant and demanding. The agent will assume you need an ego check and is unlikely to want to work with you. The same applies to comparing your work to literary giants like Shakespeare and James Joyce.

3. Don't do a standard "one size fits all" query letter. All agents are different. Just including their name shows you've made an effort. Try and show some knowledge of the agent's client list and suggest why your work might be a good fit.

4. Don't be defensive. Agents are not going to steal your work, and most will raise their heckles if you assume they will. You don't need to apply for copyright at this stage. Under the terms of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, you have automatic copyright over your work. So don't panic!

5. Don't ask the agent to give you advice. That's a job for manuscript appraisal services or a hired editor, not the agent. Also, don't ask them what you should write. It's tempting to discover what the market wants, but you can do that yourself – just check out the bookshelves.

6. Don't get angry. Ever. It won't help.

7. Don't query before you're finished. Books have occasionally been bought on the strength of the first few chapters, but it's rare. If the agent asks to see your full MS and it's not complete, they're not going to be happy.

Agents and publishers take huge risks on behalf of authors. A vast number of books make a loss, but they still get published because their publisher – and their agent – thought their story deserved to be heard. They do it for passion as well as profit. They're not all smug, money-grubbing, literary hygiene machines. They've chosen to work with books because they love books. You just have to make them love yours.

A final note: it is hard to get an agent, and sometimes it's just about luck. You might have written a fantastic book, but the agent can't see any way to market it – or maybe you're just querying the wrong agents. Keep sending. Never stop trying. And do not give up at the first hurdle.


  1. Fantastic post :) Hopefully I'll get to use your advice some day soon.

  2. Really great post Samantha :-) We can't wait to hear more about your first book, any idea when we might get some more info??

  3. Lovely post. Generally uplifting. A while back someone linked me to this. Thought you may enjoy it.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write this great post. I took a look at the SlushPile Hell link and was quite shocked!

    1. I know, some of the stuff on there is crazy...

  5. This is lovely! And interesting. In Finland the system is a bit different: here we send the manuscript straight to the publishing house and they will read it there. And the waiting time is longer, usually about six months.

    1. Oh, wow, six months? That's crazy. I think I'd go nuts if a manuscript was gone for that long...

    2. Yeah, that's really crazy. I'm a bit terrified how I'm going to survive :D

      I just wrote a post about you in Finnish and shared it on facebook ;) Now writing the same in English so you can read it too :)

    3. Here's the link! :)

    4. I just read it! Thank you so much. It really made my day to read that. I'm so thrilled to have inspired you, that's what this blog is all about! You inspire me just as much in return by reading and staying tuned :)

      And wow, very impressed that you were 11 when you had your big idea...


    5. I'm so glad it made you happy! I'll let you know when I write in English next time :)

  6. I really loved this blog, i've been reading your posts since the very beginning, can't tell you how much i found them helpful and useful, i'll be finishing my novel very soon so this post came just in time, thank you for sharing with us your incredibble journey, all the best for you dear.

    1. I'm so glad they've helped you! Good luck with your novel :)


  7. Thanks, this is great advice! Interesting to hear a bit more of your back story as well.

  8. I have another question - sorry, you must be sick of me by now! I'm curious as to how you plan and structure your writing.
    1. What form does your planning take, and how detailed are your plans?
    2. Do you only start writing once you know exactly where you're going, beat for beat, or is there any element of making it up as you go along?
    3. Has your planning process changed since writing the first instalment of the Bone Season?

    1. I'm not sick of you at all! I love questions. I'll answer those in my next blog. x


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