Ask a Literary Agent

I attended Comic-Con this past weekend, and I had the opportunity to attend a panel hosted by three literary agents, all who work for KT Literary. The entire panel was an opportunity to ask them questions related to the process of querying an agent, what an agent does for their clients and their advice on various elements in the process of becoming published. I thought I would share some of those insights they shared. I have blogged before about my frustration on the amount of inconsistent advice, and it was nice to hear directly from agents about what they are looking for in a query.

Role of an Agent

The agent’s primary role is to make money for their client (and for themselves and the agency). This is one reason why agents only choose to represent novels and authors they feel have the best chance at being a success. Agents must be aware of industry trends when they select which novels to represent. Then they will help the author present the novel in it’s best possible light, in some cases suggesting to make additional edits or changes before submitting the manuscript to publishers. This does not mean an agent takes on the role of editor, but if there are any glaring areas that need to be revised, they may suggest a rewrite.

Once the agent feels the manuscript is in a solid, marketable state, they must begin to shop it around to appropriate publishing houses. Having an agent doesn’t guarantee a publishing contract, but it’s in the agent’s best interest to find an interested publisher. They need your novel to sell as much as you do. Once a contract has been secured, agreed upon, and signed, then the agent must stay on top of all any advance the author is offered, stay on top of sales and royalties, and generally make sure that both they and the author get paid.

Query Letters

When querying an agent, a cover letter must always be included. There is a lot of conflicting advice in regards to query letters online, but after having sent out 83 queries myself (and having revised my own query letter over a half-dozen times now), I’m starting to figure out what does and does not make a good letter. The Writer’s Digest article on the Top 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter is an excellent place to start.

Some of the advice that KT Literary shared reinforces the Writer’s Digest article, although they did give some additional insights regarding what they are looking for as agents.

  1. Make sure your query letter includes your protagonists, the challenges they face, and the stakes they are up against. Make the agent care about these characters (in 250 words or less).
  2. If you receive a rejection, do not re-query unless you have made significant changes to your manuscript.
  3. If you do re-query, never mention your past query or rejection.
  4. If you are writing a series, only mention it as a “proposed” series, even if you have written the entire series. Only query the first novel.
  5. Do not mention self-published works unless you have sold 20,000 copies or more.
  6. Include your comparables. Which novels was your novel inspired by or include similar themes to yours?
  7. Do not mention your subplot, except in passing. (For example, with my novel The Artifacts of Truth is a 134,500-word adult science fiction novel, that includes a queer romance subplot.)
  8. Always mention your target audience/age. Such as children’s, middle-grade, YA, NA, or adult. (Adult does not mean porn!)

Additional Advice

Beyond what should (or shouldn’t) be included in a query letter, KT Literary also had some additional points of advice that I found valuable.

  1. Read several, current, debut novels in your preferred genre, to get a feel for current trends. This doesn’t mean you should be writing to the trend, just be aware of them.
  2. If you write sci-fi/fantasy, self-publishing will only expose you to about 18-20% of your target audience. The same goes for most other genres. Erotica/romance is the only exception.
  3. Never, ever sign a contract with an agent or “publisher” that charges for services. Legit publishers offer those for free (editing, formatting, cover design), and most traditional publishers still pay authors an advance.
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