Jennifer Goloboy is a literary agent at Red Sofa Literary in St. Paul, MN. She has a PhD in the history of American civilization from Harvard University, and has published articles on merchants and the early American middle class. Her book, Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era, was published by University of Georgia Press on October 10.
As an agent and historian, I’m here to explain the process of finding an agent. Don’t worry—you can do this!
Before you initiate contact with agents, you need to collect the materials that an agent will likely request. If you’ve written a novel, you need to have the manuscript completely finished. Many agents will also want to read a synopsis of the novel. On the other hand, if you’ve written a work of non-fiction, all you’ll need are a book proposal and the first three chapters. The book proposal will compare your book to other books in the field, explain your plans for marketing the book, and outline the full manuscript. (You might consider writing a proposal for your novel, too—it never hurts to have a well-thought-out plan for publicizing your book.)
Then you need to write a query letter, which is the standard letter that you’ll send to all the agents who interest you. The information I particularly need to see is
- The genre of the book, and its length (if unfinished, its projected length)
- What the book is about.
- Your bio, with a focus on why you’re qualified to write this book.
Remember, the goal in this letter is to entice an agent to request more material from you. You don’t need to explain the entire book.
Writing a good query letter is difficult—the best ones have been revised into the appearance of spontaneity. As you write, I want you to picture a bleary-eyed agent, reading your query letter at 8 am over a cup of coffee. Make your writing clear and compelling. Show why your book needs to exist. Some agents like it when you personalize each letter for them—it’s less important for me, but I do like it when it’s clear that an author has read a book I represented.
Things to avoid in a query letter:
- Really long query letters.
- Query letters that are more about the author than the project.
- Tiny fonts (ow ow ow)
- Query letters that never quite say what the book is about
- Query letters sent as attachments
- Query letters sent in a format that the agent doesn’t want (via mail rather than email)
If you’ve written a clear, engaging query letter, then you’ve done the best you can to advocate for your project.
Now, you need a list of agents to query! Here is the good news: there are a lot of us. You might use one of the printed guides to agents as a place to start, but remember these guides have a considerable lead time, and things may have changed since publication. If you want to see which agents have been selling books in the area that interests you, check out Publishers Marketplace (there is a fee, unfortunately). Query Tracker is a useful, free database of agents. The Manuscript Wish List automatically collects requests for manuscripts that agents have put on Twitter with the hashtag #mswl. Remember to check the date on these requests—I’ve had writers contact me about requests I issued years ago and have long since filled.
Make a big list of agents—say fifty. I recommend sending out your query letter in small batches of around ten to test how appealing it is to an agent. As you did when applying to colleges, consider a range of (legitimate) agents, including some who would be reaches—the bigwigs often pass queries they like to their smart young assistants. Unfortunately, at this stage of the game, no agent has the time to tell you why they didn’t like your query. I often reject books that seem perfectly lovely but are either too far outside what I represent or are too similar to something I already represent.
That’s why you’re going to query a group of agents. If you’re getting no requests, then you might need to either rethink your query letter or your project. It may simply be that your project is not a good fit for the commercial marketplace, and might do better at an academic press. Or you might need to rethink the length of your project (very few publishers want a 50,000 word adult novel, for example). Or your issues might be more complicated than that—in this case, you might need to reach out to other writers you trust for a fresh point of view on your work.
One issue in particular challenges historians who write novels. I recently heard a novelist, Steven Brust, argue that the secret to writing a good novel is to have a question at the center that you can’t answer. This is antithetical to the way we write history—we must answer all the questions we pose, even with the knowledge that the next generation of historians will prove us wrong. Before querying a novel, a historian must make sure they’ve transitioned to a novelist’s mindset. Otherwise the novel will turn out uncomfortably didactic.
As you send out your first batch of query letters, you will undoubtedly wonder if this will work. Would it help, you might wonder, to attend some kind of conference where you can meet agents in person? I go to writers’ conferences, but though I’ve found clients there, I see my primary role as educational. If I’ve met you at a conference, I will take more time to explain why your project isn’t a good fit, or how you can better refine your pitch. Most of my clients are people who sent me a really interesting query letter, rather than people I met at conferences. (That said, I’ll be at SHEAR in Philadelphia this summer—feel free to track me down and ask me questions.)
You should avoid anyone who charges a fee to query agents for you, websites that host query letters for a fee, people who claim that a pre-designed cover will make your book more enticing to agents, or agents who want to charge you money for services. These are all scams: run, run like the wind.
One last piece of advice—all of this will take much, much longer than seems reasonable, and much, much longer than you would like. It has nothing to do with the worth of your project, or—more importantly—your personal worth. It’s just due to the fact that all good agents prioritize their current clients before their prospective ones.
And good luck! Feel free to ask me questions in the comments—I’ll be checking back in regularly.