The Diary of an Unpublished Author #7 (or how to apply for literary agents)

Dear Diary,

It’s coming to that time of year again.

Nope, I’m not talking about mince pies and Christmas lights and terrible but wonderful festive films. (Although, yes that is true too. Can we talk about how great Arthur Christmas is for a minute?!)

I’m talking about the time of year where I bear my soul on a platter and present it to a host of snooty strangers, sorry literary agents, and ask them to help me publish my book. Gulp.

Yes, that’s right. It’s been several months since I have submitted to any literary agents, and in the interests of chronicling my literary journey here on Forever on a Lilo, I thought it was about time to share my woes and worries as I embark upon another round of receiving regular rejections.

So, I hear you ask, how exactly do you go about applying to literary agents, and how exactly do you make your work stand out? Well, I mean I’m very well-versed in the first, but not so much in the second…

First thing’s first: why am I applying to literary agents and not directly to publishing houses? Well, unfortunately, my dream of an easy and assured rise to fame directly through Penguin, or Bloomsbury, etc., etc. has long since been dashed since I found out that most publishers don’t actually accept unsolicited manuscripts. That means you have to go through the middle man: the agent.

The most important thing is to make sure you’re applying to the right sort of agents. Each agency has their specialisms and each agent has their particular likes and dislikes. They might be looking for an exciting YA dystopian book, in which case your 200,000 word masterpiece on the French Revolution might not be completely suitable. Or they might be looking for women’s fiction, or children’s fiction, not science fiction, or crime. As boring as it sounds, you must do your research and make sure you’re not wasting your time by applying to agents who aren’t even going to look past the first line of your cover letter.

There’s a great website I’ve been using which you can find here – it summarises all the agencies, their agents, and the genres they are currently seeking. Definitely go to the agency’s website to ensure that information is correct, and definitely make sure you’ve researched which agents are seeking which genres specifically, and address your work to that particular agent. Lots of agencies ask that you pick one specific agent and direct your letter/email to them – so make sure that you’ve chosen the right person to read your work!

Now, you’ve got the agency and you’ve found the agent. Let’s assume that your novel is completely finished and that you’ve redrafted it many times. You need to make sure that it’s the best it can be, and that the first couple of chapters especially are sparkling. You will be sending in a sample of your work and the manuscript should only be up to 50 pages – in some cases it’s even less. That means that these 50 pages need to be full of the best possible words in the best possible order. Get your friends and family to read through the first chapter and tell them to be honest. How are you introducing them to your world and your characters? Is it too much/too little? Do they want to read more? Is the style consistent and in keeping with the themes? Get them to ask questions and to poke and prod at it, until you think that you can do no more.

That’s when you need to write a synopsis.

I’ve complained about this before, but writing a synopsis is a really, truly disgusting thing to do. There’s something soul-splitting about having to summarise the entirety of your book in just a page, a couple hundred words, or for those really evil agencies – a paragraph. Each agency is different, although the usual is an A4 page, so make sure you’ve edited and redrafted your synopsis as much as possible. Agents want a general summary of events and character arcs, not the subtle nuances and five million plot lines, so try and keep it simple, but on brand with the themes and main points of your book.

And finally: the cover letter. Some agents also call it the query letter, which is confusing, but it’s all much the same. You need to address an agent, tell them who you are, and tell them that you want them to publish your book. You’ll probably need a short synopsis, maybe some biographical information, and a general summary of why your book deserves to be published, but different agencies ask for different things, so make sure you’ve checked exactly what they want. It may be mundane, but you really need to jump through all of of the hoops to even get a look in, so I think it’s very important to spend time and care over your applications. Think of it like the cover of your unpublished book – you want it to be the best it can be to entice people to read it – so that they can see how great it is on the inside.

And with that you’re ready! Just like job applications, you’re probably going to have to pretend that you’re not applying for multiple agents at the same time (although of course you are), and you’ll need to express a genuine interest in that particular agency. But, at the end of the day, your work will do the talking and hopefully one day you’ll be lucky enough to get a yes…

Cue a confetti cannon, balloons dropping from the sky, birds in the sky doing somersaults in your honour… Ok, perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself, and perhaps I’m also not the best person to be listening to on this subject. Hello, it’s called The Diary of an Unpublished Author, not The Diary of a Highly Successful and Rich and Famous Author. But still, I’ve made enough applications in my time, and I’ve received a few encouraging comments (albeit gift wrapping rejections).

I truly believe that it’s a matter of time and space colliding at the right time, and of believing that somewhere out there is somebody who has been waiting for your book. That may be called being terribly naive and foolish, but it also might be called being terribly brave and ambitious.

It’s up to you.

I’m off to send a few applications, are you?




One comment

  1. This seems both daunting and exciting at the same time. Thank you for sharing this! I enjoyed reading it.

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