Unless you are self-publishing your book, one of the most important steps in your journey to a published book is to attract the attention of the right literary agent. A well-written book proposal stored on your hard drive doesn’t do anyone any good. You need someone to help you with the birthing process of your first book.
Agents and midwives
Choosing a literary agent to represent your first book is similar to choosing a midwife for the birth of your first child. For example:
- You don’t know where to look.
- You don’t know what you’re looking for.
- You want someone with credentials and experience, yet you also want someone with whom you feel instant confidence, rapport, and trust.
That’s quite a list!
As in so many other areas of publishing, there’s an “old way” and a “new way.”
The “old way” of locating a literary agent
Until recently, the starting point for most authors was to buy one of the guides to literary agents that were published each year. These guides contained listings of agents, contact information, and areas of specialization.
After reviewing the hundreds, if not thousands, of agency profiles, authors would prepare and send query letters to agents chosen from the profiles.
The problem, of course, that immediately comes to mind, is “How do you choose the agents you’re going to contact?” You can’t really afford to send query letters- -let alone, complete proposals- -to every agent, and “cold-calling” on the telephone is not recommended unless agents specifically invite telephone calls. So, what is the criteria you’re going to use in making your decision?
On the surface, you could choose literary agencies based on their size, (“small is good” versus “a large agency with clout.”) Or, you could choose agents based on their location, (“I want a New York City agency!), or books previously represented, (fiction versus non-fiction, areas of specialization, or best-sellers you may recognize).
Even if you make the right selection, the “guide” approach puts a premium on your direct-response letter-writing skills, and your ability to craft a letter that engages the agent’s attention and convinces to read further in the first sentence. Basically, your experiences and your potential have to be boiled down to a 10 or 30 word “hook” intended to get their permission to send them your book proposal.
Another problem is the volume of query letters sent to agents listed in the yearly guides. It’s not only hard to boil a book down to 3 or 4 paragraphs, it’s even harder to make your query letter stand out from the 10, 25, or 100 letters that might be arriving the same week as yours.
Plus, who is reading your query letters? Is it an agency principal, or is it a newly-hired intern who is hired to select a couple of query letters each day from the pile that grows a little deeper each day?
It can be done; the old way does work, and numerous first-time nonfiction authors do it every day. But, thankfully, there is a better way, a new way.
Improving on the “old way”
I’ve never been a fan of the “shotgun approach” to attracting a literary agent. It doesn’t offer potential authors enough control or likelihood of success. The competition is too great, it puts a premium on skills that might not play to your strengths, and- -basically- -the odds are stacked against you.
A refinement of the “old way” approach that slightly improves your chances of success involves attending writing conferences, where you are likely to get “face time” with potential agents. While chatting with presenters and attendees between sessions and during networking events, you might find yourself talking to an agent or publisher who might be the perfect “midwife” for your book.
A variation to this is to seek out events where there are “pitchfests” where authors get a chance to present and defend their proposal to several agents as part of the program.
The down side of pitchfests is that they’re usually time-limited, you need nerves of steel, they place you in direct competition with others, and you have to deal with conference, lodging, and travel costs- -which can quickly mount up.
Branding: the “new way” authors attract agents
The “new way” of locating a literary agent reverses the whole process: instead of authors seeking agents, it’s based on agents using the Internet to seek authors!
The Internet- -blogs, search engines, and social media make it feasible for authors to attract agents the same way authors attract readers!
The first time I became aware of the power of the Internet to facilitate getting published was when I interviewed David Meerman Scott, the author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR. In his book and interview, David described how his book’s success was driven by blogging about it and allowing readers to download chapters for free.
Since then, for Published & Profitable, I’ve interviewed numerous other first-time authors, such as Gar Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen and others whose first books emerged from out of nowhere as highly-successful business books because of the author’s blogging activities.
During my interview with Gar Reynolds, for example, it turned out he wasn’t necessarily going to write a book, his immediate goal was to develop and share his presentation philosophy with others through his blog.
His passion-driven blog created his market and- -in doing so- -not only validated the need for a book, but attracted agents and publishers who were looking for fresh book ideas!
The key words, of course, are “agents looking for books”
And, in a nutshell, that’s what the new way is all about, and that’s the power of blogs like this which has already served as the launch pad for several successful books, as continues to do for new authors. You can visit Rajesh Setty’s Blogtastic Project for an insider’s look at the “new way” in action.
So, there’s a new way to attract a literary agent in the Web 2.0 world. Instead of going hat-in-hand to agents, doing exactly what tens of thousands of other authors are doing, you can attract agents to you by creating a blog with a title that creates a brand, and posting helpful, relevant, and useful at frequent interviews.
Do your job right, and be ready for the day you receive an e-mail or blog post comment from an agent, or publisher, who is looking for a fresh perspective on your topic and is impressed by your blog.
Resources, old and new
Here are several books describing “old way” approaches to attracting a literary agent through query letters:
- Burt-Thomas, Wendy. The Writers Digest Guide To Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas. Excellent, friendly, balance of information and style.
- Herman, Jeff. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, 2010. 20th Edition.
- Lukeman, Noah. How to Write a Great Query Letter: Insider Tips and Techniques for Success. A bargain for Kindle users.
- Wood, John. How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters.
There’s finally a new and better way to attract a literary agent- -and I find it pretty exciting. No longer is agent acquisition a “blind numbers game” based on spending your time crafting 3 or 4-paragraph query letters sent to randomly-chosen recipients and waiting for an expression of interest. Instead, you can focus on developing and sharing your ideas, knowing that properly-managed content is its own reward, helping you attract literary agents who are searching for you!
—Roger C. Parker helps others write books that build brands. He’s written over 30 books, offers do-it-yourself resources at Published & Profitable, and shares writing tips each weekday. His latest book is Title Tweet! 140 Bite-Sized Ideas for Article, Book, and Event Titles