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Getting a literary agent is the first and most important stage of getting your book published but they're often not known about widely. Publishing houses rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts and more often than not prefer to get their submissions from a trusted agent.
The world of literary agents can be baffling and it's important to do your research. This is a long standing relationship and it's one that both sides want to enjoy! Look for the agency that represents books you'd read, books you'd recommend, books like the one you're writing.
Below are a few tips to help you in your quest for publication:
1. Nail that cover letter!
This ideally is no longer than one typed A4 page — don't go on or waffle. Be concise and say exactly what you need to. Agents read so many of these it's important to get their attention from the first line. Research the agent you're sending to (and always send to a specific person, not just the agency in general — don't send to "Dear Sirs!") — what does that agent like, what do they read for pleasure, what have they sold, who do they represent? Engage with what they're doing! A standardised letter of submission is never as good as a personlised one.
2. The writing needs to be great.
This may seem obvious but it's important. Have someone read your work, someone that won't tell you what you want to hear. Criticism is hard to hear but if you're not ready to be criticised, you're not ready for an agent. Make sure your submission chapters are the best that they can be!
3. Submission Guidelines
Each agency is different and they may ask for different things. Make sure you take note of that! If an agent wants the first three chapters, double spaced etc. then send exactly that. Don't give them any reason to not give your work their attention.
4. Be patient!
This process is long and you will have to wait at each stage. It's frustrating but the agent has a lot to read and they will get back to you as soon as they can. If after a few weeks you've not heard (check their submission guidelines for how long they suggest) then give them a gentle chase. A few days after submission is too soon and calling the agency several times won't help you in the long run.
5. Meet Agents
If you're lucky to get some interest from a few agents be sure to meet them. This is a relationship and you need to be sure the agent you pick is someone you get along with, someone you trust to fight in your corner. Make your choice based on the person, not the roster of clients they already have. Also keep in mind that a meeting does not mean an offer of representation — the agent might want you to do more work, suss out if you'd have a good relationship etc.
6. The book you send might not be the one that you sell first!
Don't lose hope if the book you submitted doesn't find a home, this can happen and an agent will talk this through with you and help formulate a plan to move forward. This is a marathon not a sprint!