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Getting an agent to say "Yes"

by Durant Imboden

Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that you've read the first two articles in this series, Do you need an agent? and Finding an agent. You've decided that you want representation, you've assembled a list of prospects, and you're ready for the biggest challenge of all: convincing a literary agent to handle your work.

By now you're probably thinking, "If I knew how to sell a manuscript, I wouldn't need an agent!" And you're right: it's a Catch-22 situation. Still, that's how the game works unless you're a successful published author and the agents come looking for you.

Do you know someone?

As I mentioned in "Finding an agent," the easiest way to track down possible agents is to seek advice from published writers in your genre. If you can get an author to give you a referral, so much the better. (But don't expect a referral unless the writer has read your manuscript and loves it nearly as much as you do.)

If not, it's query time.

There's nothing mysterious about the query process. It's really quite simple: You write a stack of personalized letters (see below), mail them off to your list of prospective agents, and hope that at least one of the recipients agrees to look at your manuscript.

The tricky part is writing a query that will catch an agent's attention. Remember that agencies may be "literary," but they're businesses. Agents pay the rent and feed their families via commissions on manuscript sales. They aren't just looking for wonderful books; they're looking for wonderful books they can sell.

Note: E-mail queries are another possibility, if you can find an agent who welcomes them. (Most don't.)

Make your pitch irresistible.

When you write a query letter, emphasize a "marketing hook" that will pique the agent's interest. Is your premise original or likely to attract a wide audience? (Be realistic, now!)

Do you have a background that makes you uniquely qualified to write the book? Are you a celebrity? Do you have a title like "prince," "countess," or "senator"? (And no, I'm not joking--although I wish I were.)

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