In lieu of the secret handshake, by Deb Katie Alender

This post is a little tough for me to write, because I know I can’t write the magical post that most writers seeking representation are longing to read: “Ten Steps That Will 100% Result in Your Finding an Agent.” I know from my pre-publication days that it seems like there’s a secret code, an insidery method to getting an agent (and then selling your novel).

Sadly, it’s not true.

But here is my next-best thing:

“Ten Non-Magical Steps That May Increase Your Chances of Getting an Agent”

(1) Look, it all starts here: you have to write the best book you can write. As tempting as it is to finish a draft and dream of hitting the bestseller list and becoming an overnight sensation, that occurrence is as rare as a cat at a dog show. Most books require not just a first draft but one or two major overhauls and a good deal of tweaking. And that’s just before you start submitting to agents. At which point you may be asked to make changes prior to selling the book. And after the sale, guess what? More changes.

Does that sound like too many changes? If so, you may be in the wrong business. Or you may have to come to terms with what is in many cases the reality of the publishing industry.

Oh, and another great way to improve your writing? Read! A lot! In every category and genre, but especially well-received books in your own genre/category.

(2) Get used to collaborating. Find a critique group or form one. Learn how to take and give criticism. Learn how to apply critique in a way that will make your work stronger. Writing a book is a collaborative art. You, the author, are a very important part of this process, no doubt. But your agent is going to be, too. And an agent doesn’t want to work with an author who is going to throw a screaming hissy fit when given constructive criticism. And yes, it is easy to tell the difference with one well-executed question.

(3) Have a strong opening. Yes, the rest of the book has to be great, too, but think of the first few pages as the first couple of minutes of a blind date (and that’s all I’m going to say about the dating metaphor, because I think Eve will kill me if I steal her topic again). Your first chapter should be a lean, mean, reading… selection.

(4) Write a good query letter. There are endless resources online for this. In fact, there might be too many. It’s one of those things you could overdo and overthink endlessly. Start by thinking of the message a query letter needs to send:

Dear Agent Whose Name I Took the Time to Look Up,

I respect your time enough to have done some research to make sure that this query is relevant to both of us. I have either read your blog, read up on you at publishing websites, or noticed your name in books similar to mine that I really enjoyed. Because of XYZ, I think my project would be a good fit for you.

I have written a book, and here is what it is called, and here is the genre and category. Here is a description of my book that tells you who the main character is, gives you a sense of the setting and tone, and sets up the story in a way that makes it sound interesting and original.

I am a cool person who has some credentials and either some publishing credits or not. Either way, I am cool enough to make myself sound like a low-maintenance non-psycho with whom you would be willing to build a relationship that will last, hopefully, for years.


Easy, right? Not so much, actually. But worth doing well. A query letter is your calling card.

(5) Do your homework. There are lots of agent blogs out there, which are very worth reading. There are also lots of messageboards and websites that will help you out. This will allow you to query agents who are a good match for you, and to do it in the proper way (no mass emails, no phone calls, etc.). I’m including a list of links at the end of the post.

(6) On that note, follow the directions. Not wasting someone’s time is a valuable skill. No matter how great your writing is, if you don’t follow the directions on an agency’s submissions policy page, you are saying loud and clear, “If we work together, I will be a drain on your time and energy above and beyond what you could ever hope for.” Don’t send an attachment if they ask for pages in the body of an email. For the love of Kermit the Frog, don’t call. I don’t even call my agent without setting up a time that works for both of us (for non-urgent matters, that is; or unless I’m delirious with sickness and Dayquil).

(7) Be nice. Look, rejection sucks. But if an agent doesn’t have a passion for your stuff, you don’t WANT that agent. You want someone who cares about your book as much as you do. Rejection and acceptance are part of the circle of life in publishing. It stinks, but if you can’t deal with it, you are in the wrong line of work. Don’t go mud-slinging on your blog… don’t send nasty emails. Publishing is a small world. You don’t want a metaphorical “CRAZY!” tattoo on your forehead. People are pretty proactive with the Google these days.

(8) Have a good email address. May I suggest, if it’s not your name, selecting something that reflects your writing? A thriller writer shouldn’t be “bunnies-4-eva @”. If you have your own domain name, have a tidy website that doesn’t make you look crazy. Nothing too fancy. Just tidy.

(9) Write your book. This is a variation on #1. Once you finish this step, go back to #1. But you can’t even begin to agonize over finding an agent unless you have a book. So if you dream of being a published author, the dream starts here, at #9. (Because you can’t find an agent for fiction without a completed book, regardless of what Stephen King recommends in “On Writing.”)

(10) Maintain hope. Go for it, and keep going for it. You’ll never know until you try. All it takes is the one right pair of eyeballs on your query letter, and suddenly you are an agented author. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen without some moments of disappointment. And it won’t mean fame and fortune are guaranteed to be yours, and it won’t even mean you’re going to wake up every morning in a good mood.

What it does mean is, there’s somebody out there who’s going to appreciate your writing and your point of view and your sense of story. And this person is going to lwork in your best interests and tell other people you rock and treat you with respect. This person is going to want to help you succeed, and also to share his or her opinions with you and have them received and considered respectfully. He or she will raise your hopes, lift your spirits, and deliver both good and bad news in the manner of someone who is on your side.

It’s a tall order, isn’t it? No surprise that the process of finding this person isn’t easy. But in the end, it’s worth it.

~ Katie Alender

Here are some websites and resources worth checking out:

The Miss Snark archives – the retired blog of the incredible Miss Snark, one of the most blunt, funny, and helpful publishing blogs in the history of publishing blogs
Agent Nathan Bransford’s blog
Agent Kristin Nelson’s blog
Agent Janet Reid’s blog
Dystel and Goderich Literary Management

Absolute Write Water Cooler – Forums
Agent Query, a site designed to help you find agents (like, locate them)
Backspace, a members only forum (meaning, you pay to belong) that is a great, great source of inspiration and information
Predators and Editors – a site designed to spotlight unscrupulous folks looking to capitalize on the ignorance of people looking to break into publishing

PS – An agent should never, ever charge a reading fee or a fee to represent you. Immediate red flag! 100% no-no!

PPS – If you’re reading this, Agent M, I hope I’m not too far off track.

22 Replies to “In lieu of the secret handshake, by Deb Katie Alender”

  1. Excellent post and much more helpful than my smart alecky contribution from yesterday! I’ll second the shout-out to Backspace. It’s a professional group over there with a minimum of Bad Internet Behavior (i.e. trolling and pretending to be other people etc.) I’m not saying the other forums out there DO have this problem, I just don’t know since Backspace is the only one I visit regularly.

    May I add one more? Writer Beware, run by AC Crispin and Victoria Strauss, has a really good blog as well about watching out for scammers:

  2. Kate –

    That was a truly thoughtful and I’m sure, helpful post. Right on the money with all your advice. And I WOULD NEVER KILL YOU – even if you stole my topic … again. I swear!

  3. Kris, first you have to make ’em laugh, then you dump the information on them. I think we did a nice one-two punch. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the Writer Beware link–I knew I was forgetting a good one.

    Eve, thanks! Nonetheless, I will try to avoid the stealage. πŸ˜‰

  4. Wow, this is really comprehensive and all terrific advice. I especially love your sample query letter! I can’t fathom that someone wouldn’t take the time to research an agent and personalize a letter. Seems so basic, but I know it happens.

  5. Sigh…I do all that stuff — I really do! — and I’ve still gotten close to nowhere. So it’s back to number ten. Nothing’s as hard as keeping up number ten.

  6. As a “Nobody”, I never get tired of this topic. Why can’t you guys simply dedicate this entire site to giving publishing advice for us Nobodies.

    (Forgive my venting) And why does it seem that nearly all published authors either went to school with someone who became an agent, or have agents in their families, or happened to bump into an agent while walking their dog. All my high school friends are either welders, or millwrights, or work in the oilfields, and that includes the girls! I’m finding that there’s not an ounce of creativity in the province of Alberta. Thank you, oh big-brother-to-the-south. I’ve always loved you best… most of the time.


    Nobody (for now…) πŸ™‚

  7. I’m a “Nobody” and I didn’t know anybody. Didn’t go to school with anybody. Didn’t know anybody who connected me with anybody. I pretty much followed Kate’s rules – with the addition of trying to glean some bit of wisdom out of every single rejection I got. And I just refused to give up. Keep at it, JPK – that’s all you have to know! (that and how to write a good query letter and a great book!)

  8. Wonderful post, Katie!

    And don’t give up hope, JPK. Some of my favorite writers are from Canada (Margaret Atwood & Robertson Davies, to name just two), and you should never underestimate our curiosity to learn more about Alberta!

  9. I can’t say enough about Backspace. That’s where I met my agent. My querying skills are metza metz – but I’m pretty good in person. If you can get to a Backspace conference the feel is professional but collegial. And the face time with real live agents and editors is priceless.


  10. Thanks Meredith, but can you name a successful third? And I mean current.

    And, yes Kim, I’ve been to Backspace’s site, and it does look very cool. However, when will they stop by Edmonton, or Calgary for their next show? My point is that there just isn’t much up here for an up start, wanna be author. Canada’s National writer’s conference came to Edmonton in 2008, and I jumped at the chance to attend. Wow, talk about letting the air out of my tires. And that was our NATIONAL writer’s conference! I guess that’s what you get with 12% the population of the U.S. Maybe I should just bite the bullet, uproot my young family and move below, apparently to downtown Manhattan. But don’t worry, I love writing, so I ain’t quittin’ anytime soon! πŸ™‚

  11. Tiffany, Larramie, and Meredith, thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.

    Mary, #10 all the way. You know I’m a huge fan of your writing.

    Jason, because we don’t have that much advice to give! After a while, it would start getting pretty silly. I know it’s hard to believe, but I do know a lot of authors who went from slush pile to success. As for the Canadian question, I also know a lot of published authors from Canada. I know that doesn’t make it any easier to take rejection, but there is room for you on the playing field. Don’t forget founding Debs Eileen Cook (an emigre), whose second book just launched, and Tish Cohen, who’s also published multiple times over, and 2008 Deb Danielle Younge-Ullman, or Holly Kennedy, or YA/middle grade master Gordon Korman, middle grade author Adrienne Kress…

    Aside from the Backspace Conference, which is itself a bit of a little upstart and probably can’t afford to move out of NYC because of the travel cost for guests and presenters, the website is a huge resource–very helpful, whether you can attend the conference or not. (Much cheaper than pulling up stakes and moving south of the border, too!)

    Eve, that’s a great point–pulling whatever can be pulled from rejections.

    Patti, thank you! Good luck with your foray into the world of querying!

    Kim, thanks for dropping by! I wish I had more time to spend at Backspace these days! I love the community there.

  12. Better late than never, right?

    You offer some very good advice to the neophyte with aspirations of someday being published, and, to those who are just curious (like me), some excellent details about the inner workings of the publishing industry. I was quite amazed when I read that an agent should never charge you a fee to represent you. I thought they made their income partly on the representation aspect of being an agent? Shows you how much I know.

    I do like to read, but unfortunately I CANNOT read a romance novel, which is in direct violation of step number 1. They bore the heck out of me and I’m quite certain that the authors do not write for an audience comprised mostly of men. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    And finally, just out of curiosity since I know very little about the topic of discussion, is it considered good practice to withhold the name of your agent when discussing these things in an public forum? I know it’s vital to protect your privacy as well as any details about your professional life that are simply nobody’s business.

    Good post:0)

  13. Hey, Tom! Thanks for stopping by. πŸ™‚

    Well, agents do make money by taking a commission when they make a sale for an author–but the key is, when they make a sale. There are a lot of disreputable people out there who convince authors that they need to pay in advance for the privilege of having an agent.

    So a reputable agent doesn’t make money until his or her client makes money. At which point, the author’s attitude is like, “What? Who cares? Take it all! My book is sold!” πŸ˜‰

    As to your final question, I don’t hide my agent’s name (it’s on the Bio and Contact pages at my website), but on a post like this, I do try not to throw it around. Because the “do your homework” part is really important, and I’d hate for someone to Google “finding an agent” and just start sending things out willy-nilly.

    Good questions!

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