How to Land a Literary Agent: Don’t Make These Common Mistakes

The querying process is an exciting step in any writer’s path to publication, but it’s often one of the most nerve-wracking. It can be fraught with questions of etiquette and common practice. To add to the confusion, agents’ query guidelines have slight (but important!) differences. Today we’ll focus on mistakes you can avoid as a writer as you look for the perfect person to represent your work.

1. Don’t bombard an agent with your full manuscript if you meet in person. If you’ve signed up for a conference--even if you’ve purchased a one-on-one with an agent--don’t expect them to take your manuscript home with them. Don’t bring a hard copy and press it into their hands, even if they express interest in your pitch. If you meet an agent at a conference or other industry event and they invite you to send them your work, follow up with a polite email reminding them of how you met.

2. Don't query before you have a full manuscript. Ever. If the agent likes your query letter, requests a partial or the full manuscript, and you can't send it, because it isn't finished, that shows you haven't done your homework. You never want to query before you have a completed manuscript for the agent to consider. The agent has just wasted the time that would have been happily put into looking at your work--when it's ready. 

3. Don’t query without reading the most up-to-date guidelines on an agent’s website, and following them to the letter. As I mentioned above, agents all have slightly different guidelines. Some use a form on their website, others have a dedicated email. Some prefer a query letter and a synopsis, others only want the query. Many will ask you to send attachments in specific formats (or not use them at all). Make sure you’re following each agent’s guidelines, and that you’re not taking them from somewhere else online. Other sources are often outdated. And know that if you don’t follow the guidelines, you probably won’t receive a response at all. Agents have far too many queries coming in to go out of their way to people who didn’t research and follow the guidelines.

4. Don’t toss your manuscript out to any/every agent you find listed online. Be targeted and focused in your queries. Take the time to look into each agent you’re submitting to, including the genres and publishing categories they work in, their #MSWL (manuscript wish list) if they have one, who they already represent, etc. Educate yourself on the agents you’re querying. The more specific you can be, the more likely you are to find success. If you’re sending out a manuscript to 50 agents at once, you’re probably not narrowing it down enough!

5. Don’t forget to tell the agent if your query is an exclusive. Some agents prefer exclusive queries, while others prefer that you don’t send them exclusives. This is another piece of information you should be able to find by visiting an agent’s website. If it doesn’t include any information on exclusives, assume that either (an exclusive or a multiple subsmission) is okay. Make sure, in all cases, to include in your query letter if this is an exclusive or a multiple submission.

6. Don’t follow up too early/constantly. Once your query is out there, give agents time to respond. It can be tempting to check in and make sure the agent has received your query, to see if there’s any progress, or to find out if they’ve passed, but trust that the agent has a professional system for handling queries as they come in, and know that they are juggling many things--client manuscripts, submissions to editors, contracts--and that your query is only one thing on that list. Don’t follow up with an agent until a specified window of time has elapsed (again, something you can find on an agent’s website.) Even then, a single, brief, polite email is best. If no window of time is specified, consider four weeks the minimum amount of time to allow before checking in.

7. Don’t send a new/updated/revised version of the manuscript to an agent after you’ve queried. This is hugely important, and it’s the darker side of the very important advice: Don’t query until you’re ready. Make sure that manuscript is powerful and polished, because once you’ve queried, you don’t get to send a frantic email five days later saying that you’ve done a few more revisions. If you send a new version to the agent, it signals that you weren’t ready to query in the first place. If they’ve already begun reading, you’ve wasted their (very precious) time by sending a new version.

8. Don’t worry about asking the agent questions about how they work—yet.  Questions of this sort are best saved for when an agent offers you representation. At that point, you will have plenty of opportunities by email or phone to ask them about their communication style, how they handle submissions, sub rights, contracts, etc. Any question about working together should be saved for the moment when the agent expresses interest in working with you.

9. Don’t forget to tell other agents you have the manuscript out with if you receive an offer of representation. This is a matter of agent etiquette. Even if you’re received an offer from your top agent, you need to go back to anyone who has your query and let them know that you’ve received an offer. Oftentimes, an agent hasn’t responded yet because they’re intrigued, but haven’t gotten to the project yet. When you give them this nudge, it lets them know they have to pass or offer in a short amount of time. Two weeks is usually considered a reasonable window, and you should specify a time period in your email. If you follow up, you’re more likely to receive multiple offers, and be in the enviable position of choosing between agents!

10. Don’t rush a revise and resubmit. If an agent offers you a chance to revise your work, and takes the time to critique or offer suggestions, do not send the manuscript back in less than a week. Writers are often afraid that they need to move quickly on R&Rs, but that’s not the case. You already have the agent’s attention and interest with your project. What you need to do now is show them that you’re capable of revising thoroughly and improving the story in ways the agent believes would help it in submissions and on the shelf. If you’re unsure that an agent’s feedback resonates with you, talk it through with friends or fellow writers. Make sure that you take R&Rs seriously, because they mean that an agent is invested in your work.

11. Don’t ignore a trend in rejections. If you send out five queries and receive five passes with different reasons for rejection, you probably just haven’t found the right fit yet. If you send out five queries and everyone points to the same issue, one that’s fixable with revision, take the time before you send the manuscript out for another round of queries, and fix it. The agents you’re sending to are masters of story--they deal with pitches and manuscripts all day long. If they’re all pointing out the same problem with your work, make sure you address it before continuing to query.

12. Don’t send a revised version of the same manuscript to the same agent, UNLESS they specifically ask to see it. When an agent passes, they are passing on this project. Not this version of the project--the entire project. It doesn’t mean they will never read anything from you again, and you will find many stories of writers ending up with agents they have previously queried. But if you send the same query or manuscript in a slightly altered version, the agent will notice, and you’ll burn a potential bridge.

13. Don’t respond to a rejection from an agent. Many of you are probably thinking: but the agent sent such a nice email! But we bonded over our love of puppies/mochi/HEAs! I want to build a relationship so I can query with a different project later! Those reasons make sense, but the agent needs to allot their time elsewhere. If you had a pleasant, polite, and professional interaction, the agent will often remember you when you query (with a new project!) later. Sometimes there are more negative feelings when a query is rejected. This is the moment to confide in your friends, your writing group, your significant other, your cat--ANYONE but the agent in question. Rejections can feel personal, but they’re not. When you take them personally, you’re moving out of the realm of the professional, and you don’t want to send this kind of email to someone in your profession. Walk away from the rejection, shake it off, and live to query another day! 

Amy Rose Capetta is the author of a YA sci-fi duet, Entangled and Unmade (HMH). Her third YA novel, Kiss/Kill, a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery, is forthcoming from Candlewick in 2017. Amy Rose holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously worked for the Writers’ League of Texas and served as assistant editor for the Children’s and YA section of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. In addition to novels, she has written screenplays, the most recent of which debuted at the Toronto ReelHeart International Film Festival.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY:  Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery/thriller, dystopian, supernatural, middle grade, YA, literary fiction, genre-bending fiction, LGBTQ fiction.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter reviews, synopsis editing, private writing coaching.