Sign up to the newsletter

10 Steps To Getting A Literary Agent

Gilly McAllister

Last time, we covered 10 Steps to Writing a Novel. This time, it's 10 Steps to getting a literary agent, though I have to warn you, the most important steps are the novel-writing ones.

1. Finish the book

You will annoy everybody you query if your novel isn’t finished. You want to be in the position where you can press ‘send’ as soon as an agent requests the full. If a waitress in a restaurant reads you the specials and you ordered one, then she returned to your table to tell you it would be four weeks, how would you feel? Quite annoyed. I had full requests within hours of emailing. Be prepared!

2. But don’t never finish the book

You’ll reach a stage where you are just tinkering. You take a comma out, you put it back. You can always better your prose - I just got the second round of edits from my publisher and still changed a couple of sentences that there was nothing truly wrong with - but you need to get to the point where you say ‘enough’s enough’, query, and leave well alone.

3. Research your agents

A good author friend of mine recommends batches of five. This way, you always have a few irons in the fire but you’re not spamming every agent in London, and, if you get a handful of rejections, you have some more agents you can query when you’ve maybe done some editing. So choose five agents who:

a. represent your genre - preferably they will explicitly state this on their submission guidelines, Twitter, or their manuscript wish lists.

b. you think would like your book. Thanks to the internet, there are myriad ways to ascertain this. My agent is on Goodreads, for example, and it’s pretty easy for me to see we have very similar tastes.

c. have a track record. They don’t have to have sold a novel to a publishing house personally (we all start somewhere… I think as long as an agent is supported by a reputable agency it doesn't matter that they're just starting out. They will have the agency's name attached to their submissions and being junior may mean they have more time for you) but I looked for agents from a reputable agency who had great sales track records.

Agents often are quite public about looking for very specific things, so I followed a lot of them on social media when I was writing and took note of any who were looking for books that sounded like mine (and then when I was querying I stalked them and interpreted tweets like ‘having a great day!’ to mean ‘I love your submission, Gilly!’)

4. Write a synopsis

Oh, doom, I know. A synopsis is a horrible thing. I keep mine factual and I do spoil the ending in it. It’s a statement, really, of what actually happens in your book. You can include a note at the end stating that it includes themes of motherhood, or whatever, but what I think the synopsis should actually do is chart your main plot arc. Whether or not I include sub plots depends on how big a role they play in the main plot. If it’s just a best friend with her own small story arc I leave it out. If it’s that the heroine’s father dies which had a huge impact on a relationship story line, I include it. 

A synopsis should be about a page. It shouldn’t take long. Many agents say that they look at the query letter, and then the chapters, and the synopsis is only there for reassurance that your contemporary romance isn’t going to have vampires appearing halfway through, so don’t worry. 

5. Write a query letter

I found the internet kind of overwhelming when it came to querying. There was so much information out there that it made the task seem somehow more important than it really was. The aim of this is to write a professional letter that conceptualises what your book is about. That’s all. It should be personalised (Dear Joe Bloggs) and signed off formally (Kind regards, or some such). I used this format:

a. A paragraph about why I wanted to work with that agent. I made it very specific, because (see point 3), I had chosen these agents specifically. Maybe you love a book by one of their clients or they wrote a brilliant article in the bookseller or they’re great at Twitter or they’ve said they’re looking for crime thrillers… 

b. My elevator pitch/blurb. I kept this pretty short. This is the hook of your book. If this was Harry Potter, it would be: Harry receives a letter inviting him to go to a witchcraft school, where the magical community is at war with an evil wizard. For The Girl On The Train, this would be: Rachel is on the train to work one morning, looking in at the houses along her commute, when she sees something suspicious. I then added a sentence which described where the book was going (he discovers that the wizard who killed his parents must be avenged by he alone/a woman is missing; does Rachel hold the key to discovering who is responsible?) and one more summing up what sort of book it was (it is middle-grade fiction/it is commercial women’s fiction) and the word count. 

c. A very short sentence about me. I just said what I did for a living and where I lived. Do not include writing credits unless you have done something amazing.

6. Look at your first three chapters

If, at any point when you are writing your synopsis and query letter, you think ‘man, I wish I could send chapter 12, 14 and 29!’ then something has gone wrong. Your first three chapters should be sparkly, enticing and brilliant. They should begin with the call to action. They shouldn’t (in my opinion) really include any backstory at all, and it should be show show show, no telling. As a side note - and I know I'm not agent - I have discarded published books for these things:

a. dream sequences

b. chase scenes where the reader does not know or care who is being chased

c. swear words

d. alarm clocks/hero/heroine waking up/wondering where they are

e. huge amounts of exposition

f. a book that begins too early, working itself up to the action

g. phonetic spellings of sounds

7. Put it together and what have you got? 

Send the synopsis, first three chapters, and query off to your five chosen agents. ADDRESS THEM ALL PERSONALLY AND DO NOT BLIND CARBON COPY THEM ALL IN. I pasted the body of my query letter in to an email, because attaching a Word document letter just felt too old school.

Keep a spreadsheet. The agent, the agency, the date you sent it, and their response times (usually listed on their websites). I then made an excel formula which told me on which date I could chase, because I am like this.

8. Be professional in all dealings

When you get a rejection, don’t argue. When you get a full request, just send the book with a normal email. (no OMG-ing)

9. When an agent wants to talk…

… They do not ALWAYS want to offer representation (take it from somebody who went to a meeting with somebody I thought would offer and then cried so much on the train journey home that a LONDONER asked me if I was okay). They sometimes want to see what sort of a person you are, or if you might be willing to do a big edit before signing, or anything, really. Stay professional. My agent offered at the end of our meeting. Once she had sussed me out. (I kept my craziness under wraps).

10. If they offer representation…

… Have a really big think. I cannot stress enough how important your agent will become to your writing career.

This is the person who will pitch your work to editors before going on submission, champion you at book fairs, call you with good news, bad news, sales figures, negotiate your royalty rates, weigh in on your idea for your next novel (and the one after that…), etc etc. It’s tempting - and exciting - to accept the first offer without thinking, but stop and ponder. 


For further insight into the author/agent relationship, Gilly also took the time to interview her agent. Read her short interview with Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson here.


Gilly McAllister is an author with her debut novel to be published by Michael Joseph Penguin next year, lawyer and professional worrier. She is owned by a large ginger tom cat. She tweets from @Billygean