The Do's and Don’ts of Submitting to Agents

by Erin Brown

Do Find an Agent Who is Actually Interested 

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

First thing’s first. Do your research and find an agent who is passionate about your type of book. Savannah’s Broken Heart and Subsequent Bonding with Her Ten Bestest Girlfriends will probably not find a fan with an agent who exclusively reps science fiction. So even though your fellow writer told you the name of a huge agent at William Morris, make sure that he or she actually reps the type of book you’ve written. Exercise your mouse and head to the many Web sites that list agents and what kinds of books they represent. A good one is:

Another method to uncover that perfect match is to find a similar book or novel you admire and look on the acknowledgments page to see whom the author thanks as their agent. But remember, just because you love to read Janet Evanovich doesn’t mean that her agent will be interested in your non-fiction tome on the year you spent eating your way through Russia while solving the world’s financial crisis. So look for a good match or your submission will get thrown in the trash. It’s a waste of postage, time, and energy.

Do Go to the Agency Web Site and Follow Directions

If you can lather, rinse, and repeat, then you already know how to follow directions! If you are a man, you might have more problems with this directive (send “that was sexist!” letters to the Web site manager). If an agency says that it doesn’t accept email queries, then don’t send one, for the love of Pete! If an agent only wants ten pages, don’t mail one hundred because you know in your heart of hearts that she will change her mind when she opens your salacious bodice-ripper set at the North Pole. If she wants to find out if Nut Nut of the North ends up getting her hunky iceman or melts his igloo in a fit of rage, she will request the additional pages.

If an agent requires a one-page synopsis, don’t send a twenty-page summary. An agent requires only a few things, so follow the rules so that he will want to work with you. There’s nothing that pisses an agent off more than an author who can’t follow simple instructions. It often means you will be difficult to work with in the long run and probably an annoying person to boot. And the bottom line is that agents don’t have time to mess around with writers who won’t play by the rules. The agencies have guidelines for a reason, so follow them.

Don’t Flub Your Query Letter

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the query letter is, at least initially, even more important than the actual manuscript. You have one page to catch an agent’s eye, so make it good. Don’t give an extremely vague overview without any plot details. Give the hook in one, concise sentence. Follow with a paragraph of plot details. Wrap it up with your author bio (stick to education, relevant professions, and past writings; no agent cares if you love to garden or build model airplanes in your spare time). Finally, have a nice closing thanking the agent for his or her time and let them know that a proposal (for non-fiction) or the full manuscript is available upon request. 

Don’t Harass the Agent

OK, you’ve spent ten years plotting, crafting, dreaming about, and obsessing over your young adult novel about vampires who infiltrate the middle school math club, but that does not give you the right to scare poor agents. An agent has enough on his plate without having to read an email from you two days after you’ve sent in the manuscript asking if he’s had a chance to read it yet. The answer: “No, and now I will never read it.” Leave your dream agent alone. He will get back to you when he’s good and ready. I know it’s frustrating because you know for sure that your novel is the next #1 bestseller of all time, but give your future agent a chance to figure this out on his own. In other words, restraining orders do not lead to representation.

Do Get It out There! 

Research what agents might be interested in your manuscript and then send it out...again and again and again. Don’t wait and mail one at a time. It will take you until 2070 to get a bite. Invest in some postage (avoid the Bugs Bunny stamps) and mail, mail, mail! Or if an agent accepts email queries, send them out en masse. But a cardinal rule is to know your agent. Get their names and positions right and tailor each query to the particular rep. It shows thoughtfulness and preparedness. There’s nothing worse than receiving a query with a name misspelled or one that addresses the agent who loves historical fiction as “the top erotica agent in New York.” So get it together, personalize your queries, and send out multiple letters. If an agent requests an exclusive, ask them for a timeline before you agree to this. You can’t twiddle your thumbs for six months if you don’t have a legitimate sense that the big shot is truly interested and not just yanking your chain. 

So, those are my two cents. I wish I could give a dollar, but there are only a few basic rules that you must adhere to when seeking representation. Oh, one last thing: Do write an incredibly unique, never-before-seen manuscript that will knock the socks off of every agent who reads it and will eventually start a no-holds-barred bidding war that will result in an auction bloodbath. Any questions?

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

Erin BrownComment