(This column excerpted from Chuck’s latest book, GET A LITERARY AGENT, which was released in January 2015 and is available anywhere books are sold. Comment on this within 2 weeks for your chance to win a copy of the book. A winner will be chosen at random.)
I’m a big student of query letters. I collect successful ones to share with aspiring writers. I compose roundup blog posts full of query letter tips. And I’ve probably edited more than a thousand of them over the years at writers’ conferences and on my own. All in all, I’m a big fan of a great query, and I know that an amazing letter is your first key tool to getting agents interested in representing you.
But that said, I also know full well that writing a fantastic letter is extremely difficult, and some writers just have trouble with this step of the submission process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer say, “Writing a query seems harder than writing the book itself!”
So, for a moment, let’s just say: Forget the query letter. Forget it. Just throw it out the window—and let me tell you about 4 side doors to getting an agent.
While submitting cold query letters through an agency slush pile is the most frequent way writers find their agents (and therefore should be taken seriously and not ignored), it is by no means the sole way to get your work in front of agents. There are four other acceptable routes you can use. In fact, a certain percentage of agents in publishing actually close themselves off to cold queries altogether and only accept solicited submissions through such “side door” methods listed below.
1. Contests. Agents—especially new/newer ones who are actively building their lists—judge online contests. Oftentimes writing-oriented websites will host writing competitions—such as for the first page of a manuscript, or the first 1,000 words, etc. The agent judge reviews the entries and sees your writing during the contest. If she likes what she sees, she will contact you and request more material.
Don’t believe me? Take Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency. She judged a previous installment of the “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest on my Guide to Literary Agents Blog. The DLA Contest is a free, recurring contest where people submit the first page of their unpublished novel. Tamar’s top three winners won an agent critique from her. Tamar was so impressed by one winner that she asked to see the full novel. Soon after, Tamar offered representation to the writer and sold the writer’s novels in a two-book deal. Still skeptical? The exact same thing happened a few months ago when agent Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary judged a more recent installment of the DLA Contest on my blog. She signed one of the three winners as a client.
So whenever you see an agent-judged contest—especially if it’s free—jump in and see what happens! You could win a critique and even find your agent match. Following agents on Twitter is a great way to stay abreast of these opportunities.
2. Critiques that come as part of some kind of class/instruction. Agents sometimes do critiques as part of a conference or class or online instructional session. A critique is a straightforward way to get your writing in front of an agent’s eyes. At minimum, you’ll get helpful feedback, but if she likes what she sees, you may just find your agent match.
(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)
For example, Writer’s Digest runs instructional webinars each week, usually with a literary agent instructor. Typically each attendee gets a critique from the agent to help make their work better. As with agent-judged contests, if the agent really likes what she sees, she’ll request more. Agent Barbara Poelle of Irene Goodman Literary, for instance, found clients from the first two webinars she did.
(I know that my examples here have to do with WD, but, obviously, know that while WD has contests and classes and such, we are by no means the only fish in the water. Agents are teaching lots of classes and judging lots of contests that have nothing to do with us, so take advantage of any & all of them!)
3. Referrals. When you query an agent, normally your unsolicited e-mail lands coldly in their inbox (the slush pile). It’s reviewed quickly as the agent tries to assess whether your writing or the story seems good enough for them to invest more time. In other words, submitting to a slush pile means your query/work will only get a quick look. Getting a referral usually changes all that.
A referral is when an agented writer passes your work to their agent with a stamp of approval. Referrals are often read very soon after they arrive—pushed close to the top of the agent’s to-do list. After all, if one of the agent’s trusted authors is giving this new writer’s work a thumbs-up, the agent will take a longer look at the writing, going beyond what they would do for an average submission.
So put yourself in a position where you can hope for referrals. The best way to do this is join one or more writing critique groups. You’ll need other writers in these groups to see your work and hopefully take a deep liking to it. In order for them to agree to critique your work, you’ll need to reciprocate and offer them editing feedback on their own writing. The hope is that some of these critique group writers either 1) already have a literary agent, or 2) will sign with one in the future. Then any of these writers who have representation and like your work will be ideal people to offer to refer your work. (And keep in mind that even if the referrals don’t pan out, joining a critique group is an excellent step for any aspiring writer.)
4. Meeting agents at writers’ conferences. Every year, there are anywhere between 125 and 200 writers’ conferences in the United States and Canada. Plenty of these have literary agents in attendance, and those agents are present specifically to meet with writers one-on-one and hear pitches. Many times, the agents aren’t even making any money to attend events—so the key upside of their attending is to find that diamond in the rough who’s got an amazing book up his sleeve.
To prove my point, I’ll tell you this: I was once moderating a panel of about 10 agents at a conference, and I asked how many had found clients at a conference—and all 10 said they had. And if that wasn’t enough proof, know that I myself found my own literary agent at a conference after schmoozing with her. It’s all proof that conferences simply work. (By the way, if you want to attend a writing event but don’t know where to start, see a large list of writing conferences on my website here.)
I’ll close by kind of repeating what I said above: If you seriously want to find an agent, compose a great query—because a quality letter is one of your biggest and best tools. In other words: By no means should you ignore the query process because you find it difficult. But a bigger point to make here is that you should not ignore any opportunity to get yourself and/or your work in front of an agent. So consider these 4 side door options and pursue any that seem like a good fit for you!
Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.
His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.
Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.