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How to pick the right Literary agent and approach one

How to choose a Literary agent and approach one

Congratulations! Now that you have finally made up your mind on going ahead with a literary agent to represent you and your work, let’s talk about how to choose a literary agent.

The first question is : Which agency should you write to? 

No, don’t write to all of them. I know it’s tempting, given that there aren’t that many in India (Click here for the full list of Literary agents in India). But we suggest you do your research. Check out their websites. Look carefully at their authors and the books they have represented. Then decide. 

So the imperative question that follows is- how should you decide? We have broken it down into six factors which you should consider while selecting an agent.

Categories of Agents- Wide V/s Narrow

From our conversations and analysis, there seem to be two broad categories of agents.

  • The Narrow and deep
  • The Wide and shallow

The idea is not to pass judgement on either, but understand their DNA and motivations.

The Narrow and Deep agencies are picky specialists. They choose to take on only as much work as they can handle, and consciously limit scale. This actually makes them better in many ways. These individuals care about the craft, they care about the genres they love, and prefer to stick with their knitting instead of trying to do everything. You will often find much of their client base is literary / niche authors.

Because the narrow and deep agencies are specific to their niches and keep scale limited, they can be harder to sign on. These are also the folks who are much more focused on the writing itself. They speak extensively about the “development” of a manuscript. They seem to spend much time and work closely with their authors on improving their manuscripts. These folks are less transactional in their approach. They care less about quantity, and focus more on quality. Some of them don’t do it as their livelihood, but as their passions, so scale matters less. They also enjoy a deep and close relationship with their authors.

The value addition from the “Deep but Narrow” crowd is not just about the network and the deal, but also about elevating a manuscript to the best that it can be. They prefer to focus on their signed-on authors because as small, single-person operations they may have limited resources.

The “Wide but Shallow” agents, on the other hand, are entirely market driven, and open to everything they think they can place irrespective of any personal preference. They do not mention “development” as a big part of their relationship with their authors, but are the dealmakers looking at the scale of deals more than the quality.

They tend to be a lot more transactional in their approach, given that they may be handling hundreds of authors simultaneously. They cannot enjoy the deep, strong relationships that the narrower agents will enjoy. 

They prefer manuscripts which are ready to sell. They will push a manuscript to a publisher as soon as it is “good enough”, but may not work to try and make it the “best that it can be”. Their goal will be to do some surface level enhancements and find the most lucrative deals. If development work needs to be done, they will leave it to the publisher, or expect the author to invest time and/or money in it. They may ask the author to hire an editor, or offer paid editorial services themselves.

So if you’re confident your book is the best it can be, aren’t too literary and just want to go out and snag the best deal possible in a hurry, then shoot for one of the wide but shallow agencies. However, if you really seek a partner who will get the essence of what you’re about and work with you truly and deeply then go for one of the narrower ones.

Of course, all agencies don’t neatly fit these boxes. But in the Narrow lot I would definitely include Jacaranda, Shruti Debi, Preeti Gill & Sherna Khambatta.  The Wide agencies would be the likes of the Book Bakers. (click here for the full list of Literary agents in India) We may have added Writer’s Side to this list given their scale, but we cannot say this definitively because we have been unable to speak to them. The others fall somewhere in between. Newer agencies also may be wide in their thinking & not be that picky, but are not that big simply because they just don’t get that many manuscripts.

Upfront Payment V/s Pay as you go

We are inherently wary of people who ask for advance payments. It is true in the world of literary agents as well. In the publishing world, an upfront payment to literary agents is not the norm.

As a writer, you want your agent to be someone who believes in your work. If they believe in your work, their job is to guide you on how to make your manuscript better. Then they will go out, sell your work, and get you a great deal – not charge you upfront for getting you a deal. 

Any traditional Literary agency will get paid when you get paid. Sure they charge a commission – anywhere between 10-20% of royalties. But that’s after they get you a deal. Try and sign up with one such.

However, since finding a good traditional agent is not easy, going with a literary agency which charges upfront can be tempting. If you decide to make an advance payment to your literary agent, ask yourself what the payment is for. Is it a specific service to improve your book? Like editing? Or is it just a vague promise of some sort. 

Also Check:
Is the agent signing a contract? What exactly is being promised? Do a reference check, and ensure the Literary agency is kosher. 

Too many people moonlight as agents, and we’ve heard stories of writers who were fooled by literary agents – and these “agents” then refused to even answer the phone. Some have even taken money from an author and then had their book published by a self / Vanity publisher (Click here to learn more about Vanity Vs Traditional Publishing in India) . So be careful with this one. This Times of India article, though dated, shares how unscrupulous agents may fool writers. 

International Vs Domestic

If you think your book will have a market outside India as well, then you should seek out an agent with a strong international presence. Many Indian agents have strong international affiliations, and a few operate entirely from overseas. Jacaranda and Lotus literary agencies are probably the strongest for their international footprint. But other Indian agencies like Red Ink and Writer’s Side also have a strong international network. 

Genre

Some agencies specialize in certain genres and don’t touch others. For example, Preeti Gill has a very strong history of publishing Feminist Literature. Shruti Debi doesn’t do mythology but Red Ink loves it. Sherna stays away from stuff like women’s abuse. Almost nobody wants to touch Poetry or Short stories, but a few will do it , although they may charge to do so. Only Red Ink and Siyahi accept Hindi manuscripts. So do your research about this before you write to an agent.

Film and web rights 

In today’s world this is one way a writer makes more money than book royalties. Try and get some insight into how strong your agency is on film rights. We will be coming up with a Blogpost on film agents soon. 

Marketing Support

Another important aspect to be considered while choosing a literary agent is marketing. Many literary agents provide marketing support and have a full-fledged team to handle the P.R. They even work closely with the publishers’ marketing team to devise a unique marketing strategy for the book and guide you in author branding. Other literary agents may have tie ups with P.R. firms who work along with the author and the publishing house. India’s newest literary agency – A suitable agency – is a literary agency and Branding / Marketing company rolled into one.

In today’s times, marketing is what sometimes makes or breaks a book. This is crucial as it improves the visibility of the author in print and online in terms of presence at lit-fests, panel discussions, interviews in prominent newspapers and magazines. How well an agent markets their author is something that shows how well you and your book will be marketed or presented to the world. And however much one disagrees or dislikes it, marketing is important for any book today. 

How to approach a literary agent?

While we have already discussed why a literary agent is important for you as an author , in this article we will guide you on the most crucial step – how to approach a literary agent. As Kanishka Gupta (Founder, Writer’s Side) says, ‘It is about winning your literary agent and not just about writing a great book.’ 

Before we even begin the process of approaching a literary agent, there are a few more things you will need to keep handy along with your manuscript. This is what is also known as the ‘Submission Kit’ in the publishing lingo. A submission kit consists of the following: 

  1. A query letter
  2. Synopsis
  3. Brief Bio
  4. Excerpts / Sample chapters

These can vary a little from one agent to the next. Ensure you follow the exact guidelines laid down by the agent you’re approaching.

If you are writing a non-fiction book, then this submission kit becomes a ‘Book Proposal‘, which basically includes a query letter, a brief bio, sample chapters  and a chapterization. Chapterization is nothing but chapter-wise break up of a book, which includes the title of the chapters and what they will cover briefly mentioned along with it. A annotated table of contents and a detailed outline indicating the scope of the book is a plus.

  • What is a query letter?

A query letter is sent along with the submission to publishers and agents. It usually covers a brief introduction about the author along with the book. It also talks about why the author thinks this book is important. 

It is always good to have a marketing plan for a book when you start querying along with a list of competing titles. Mentioning these things in the query letter makes an impact. A marketing plan can include your social media presence, the ability to sell copies, any celebrity endorsements which are plausible and any other platforms through which sales can be ensured.

You have only a few minutes to catch the attention of the agent, so make sure your query letter is catchy and engaging. A poorly written query letter might lead to your submission not being read at all.

In the sample given below, notice how a brief has been given about the book which gives it all away and emphasizes on the detailing in the narrative. As the sample novel has only one primary character, only she has been highlighted in the letter. If your story has more than one primary characters you can highlight them but try to restrict it to only 4 and not more. (Ditto in your synopsis) Unique writing styles or POVs explored in the novel along with the themes and sub-genres need to be highlighted in the query letter. Do note, many a times the word count specified along with the genre also can be a clincher. 

 

If you are already a published author, mention your published work/s. Show the numbers and any other achievements the book might have done, incase of a book. In case of online publications, highlight the places where you work has been published. 

Pro Tip:
Let your work speak for itself! Avoid using any kind of exaggerations to describe your work or achievements in the letter. 
  • What is a synopsis?

A synopsis is a brief summary of your book not more than one or two pages long (Ideal length is approx 500-800 words – however it may differ from agent to agent). Identify what is unique about your book and highlight those aspects in the synopsis along with interesting characters, important plot twists etc. which can be called its USP (Unique Selling Point – the key to sales) . Ideally written in third person narrative ( even if your novel is not!), it also includes the ending.

Standard Synopsis Formatting includes the following:

  • The first mention of the primary characters is in CAPS or bold to highlight.  
  • It is written in present tense irrespective of the tenses used for the narrative in your novel.
  • Double spaced (though not mandatory)
  • Formatted in clear readable font.
  • Zero grammatical errors, typos or spelling mistakes

This short summary of your story is neutral and demonstrates the story arc very clearly. It has to non-salesy which means no fancy jargons, no literary language, no metaphors or similes. However, it does have every major character, plot twist, turning point/s and the climax clearly outlined. In short, the three essential parts of a synopsis are – Characters, Conflict and the Narrative Arc.

A synopsis is:

  • To highlight your story writing skills and your plot
  • To showcase the premise with your ability to tell a story and its hook
  • To display your primary characters and their character arc well 
  • To the point and as precise as possible.
  • To tell not show

A synopsis is not:

  • To show your writing prowess / language skills
  • To leave cliffhangers to excite the reader ( in this case the agent or the publisher)
  • To talk about all the secondary characters in the manuscript.
  • To highlight the theme of the novel
  • To ask questions or tease the readers

Ever wondered how J.K.Rowling must have pitched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Here’s a glimpse of the first page while the whole synopsis is on display at the British Library in London. 

If you notice, the synopsis is slightly longer than the recommended word count. But then, even the novels in the Harry Potter series are lengthy. In short, the length of your synopsis also depends on your genre. A fantasy fiction of 1,00,000 + word count will have a 2 page synopsis. 

  • How to write a synopsis:

There are many ways to write a strong synopsis. Sharing some of the ideas that have helped people:

    • Type 1: The 3 paragraph approach

We will segregate the synopsis into three paragraphs where the first paragraph will be about the primary character, the conflict and the world. The second paragraph will cover the major twists in the story. And the third will have the resolution with the ending. Each paragraph not more than 200-250 words and you have your perfect 500-750 words synopsis ready.

    • Type 2: Chapter Beginnings Compilation Method

Try picking the one line from each chapter which conveys the core essence of that chapter and bring it all together. Add and delete actions and details to make it flow seamlessly. 

    • Type 3: The Q and A method

Answer the following questions for your manuscript: 

      • Who is it about?
      • Where are they based?
      • What is happening with them?
      • Why is it happening?
      • How will they deal with it?

Limit the answers to 100-150 words. The summary of all those answers is your synopsis.

So now, coming back to the story mentioned in the sample query letter above. If we were to write the synopsis for it, it might start something like this:

Sample Synopsis based on Sample Query Letter
Kamla Nath (82) is shocked at the death of Rajbir (28) her grandson in a road accident one rainy night. With traces of alcohol found in his wife, Pooja’s (25) blood who was with him, all the suspicions are pointing towards her as she came out unscathed from the accident. Ranbir (24) her second grandson reveals about a new will, his father Shaurya (58) was planning to announce which would have included Pooja in it. Within weeks, Shaurya slips from the stairs and is left paralyzed from neck down.

If you notice, the names of the primary characters have been made bold and their age has been mentioned in brackets to simply save the word count. Irrespective of the flow of the narrative in the novel which is oscillating between the past and the present, the synopsis is still written as per the flow of the incidents.

  • What should a brief bio contain?

A bio is about YOU, the author and should focus on your credentials as an author with your publishing history ( if any). While credentials are not as important for fiction submissions, they are usually the deal-breaker for non-fiction writers.

P.S.
Your formal resume/ C.V is not your bio!

Your age, qualifications and work experience (unless related to the book) is of no use in this bio. Preferably written in third person, the author’s bio should highlight your experience as a writer and of any previously published work. In addition to this, one or two paragraphs about your background and your reason for writing this book can also be added. If you are an SME ( Subject Matter Expert or in simple words, a Mr./ Ms. Know-it-all) on the subject of your book through your qualifications or experience, it is important to highlight that. For e.g. as an economist for three decades and a consultant to the Finance Ministry, one can write a book commenting on the economic conditions of the country and the reasons behind it well. 

  • Excerpts / Sample Chapters

One of the requirements for submissions is sending your sample chapters or excerpts from your manuscript.  The usual requirement is for three sample chapters. The chapters need not be the first three chapters. They don’t even need to be in a chronological sequence. They can be any three chapters from your manuscript which you feel are your best. ( Unless specifically mentioned in the submission guidelines )Choose the ones which reflect your writing ability in the best possible manner. Here – your writing prowess is at display. So make the selection carefully and highlight your best writing skills.

Though it is recommended to send the first three chapters purely from the ‘hook‘ angle. Keeping aside the publishers and agents for a moment, even as a reader if we were to choose a book we would skim through the first few pages to determine whether it is engaging or not. That is exactly what the agents and publishers analyze from your first chapters. They know that if the beginning is weak and not engaging enough, the whole novel might not be worth it at all. Hence, the strong emphasis on the first three chapters only.

ICYMI
This brings us to the most important writing tip which is often ignored : Work on the beginning of your novel. Have a strong and captivating opening sequence which catches the readers’ attention from the word go and holds onto it till the last page. ( or even more!) Your opening should be compelling and interesting enough to make an agent want to continue reading it.  

Though the things mentioned above are largely what every agent requires, the formatting in each of these varies from agent to agent. Formatting includes the font size, type, the spacing, file format and numbering. It is advisable to go through their submission guidelines and follow the instructions mentioned meticulously.

With this, your Submission Kit is ready! You can now consider yourself ready for querying. However, you are still three steps away from sending your manuscript to agents.

 Step 1:  Go through the list of Literary Agents in India to identify which one suits your needs in terms of the genre that you have written in and the work that has been done by them in the market.

This is a very crucial step as it helps you zero in on the places where your book might have a potential. Simply put, it is the basic rule of demand and supply where you are trying to gauge the demand before submitting your supply. 

One must always go with an agent who not only understands the genre, but is also able to present it well enough to publishers. Things like the previous projects handled so far, the support extended to debut authors and the ability to fetch lucrative deals play an important role in selecting an agent.

 Step 2:  Once you have made a list of the agents you wish to approach, understand their requirements in terms of submissions and make the necessary changes to your Submission Kit contents.

 Step 3: Take their email ids from their Submissions/ Contact Us page and send in your manuscripts with other documents from the Submission Kit. 

And do not forget the key word here – Be patient. Any response from an agent or a publishing house takes time, mostly owing to the sheer volume of submissions they receive as you must have read in our previous post. So be patient, after sending your manuscript. A rigorous follow up seeking an acknowledgment or asking for a response irrespective of the occasion/ place you bump into them at, is considered highly unprofessional. 

Now pray for all the powers of the Universe to conspire and make it happen!

 

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks Chetan for the effort to give aspiring writers a detailed roadmap on hiring literary agents and getting their books published. This kind of guidance is what every novice author would desperately want but is scarce. With these series of articles you’ve already become a guiding light to hundreds, if not thousands, of new writers. Thanks again.

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