If you’re serious about publishing your writing and you’re not going the self-publishing route, you’ll need to start querying agents at some point (or publishers if they accept unsolicited submissions).
What is a query? I hear you ask.
A query usually takes the form of a letter, or a letter and sample of your writing, to an agent who represents writers in your chosen genre. The latter is important. Do your research. Don’t send a query for an epic fantasy trilogy to an agent who only wants books on fly fishing.
If you’re in the UK, a good place to look is the Writers and Artists Yearbook. You can search their database by genre, or, if you prefer, use the hard copy to make your own list of possible agents. There’s also a list of UK literary agents on Wikipedia.
If you’re in the US, there’s a Directory of Literary Agents. I haven’t used it, so I can’t vouch for how useful it is but it looks as though it might be of use. Perhaps my American friends can let me know in the comments, if they’ve used it. I have used Writer’s Digest to look for agents, however.
Another way to research is to do a Google search on, for instance, ‘US Literary Agents who represent fantasy‘. Just be wary of what comes up. If an agent or publisher wants to charge you money up front, run the other way.
Now you have your list of agents, the next step is to read their submission guidelines. What do they want to see from you? For some, it’s just the query letter, others might want the query letter and a synopsis. Still others might want a query letter, synopsis and the first fifty pages. Make sure you send exactly what their guidelines state. The biggest complaint I’ve seen from editors and agents when they discuss querying, is that writers don’t read the guidelines, or that they ignore the guidelines altogether, as though they don’t apply to them. Gentle hint: the guidelines always apply to you.
Query letter requirements seem to vary from one side of the pond to the other. For instance, an American query letter seems to require more of a punchy, high-concept blurb, as well as a brief introduction to the writer. Cover letters to English agents, however, seem to be looking for more about the writer and what the main themes of the novel are. So look around. Google is definitely your friend. There are a plethora of examples of good query/cover letters out there, on both sides of the pond.
Most query guidelines ask for a synopsis, which is something that most writers agree is one of the most difficult part of querying. What is a synopsis? It’s a summary of the plot. It needs to be more than a back cover blurb, because it should include how the story ends. It doesn’t need to be a blow-by-blow, or chapter-by-chapter account, either. Include the main characters and the major plot events and write a one-page summary (it can be single-spaced). Again, there are many examples online.
If query guidelines request a sample of your novel, send only what they specify. For example, if they are asking for the first fifty pages, don’t send fifty-eight. If they want only the first chapter, don’t send the first two (or chapter 28 because it’s the most exciting).
You can query more than one agent at a time, but don’t query them all in one email. One email per agent. Use their name and tell them why you are querying them in particular. Use what you’ve learned about them to show that you’ve done your research. It’s okay to follow up, but not until after their guidelines state. For instance, if they say they expect to answer queries within three months, don’t follow up until after three months have passed.
When selling yourself, be confident without being arrogant; be polite and be engaging, without looking as though you’re trying too hard. Don’t try to be funny – save that for your novel, if it’s humorous (and if it’s not, why try to be funny in your cover letter?). Use the kind of tone you might use to write a cover letter for a job application.
Above all, be professional. If an agent ultimately rejects you, don’t write back, except perhaps to thank them for their time. Absolutely don’t try to tell them what a huge mistake they’re making by not recognising your genius and signing you and your future best-seller. The publishing industry is a small world and agents, like people in any other profession, will discuss badly-behaved writers and compare horror stories. Don’t be an agent’s horror story. Even if you vehemently disagree with any feedback they send, move on. Once you’re over the disappointment, you might find they have a point. In fact, on the rare occasion I’ve had feedback from an agent or publisher, it has been of enormous value to me as a writer. If an agent or publisher has taken the time to do more than send you a form letter, they obviously felt it was worth the effort. Don’t spoil that with a churlish response; no matter how cathartic it feels at the time, it will only damage your reputation as a writer before you’ve even begun.