Need A Literary Agent? Just Add Water.
Yes it is that simple.
Here's the formula to follow and I'll walk through each component one step at a time.
Fantastic query + unique completed novel = right agent
If you have the right process in place, the right query and a great novel, it's a case of perseverance. You have to be ready to admit to yourself though, that maybe your query isn't quite right, or the novel isn't as complete as you thought, or you're targeting the wrong agents.
Please note I'm writing for the USA agent market, but from what I've heard, it's pretty accurate for the UK too, and can be applied in other english-speaking territories like Australia.
So let's start with that query. The query letter is something for a separate post as it's such a big topic, but I will simplify here and break it down into this: don't think that by 'breaking the rules' that agents set out for query letters, you will stand out and be the author picked. Agents don't have a lot of time, so when they receive a query they want to skim to where they know they will find the information they need. If you try to be unique and quirky, you make their job harder - or easier to toss you on the reject pile. Stick to the rules.
Open with your genre and word count, some comparative titles (some prefer to leave that part to the end). Also, if you're able, include a personalized reason as to why you're contacting that particular agent. This is like two sentences into your letter!
The body of the query letter is two short paragraphs summarizing your book. Overall the whole letter should not be more than 300 words, 250 is ideal. The summary should read like a book blurb on the back of a book. It should make the agent want to read more, and should not give away the ending--that's for the synopsis.
The final paragraph should detail relevant information about your writing career - publishing credits, competitions won, courses taken, associations you are a part of. You can also add why you're in a unique position to be writing this book--if say it's about surfing and you're a pro surfer. Keep it brief.
I found www.agentquery.com very helpful in terms of putting my query out there for others to critique. I then refined and refined. I read other people's queries there, and refined again. It takes more than an afternoon to boil you novel down to two paragraphs! There are other helpful sites like queryshark, but this is the one I used.
When you send out your queries you need to turn into a business person and start thinking in terms of statistics. Note how many you've sent out (I recommend batches of 5 or so in case you get feedback more improvement and you haven't burnt too many bridges). Then note how many straight rejections you get, how many requests for partials (say 50 pages) and how many requests for the full manuscript. If you're getting a lot of straight rejections, the fault my lie in your query letter, NOT your novel. Change the query letter and try again. Keep doing that until you are getting some better request percentages. Aim for a 30% request rate. This is solid.
Secondly, how do you know when your novel is finished and ready to be
submitted? This is a question every author tangles with. And that's because only you, the writer, can know. I can only say that if you have had feedback from several beta readers who are in your industry and know about books (not your mum or sister, necessarily), and they all think the book is ready to go into the world, then it's probably time.
If you really want to be sure, enter your novel into a competition or two. Even if you don't win, the feedback can be amazing and you may come in the top 5. This has to tell you something. Ultimately, only you can make that decision.
However, if you send out a few partials or full manuscripts and are not getting any feedback at all, just standard rejections, I'd take a good hard and honest look at your manuscript. If a book is good, but not to an agent's personal liking, they will generally have some feedback for you either on how to improve or to keep submitting as this world is very subjective.
There will also be a sense of momentum - more agents requesting fulls, more agents passing but with complimentary comments. My request rate rose to 60% at one point and rejections contained feedback that was pretty rosy. I could feel in my bones it was going to happen soon as this is where the luck comes in - right time, right agent, right book all coming together at the same time. Quite a feat!
In my case I sent out 50 queries. I've heard of others finding their agents after sending 150 queries. Persistence is key as that 'refining' factor and 'luck' factor take time to mesh.
Finally, how do you know which agents to target? There's only one answer to this: research. Hopefully you've been doing research while you're writing - follow agent blogs, twitter accounts and even Facebook or Good Reads accounts to see what they like and don't like. But when it comes to compiling your target list, try Manuscript Wishlist.
Here you can look up what agents are looking for in terms of genre, but also if they are open to queries. Agentquery, Publisher's Marketplace, and the agent's own websites are also important tools to use. In fact, the agent's website should be the final word in terms of what they're looking for as that will be most up to date.
Once you've found a relevant agency person, Google their name and find interviews or blog posts that may help you. Is your book about rowing and you find an agent who's passionate about rowing--that could be a lucky break for you. Look in the back of your favorite books (and ones that are similar to yours) where the author thanks their agent. Google 'who is the agent for X author' and you'll be surprised at what comes up.
Bottom line is, if you're sending queries to the wrong agents, ie agents who don't represent your genre, or who are not open to queries, you are wasting your time and messing with your requests statistics.
Right here on my website there's a list of nearly 200 agents who represent authors in the YA genre in the USA and UK. Just subscribe to my newsletter (occasional updates, news and launch announcements), to instantly download. Also in the booklet you'll find more information on how to attract the attention of a literary agent.
Just a small diversion from these steps to say--if you can attend writing conferences and meet agents to pitch to them then DO IT. It's a fast track way to get in front of agents--just make sure your pitch is as perfect as your query letter.
So roll up your sleeves--chances are this is going to be a long and grueling process, but believe me, it's better to start with all the right pieces of the same puzzle than to haphazardly approach this process. In the end, it'll be worth it.