I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
You’ve finished your great American novel, and you want to find a literary agent who will help you get it published. You pull up Google and type in “literary agents”. Then, you try to pick your jaw up from the floor when you realize that finding an agent is tougher than getting published.
So, do you just try to get published on your own? You can, but then your options run out as the rejection letters pour in, and you're left with publishers who only accept submissions from agents.
Now, there is an easy way to search for agents when you decide that you need one to expand your publishing options. Agents have begun using the Manuscript Wish List to help authors pinpoint which agents are interested in their genre. They even sometimes give specific plot and character guidelines in their wish list to really pare down what they are looking for. In this way, agents are not wasting their time turning away queries that don’t fit their guidelines, and authors can find agents who are looking for their specific type of story.
Below is the process that I use to query literary agents for my books. With this method, you should be able to find some agents to query for your own books. It doesn't guarantee acceptance, but it does cut down your research time to a concentrated list of interested agents.
An old printing press displayed in a museum I've visited.
How To Research Agents
The Manuscript Wish List was introduced to me by a professor while taking a Creative Writing Workshop class. She brought it up as a Twitter hashtag that writers can use to find tweets from agents calling out specific wish list items to authors. By plugging in the #MSWL on Twitter, a slew of Tweets appeared from various agents looking for specific novel pitches.
To get even more specific, my professor suggested that I add the #MG hashtag to my search since I am a middle grade author. This really helped me to pinpoint the agents looking specifically for middle grade submissions.
Afterwards, I found the following website: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/. There, I typed "middle grade" into their search box, and it brought up a long list of agents from various agencies looking for middle grade submissions. Each agent has their own profile page with details about the types of submissions they are seeking and for which company.
The page also includes contact information, though I don’t use this contact information. Instead, I just write down the agent’s name and the company that they work for. Each agent must be researched further on their agency’s website to check that they are currently open for submissions and that their contact information has not changed.
A video about #MSWL.
Information to Obtain
Once I have a bunch of names written down from the Manuscript Wish List, it’s time to research specifics. So, I Google the name of the agency along with the word “submission”, and it typically generates a link to that agency’s submissions page where their submission guidelines are posted. Here is the information that you need to make a note of when you get to this step:
- Is the agent still working for this company?
- Are they currently accepting query submissions?
- If not, when will they be open for submissions again?
- Do they take unsolicited submissions, or do you need to be referred to a specific agent on that site to submit?
- Is there another agent at this agency who also reads queries for your genre? Would they be a better fit based on their guidelines on their profile page?
- Do they ask for sample chapters? If so, how many pages/word count? Do they want it double spaced?
- Do they ask for a plot synopsis? If so, how many pages? Be ready with both a paragraph-sized summary, a one page summary, and a chapter-by-chapter summary.
- Should the query letter and any supporting documents be pasted in the body of the email, or would they rather have it in an attachment? If so, what attachment formats do they accept (.doc, .pdf, etc.?)
- How do they want the subject line to read to avoid the email becoming spam? (Ex. “QUERY” + “BOOK TITLE” + “YOUR NAME”)
- Does the company have an online submission form? If so, scan it to make sure they are accepting submissions at that time and that you can provide an answer to all of the questions that they ask?
- Do they ask you to list successful titles that are similar to your own? Have this ready, just in case.
- What is their response time?
- Do they respond to rejected queries?
- If one agent at the agency rejects your work, can you submit to another, or are submissions shared within the company?
You MUST do your research here. If you don't follow an agent's guidelines, there is a good chance that they won't read your submission. When they are receiving dozens of submissions each week, they can be choosy about which ones they read. Also, make sure that you have all of your standard documents prepared in advance. For more on this, check out my Hub, How to Submit Your Book to Publishers.
Outside of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, PA.
Follow on Social Media
Be sure to follow the agency and agents that you are submitting to on social media. Make sure your news feeds are full of #MSWL posts for future submissions. Show that you care about the company and what it has to say.
Chart Your Submissions
Keep track of your submissions on an online spreadsheet or handwritten chart (I do both). Mark down when you receive a response on your queries. Don’t forget to write down the name of the agent along with the name of their company. Review this list before submitting to any new companies. You don’t want to waste your time submitting to an agent who has already rejected you or to a company that does not allow multiple submissions. Some responses will be sent within 24 hours. Others take days, weeks, or even months, if they respond at all.
An agent will usually tell you in their guidelines whether or not to expect a response from them. Some encourage you to follow up if you don’t hear within an allotted time frame. Others tell you to consider it a rejection after a certain date. Mark down the follow up dates if you intend to follow up with a specific agent. Otherwise, do as they say and mark it as a rejection if this date passes.
Hang In There
Do not be afraid of rejection, especially about the content of a rejection. While it would be nice to get some feedback, you don’t need to be worried about an agent bashing your work in their response. They will usually tell you up front that they don’t have time to give detailed reasons as to why they are not accepting your work. However, they typically put a positive spin on the rejection, encouraging you to submit elsewhere or letting you know that another agent may feel differently than they do. They understand the frustrations of the business and won’t make a point of twisting the knife with harsh criticism. So, be prepared for many gentle letdowns.
Querying agents can be time consuming, frustrating, and it takes away from your valuable writing time, usually spent scrolling through your social media feeds instead of actually writing, but that’s a hurdle for another day. Hopefully, these tips will shorten the hunt and help to keep you organized along the way. Be hopeful and prepared for an agent to ask you for your full manuscript, and don’t get discouraged if you keep receiving rejection letters. This is ultimately a lottery of finding the perfect agent looking for your exact work at the right time. It takes a lot for the stars to line up and realize that you are one in a stack of submissions that agents are reading every day, and they can only take on so many clients at a time.
You have to play to win, though, and you have to keep trying as long as there are agents to query. I’ve even been able to find agents who accept previously self-published novels, providing hope that maybe even my already self-published books have a future in the traditional publishing world. So, the longer you explore the world of the Manuscript Wish List, the more opportunities there will be to get published.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on February 09, 2018:
I use it all the time. The same for the Twitter hash tag. I've gotten one request so far from it.
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on February 08, 2018:
Oh good. I hope it's helpful.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on February 08, 2018:
Good article, and I actually own the book you've posted!