Before you seek a book agent, consider:

If you already have a large fan base of, say, a thousand book buyers, an agent may be able to get you a deal with a publisher that provides some “marquee value” and a credible platform. However, in any case, if you don’t have an agent yet and are querying with a nonfiction book proposal or with a fiction manuscript, consider that it could be a year or two before you will be in print. This has to do with agent and publisher response times (2-6 weeks), contract negotiating delays (a week or so), editorial development process (~10 weeks), production process (3 weeks), and publisher book-catalog windows (generally, Spring and Fall).

Particularly if your book is nonfiction, it could be out of date before it’s a book. If it’s fiction, you might miss a trend.

With self-publishing, even if you allow time for professional assistance with design and production, you can be in print in six months or less. Even less time for an ebook.

Then, too, a deal with a publisher will net you considerably less per copy than self-publishing. None of them are giving big advances anymore, unless you are already selling widely or are some kind of celebrity. Signing with a publisher will save you the design and production expenses. But whether you go mainstream or publish yourself, you will have to underwrite your promotional campaign.

But if you must, here’s how:

If you have a personal contact, use it. However, don’t assume because you have some access that you can ignore the agency’s submission guidelines. An introductory phone call or email ping should get a reply with instructions. When in doubt, send a formal query but begin the letter or the email pitch with the referral name and how you are connected. In general, using a person’s name without his or her permission will backfire – you will lose the good opinion of both that person and the agent.

Search directories to find agents who are: 1) open to submissions and 2) specialize in your genre:

Go to the agency website (should be in the agent’s profile), and research submission policies and preferences (usually there’s a Submissions tab):

  • Determine whether queries are to be addressed to specific agents (by genre) or to a catchall (blind) recipient.
  • If to a specific agent, read his or her bio / profile to make sure it’s a fit.
  • Is the agent currently accepting submissions? Some agents will indicate hiatus periods for vacations, family leave, or just being swamped and temporarily overwhelmed.
  • What is the preferred query method: paper (snail mail) or email or either?
  • The query typically asks whether the agent wishes to see a proposal or manuscript and does not include the document.
  • Include in the query ONLY those items the agent specifies.
  • Include ONLY the exact number of pages the agent asks for in the sample (if a sample is permitted).
  • Query format (exclude items the agent doesn’t specify):
    • Cover letter (if via snail). Some agents will suggest what they expect to see in a letter and its length.
    • Email pitch (typically shorter than a letter, if via email). Two or three short paragraphs.
    • Audience / market / genre
    • Author’s credentials (such as short bio, previous publication, any current representation). If nonfiction, include your qualifications as an expert.
    • Synopsis (typically, less than a page)
    • Outline
    • Sample chapter (note expected length)
    • Book proposal (nonfiction only)
  • If via email, note whether the supporting materials (such as synopsis, outline, sample) are to be embedded in (pasted into) the email body or attached. Agents that do not permit attachments typically will delete the email without reading.
  • Self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for return of mailed documents. Alternatively, you may request that paper documents be destroyed or recycled.
  • Response time (typically 2-6 weeks)
  • Concurrent queries. Most agents don’t expect exclusive queries. But if they do, consider that your efforts will be on hold for 2-6 weeks until you get a reply (or don’t).
  • Follow-up method (if allowed). Email queries typically get auto-replies, which indicate response time and may give contact information for follow-ups. Many such replies will indicate that no answer should be deemed as a “pass” and no further communication will be provided.

Unless you are pursuing an exclusive, query as many agents concurrently as you can identify for your genre. It may take 20 or more queries to get one positive request to see the a full or partial manuscript (fiction) or full book proposal (nonfiction). When it comes to submission of manuscripts or proposals, agents may be more likely to require exclusivity. It would not be unusual, or necessarily inappropriate, for you to have several agents reading your manuscript at the same time. Again, consider carefully whether you are willing to submit to agents who require exclusivity in submissions.

NOTE: Agents that charge reading fees (or “processing fees”) may be violating the professional practice rules of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). Save your money.