To sell a book in today's market you need an agent. Most editors don't even look at a manuscript unless it comes from an established agent. For editors, an agent is a "first read." The editor figures that if the agent feels it's a strong property, then there's a good chance it is. But that's why agents have to be careful who they take on as clients. If an agent sends an editor half a dozen books in a row that the editor hates, the editor's going to stop taking that agent's calls.
How do you go about getting an agent? Before I answer that question let me say that I'm talking about getting an agent to represent a novel. I've never sold a nonfiction book and know nothing about the field.
To get an agent you first have to write a great book. That fact may seem obvious but I'm always shocked when people seem surprised when I tell them that you can't simply write a letter to an agent telling them about a great idea you have for a novel. Nowadays you need to write the book and I mean write the whole book. Make it as perfect as possible before you even think of searching for an agent.
Then buy Writer's Market -- the bible for beginning writers. You can buy the latest version on Amazon for ten bucks and it will tell you a lot more about finding an agent than I can tell you here. It will also list many reputable agents -- ones that work for huge agencies and ones that work alone. It will tell you what authors they represent. It will tell you what kind of genres they are particularly interested in. It will give you their email addresses and their office addresses.
Writer's Market will warn you away from agents who want to charge you a fee to represent your book. Stay away from such people! Legitimate agents makes their money from selling books, not from charging desperate unpublished writers fees. If you've written a strong novel, people will pay you, not the other way around. Never forget that.
The first thing an agent wants to see is a "proposal." A proposal is made up of a first chapter and an outline. I've already spoken of the importance of having a powerful opening chapter. Many people ask me how detailed their outlines should be. It depends on the agent. Some like a lot of detail, most just want a general idea of where the book is headed. To be on the safe side, I'd make my outline short. If the agent is interested in your book, he or she will ask for more detail. If the agent is REALY in love with your book, he or she will ask to see the whole manuscript.
Make sure you have it ready. Make sure it's complete.
What I just outlined above is the most common way beginning writers get an agent. There's a couple of other ways. If you have a friend who's a published author, who has an agent, ask him or her to pass on your work to their agent. I get asked by people all the time if I'll send their book to my agent. I almost always say no.
Why? Because their books are lousy.
Another way to meet agents is to go to writer's conferences. They're held in various cities during the course of the year. Google the topic and you'll find a list of them. I met my first agent at a writer's conference that was held at USC, in Los Angeles. He was a beginning agent and I was a beginning writer. He thought I had talent and he agreed to represent me, and we worked together for eighteen fruitful years.
If you're planning to meet an agent at a writer's conference, you shouldn't show up with your five pound manuscript in hand. Agents hate that -- no way they want to carry such a load back home with them. But don't despair. Agents DO attend writer's conferences in the hope of finding fresh talent. They'll talk to you, generally speaking, and give you their card. But don't try to explain your entire novel to them. They'll make up their mind whether they want to read it after they read your proposal.
You can see that the proposal is the key to getting your foot in the door. Besides sending in a first chapter and an outline, you might want to attach a letter explaining who you are: your educational background; what you do for a living. If you've attended a well known writer's program, or have a degree in creative writing, be sure to mention that. But keep your letter short. Your book should sell your book. In fact, your book is the only thing that will sell your book.
That's why everything starts with writing a great book.
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Christopher Pike's Writing AdviceNon-Fiction
In 1984, Christopher Pike published a young adult thriller called SLUMBER PARTY. Neither he nor the publishing community realized that this was the beginning of a revolution in the YA genre. That teenagers had been craving an author who didn't tal...