Monday, September 17, 2012

How To Get a Literary Agent—Or Not

Often when I tell folks that I’ve written a mystery novel, the first thing they ask is “are you going to get it published?”

Easier said than done.

Yes, it’s true that nowadays one can self-publish one’s book, and the stigma that used to accompany the practice has mostly vanished (i.e., people rarely talk about “vanity presses” any more). But there is a ton of schlepp that goes along with self-publishing: line and copy editing; choice of fonts, style and size of the book; formatting the manuscript; designing a cover; placing the finished book where it can be purchased; and of course publicity.

If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to find a press willing to publish your book, they will take care of most of the above (publicity is now largely up to the author, even if you have a publisher, these days).

I’m not keen on spending my time on the production end of the actual book; I’d rather just write.

 conducting research
(photo by Robin McDuff)

So I’d much prefer the publisher route. Which means—realistically speaking—acquiring a literary agent willing to represent you and your manuscript.

To find an agent, you have to have a good query letter. I’ve spend many hours writing, re-writing, and honing one. Here is the “meat” (i.e., minus the bio, etc.) of mine:
Dear [agent],

A restaurant owner couldn’t possibly be murdered for having veal and farmed salmon on her menu—at least so thinks Sally Solari, a civil attorney who practically grew up in the kitchen of an old-style Italian eatery. But now she’s beginning to wonder if maybe she’s wrong.

A Matter of Taste, a cozy mystery (complete, at 63,000 words) in the vein of Diane Mott Davidson and early Sue Grafton, juxtaposes the world of a traditional, family-run restaurant with that of trendy, politically-correct foodies. Sally’s Aunt Letta has been found stabbed to death at Gauguin, a swank Polynesian-French restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, and Sally is astounded to learn she has inherited the place. When the Gauguin sous-chef becomes the prime suspect in Letta’s murder, Sally—utterly unprepared to run the restaurant without his expertise and convinced of his innocence—agrees to investigate on his behalf.

Delving into her enigmatic aunt’s past, Sally is thrown into the unfamiliar world of organic and sustainable farming, Chez Panisse-style restaurants, and animal rights activists. Not to mention a lesbian love affair her Aunt Letta had been hiding from the family. As she gathers clues on her way to solving the case, Sally begins to shed her preconceived notions about the “food movement,” ultimately coming to appreciate that not all of what these zealots have to say is so crazy after all.
 I’ve sent my query letter to about thirty potential agents so far, and four of them have expressed an interest. What happens is you send out a batch of queries—I generally do them in threes or fours—and then wait. And wait. Because although some agents will respond yea or nay within a day or two, most take a month or even more to respond. After all, they have their regular clients to attend to, so unsolicited submissions (i.e. the slush pile) have low priority.

And then again, many have a policy of simply not responding at all if they’re not interested. As you can tell, it’s imperative that you keep good records of your agent search to keep it all straight. (There’s a terrific free website called QueryTracker which helps with this process.)

 my office space when we were in Fairbanks last winter

If an agent is interested in your book, she (and the agents representing cozies mostly are women) will generally ask to see what’s called a “partial”—a few chapters or the first 50 pages. Though some will request the entire manuscript. I currently have out two partials and one full. One of my partials has been out for almost five months, now.

You can see that it’s quite the waiting game. It’s considered bad form to send out a barrage of queries all at the same time—say, to query 50 agents all at once. So I’ve been holding off for a few weeks between batches before sending out a new set of queries. Today, I sent out four more. Wish me luck!


  1. Leslie, I have a very good friend who is a bit ahead of you in getting his book published. Would you like me to connect you? He is in the thick of getting the book to be picked up now.

    1. Hey Tina--Yes, absolutely, I'm up for connection with anyone who has any helpful info. Thanks! xoxo