So… You’re trying to find an Agent?
I feel your pain!

The road to writing and publishing a book seems so clear when you start out. There’s kind of a road map to get you from point A to point B and so on…at least there is at first.

Problem is that map becomes more obscure the further down the path you travel.

So…you’ve written your first draft. It’s not bad. It needs some work, but you’re getting there. The way forward is clear, you need to go back through your work and self-edit to the best of your ability. Sometimes doing this twice, or three times…sometimes (like in the case of ‘Hunters’) you do it nineteen times (just me, then?).

This is the part of the path that’s extremely well-traveled. The grass is well-trodden, and the branches broken aside.

At this point, you reach the first fork in the road…the one that tempts you into self-publishing. This one is paved, easy to walk down if you feel so inclined. An easier path that avoids the pitfalls ahead.

But you’re determined to do it the old fashioned way. You want to see that book on the shelf. For a punter to walk into the book store, hold it in their hands and take it eagerly to the cashier. So, you turn your back on the beautifully laid pavement of ‘Self-Publish Avenue’.

Traditional Publishing

Now you pass the book over to your beta-readers and you absorb the feedback – good and bad – and push the results back into your work. Honing your manuscript to make it better. Pruning the bad bits away. Trying to get your pacing right and correcting the errors that they’ve found.

At this point on the path you need to get the machete out and hack away a little vegetation along the way. Clear a bit of the way ahead yourself because this path isn’t so navigated.

There’s another fork again. That pesky seductive smooth paved road into self-publishing. You think about it seriously for a moment, wondering if you should just take that route…

But the dream persists.

The Twitter #WritingCommunity is a wonderful one. Full of supportive and amazing people. A treasure trove of advice. The art of querying, however, seems to be the part where many of us are in that same boat, pushing off from the shore and into unknown waters.
Shark infested waters.

So what are the sharks that await us?
What is it that makes these waters difficult to traverse?

Well, the first hurdle is actually FINDING the agents you want to approach. Of course, there’s GOOGLE. There are websites like ‘The Publishers Marketplace’. There are also written texts you can grab from Amazon, such as the ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook’.

The next issue you have is where do you want to approach agents? I’m a UK author, so do I want to approach just UK agents? Or US ones as well?
I’m based in the UK, so does it make sense to go close to home? Or cast my net wider? Does it even matter where the agent is in this day and age of digital communication? With instant email, text messages and video conferencing, does it matter where the agent and author are in respect to each other?

Okay, so decision made. You know who you want to approach.

Next question becomes… How many should you be approaching at any one time. You can’t do just one at a time because each has a turn around time anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks. So, you need to have multiple irons in the fire if you want to get anywhere at all. But how many?
Five at a time? Ten?
Okay, so let’s say we do ten at a time. What next?

The Art of Submission

Now you scan the agency websites trying to find submission criteria…only to find a complete mess of different guidelines.

Here’s the usual checklist:

The Cover Letter

This, to be fair, seems pretty standard. They ALL want one. The bigger issue here is that they all want something different IN that cover letter. Like, for example:

  • Writing qualifications – so how do I approach that if I’m a rank amateur and this is my first go around?
  • A one line pitch for your book – This is harder than it sounds! Especially if you have a book like mine which is a multi-character story which sets up a series. I simply can’t do it justice in one line. Or even one paragraph.
  • Target market – As if everything is so cut and dried? My book has profanity, a little horror and some sexual content. So, it’s for adults… but also it’s a romance of sorts. And a mystery. And a little action and adventure. It has #LGBT aspects. Strong female characters. It’s not that I was trying to hit all these markets, it’s simply that this is a multi-character story and as such each character has a slightly different arc and back story. For my beta-readers it made sense when they read it…but how do you convince an agent to take the time to read it based on a throwaway line in a cover letter?

So, basically you need a different cover letter for each agent you approach.

After the cover letter, things get even fuzzier.

Your Synopsis

They all want a synopsis, but it varies on what they want. Thus far I’ve had three different types…

  1. A synopsis no more than 2 pages long
  2. A synopsis no more than 1 page long
  3. A synopsis no more than 1 page long, double spaced

As you can imagine, these present quite different results.

Option 1 allows my synopsis to breathe a little. Especially in a book as complex as mine. It means I can devote a paragraph to each character’s arc through the book. Works well!

Option 2 means my synopsis needs to be heavily edited down to get it onto a single page. It was a challenge to condense the text down and not lose anything important.

Option 3… I’m fucked. It effectively halves the amount of text available in Option 2. So yeah… I’m fucked.

I’m fairly sure that the more queries I put in, the more of these I’m going to find. So yeah, you can’t just have one synopsis that you can send to every agent.

Examples of your Manuscript

Then the other thing they all want it a sample. But agent’s can’t even agree on what they want for this.

  • Is it the first 3 chapters?
  • Is it the first 30 pages?
  • Is it the first 50 pages?
  • If you’re sending to a UK agent, should it be in UK English spelling? If it’s a US agent, should it be in US English?

Either way, you can’t just prepare ONE document to send to all the different agents… 

Do you see a theme developing here?

The Final Straw!

Even when you’ve got all the above sorted out…every agent wants their submission in a different way.

  • Email
  • Or send it directly to the agent you want to query
  • Or send it to a general email box with the agent in the subject line
  • Or print it and send it snail-mail
  • Or email it with the synopsis and the chapters all in the body of the email
  • Or email it with attachments…but are they WORD attachments or PDF attachments?

So… In summary then

The big problem with querying.

There is no simple process to follow. There is no easy way to find what you need. And there is no way you can prepare a common letter, synopsis and MS example.

They all want something different.

Which is a pain-in-the-arse, quite frankly.

It makes the process just to prep your queries long and painful.

Which is why the self-publishing route starts to look so attractive. And it makes you wonder how many GREAT books are either going unpublished because of this process, or are being missed, or are being self-publishing where they disappear into a saturated market place because the author doesn’t have the time or knowledge to promote it properly.

We’re living in a day and age where companies like Netflix and Amazon are spending small fortunes trying to find that next elusive IP that could be huge. That next big book that could become the next big franchise. I can’t help but feel like the system is set up in such a way as to make it very difficult for those next big things to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
How many authors have simply given up? Or not had the pre-requisite letter-writing or synopsis-writing skills to pass the first casual glance of an agent? Should writing a book automatically make you a great professional letter-writer? Or a brilliant business person?

Don’t Worry! I’ll Fix it!

When I become a billionaire, I’m going to set up an agency. And it’ll be a piece of piss for people to submit to me.

Online Form.

I can’t help but feel like that’s the answer somehow.

  • Have a drop down menu for the agent you want to apply to. Or to select the genre so that some clever automation can route it to the right person.
  • A web page where the criteria is simple and clear.
  • All the items needed in your cover letter set out in a form.
  • A nice generous word count for your synopsis, not an arbitrary page count.
  • And a representative limit to the sample text. I’d go with the 50-page one. Plenty to give you a good idea of what the book is like. I mean, if the example is poor, then you don’t need to read all 50 – 10 pages might be enough to reach that conclusion. But at least give the author a chance to win you over.

I mean, is all this too hard to do?

Note: I think I get it. I know why it’s done like it is. Agents have a tough job, they have to sort through hundreds of different queries from hundreds of people, just like me, who want to be authors. It’s not an easy job and I guess they just lay out the criteria that makes life easier for them. A series of FILTERS, as it were, in order to try and weed out the chaff from the wheat!

I get that, I really do.

My frustration is in the fact that as someone trying to navigate the system, it’s difficult to figure out and keep track of it all. I’ve done 7 queries this weekend and ALL of them had different criteria.

So, what I’m trying to do with this blog is say….if you are a writer and you’re querying, just know that I sympathize with the pain you’re going through and I’m totally in your corner! Together we’ll navigate these shark infested waters and hopefully get that book deal we all want!

Let’s support each other through this process, #Writing Community!

Love & Books

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  1. Jim

    I used to drive for a living Jon, and as a driver you need a road-map to learn your way around. Some guys used to buy maps from different makers like Tiger and Rand McNally. After miles have come and gone and your sense of direction becomes more fine tuned, you don’t really need the map anymore. You just know where you’re going

    What you essentially did here was publish another map out of many that details the roads leading to Publishing City USA, and I for one thank you for this. After we have a few books under our belt, the “map” becomes less necessary. In the meantime, I’ll copy and paste this into Open Office if I have to, but this is being saved.

    • Jon Ford

      Thanks Jim,

      I really wanted to just put into words my experience and maybe provide a little help and advice to anyone going through the same thing as me.
      If for nothing more than so they know they’re not alone.
      But maybe it might help guide them at least a little in the right direction… not that this is necessarily the right direction, I’m just trying to navigate the waters and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in my wake people might be able to follow!

  2. Liz

    The main thing I look for in the editing phase are unneeded words. I have this bad habit of using too many filler words because I think, at the time of writing, that they help accentuate points along the way. They don’t (I just edited out the word “really” at the end of “don’t”). They just add to the word count without adding to the quality. Like when a butcher keeps too much fat on the steak just to add weight to add to the price.

    With most writers, that is a sub-conscious thing, whereas the butcher knows exactly what he’s doing.

    • Jon Ford

      I was told, way back when I was trying to learn to self edit, that writers tend to do one of two things…

      Write a skeletal draft and then flesh it out.
      Write everything and the kitchen sink and then pare it down.

      I am DEFINITELY the latter! LOL I do EXACTLY what you describe. I try not to do it so much anymore now I’m aware of it, but I know I still do. I then try and catch it during edit.

      • Liz

        When I was first learning that I would be looking for scenes that don’t really fit the whole story anymore. They did as I was writing them, but that may have been in Chapter two. All the while, Chapter ten took the story in a different direction than originally planned in Chapter two and now the scene doesn’t fit anymore.

        It still happens but not as much

        • Jon Ford

          I do that ALL the time. LOL
          Even with all my spreadsheet planning of the arc and the chapters, I’ll write stuff that forces me to revisit things entirely. Usually they’re moments of story inspiration, that I have this brainwave about and then I’m off and running at a tangent.
          I know for example, that a while back I wrote the start of book 4. I had two very specific characters start that book sleeping together… then I wrote something at the start of book 2 that totally changed that. Not that start to book 4 would be very out of place.

          One day maybe I’ll publish a ‘Deleted Scenes!’ 😀

  3. Mason

    I have to admit that I’m the latter of those two options as well. Writing a skeletal draft for the purpose of “filling in the blanks” Sounds too much like work. LOL It would be like writing the same story twice.

    I don’t know about you Jon, but I try as much as possible to write it in the order in which it will eventually be read. It doesn’t always work out that way as there are times I’ll get a paragraph or two in my head and it won’t fit where the story is at that point. Every now and then, that new idea, will be part of a whole different story,

    • Jon Ford

      Okay so my process…

      I have a MONSTER spreadsheet where all the books and character arcs are plotted, this includes a rough chapter layout with small synopsis of how each chapter will go.

      For example, here’s how I approached the first three chapters of Hunters (the ones I put up over Christmas):

      Prologue HUNTED 1 Week Prior Kareena St Claire
      Kareena running for her life. She is young and doesn’t understand why she is being hunted. The forest seems to be turning against her as she flees.
      . 405
      1 LONDON Monday London (United Kingdom) Gayle Knightley
      Gayle is on her way to Buckingham Palace to get her new orders, she is not happy about it. Runs into Torbar en route who mentions her coming to teach. Meets General Norbar in the foyer.

      2 FREELANCER Monday Havana (Cuba)” Zarra Anderson
      Tracking and capturing a Bounty in the Bahamas. She chases him down and then eventually ices him after a long chase. Becka brings in the dropship for pickup.

      Like that. Then I create the draft MS document with these synopsis in as Chapter place holders.

      I then tend to flit around the MS writing the chapters that I’m most ‘feeling’ at that moment. It might be because I’ve had inspiration, or am really enthusiastic about writing that particular moment.

      At this point I’m really just writing ‘stream of consciousness’, throwing out everything in my head onto the page. After I’ve finished I’ll leave it a while before going back and starting to self edit it down. Removing bits I don’t want, pruning lines etc.

      Once the MS is finished, I’ll go back through on multiple edits and remove duplication etc. For example if I’find I’ve said something in Chapter 4 and then repeated it in Chapter 24. I’ll make sure I only say it once.

      I end up polishing and polishing and polishing. Takes a while to hone the draft into something I’m happy with. even then I doubt it’s perfect. But hopefully I’ve got it to a state that good enough to pique the interest of an agent or publisher.

      That’s the plan. 😀

  4. Sean

    Have you gone the self-publishing route Jon? Printing, marketing and selling all on your own? Maybe even publishing just the e-version ? It’s an option.

    Sure, there is a lot involved and some of that process may be above the skill level of the writer, but the costs to get things done right might be less than what you have to pay people when you go then traditional route. It’s something worth looking into at least.

    • Jon Ford

      The DREAM is definitely traditional.

      But I’m not totally dismissing Self Publishing. I’m just not sure I have the time and expertise it takes to do justice to what I’ve written. I’m not saying Hunters is the greatest book you’ll ever read, not at all, but I would love to be able to give it a chance. And for that I figure I need the help of professionals.

      But if I have to, then yes, I’ll go the self-published route.

  5. Simon

    I’m a book reviewer, and I cannot imagine trying to summarize any book in just one sentence. It’s especially difficult if you have a multi-character story. So, how do you tackle this task? Can you do it successfully? Do you end up writing a few sentences or try to summarize your story the best you can in one?

    • Jon Ford

      I honestly have not figured it out as yet really. It’s practically impossible to convey what Songbird is in one sentence. I wish I had a catchy concept, but alas the story is way too complicated to sum up easily. It’s a flaw that I struggle with constantly while trying to query.

      I’m open to any suggestions anyone has! Help gratefully received! LOL

      • Simon

        Has anyone else read your book? If so, ask them to summarize it for you in their own words. Maybe that will spark some ideas on how to summarize it in a short blurb.

        I’ve seen it suggested that authors try writing a little “elevator speech” for their book. Maybe once you get it down to a short blurb, it’ll be easier to figure out how to fit the summary into a couple of sentences.

  6. Jackie

    ‘m in the process of writing my first book. How do you find beta readers who will give you straightforward and honest feedback? I have friends who would love to read the book, but I’m afraid to use them as beta readers because I’m afraid they won’t give me the criticism I need to make it better.

    • Jon Ford

      That’s a good question! If you find the answer let me know. LOL

      My Beta-Readers have thus far been friends. Some close, some not so close. But all of them I trust to give an honest opinion.
      It was also a little safer I suppose, as I knew they weren’t going to brutally bash my work. Which made me feel better about sharing my work.
      In some ways too, I know my close friends so well I think I’d spot empty platitudes when I heard them.

      The feedback I’ve had was invaluable though. From chapter lengths, to where things didn’t make sense, to spotting spelling and grammar mistakes I’d missed and continuity errors… it was a great thing to do.
      It’s made me a little braver about sharing it with people outside my close knit circle.

  7. Paula

    Hi Joh!
    How’s the querrying going? Have you heard about PitchFest on Twitter? I know it is short notice, but it is supposed to be going on today. You can pitch your book to agents who are on the lookout for new authors. I cannot even imagine trying to summarize a book concept in a page let alone 280 characters! What a challenge it must be. But I do hear that some people get agents this way.

  8. Amina

    Hello! Just came across with your blog and I really enjoy your content. In my honest opinion, I think you are doing a very good job and I can’t wait to see your success. Writing is a long journey, and I think we are all learning by getting different types of failures. I firmly believe our persistence is the key to success. I wish you all the best for your books. And don’t forget to keep fighting! 😀

    • Jon Ford

      Thanks Amina!
      Rest assured, I’m not going to give up. I’m pretty determined and I have friends behind me who support me and push me onwards when I’m feeling down. I’ll get there, so stay tuned! 🙂

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