Chuck Sambuchino: How To Sign With A Literary Agent

Chuck SambuchinoAsk any author who has tried to go the traditional publishing route and they will tell you that it’s virtually impossible to get your work in front of a large publishing house without the help of a reputable, well-connected literary agent.

That’s the author’s Catch 22: it’s just as difficult – if not more so – to find an agent willing to represent your work in the first place. If you’re a first-time author without a track record of sales and built-in following, your chances of being taken on by an agent truly are slim to none.

Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but they are exceptions, plain and simple.

Those same authors will also warn you that there are lots of “so called agents” out there who will take you on as a client, then charge you high fees for services such as copying, editing, formatting, rewrites, consulting, etc., and in the end, deliver very little, if anything for your money.

You must understand: true agents – those agents who are established and reputable and can get your work noticed by traditional publishers – are inundated with queries from thousands of authors looking for representation and will only consider working with authors they feel have long term promise and talent.

As one agent put it, “There are only so many hours in the day, so we can only work with those authors we feel have amazing talent, appeal, and staying power.”

So, with so many other authors struggling to catch the attention of an agent, how do you rise above the crowd and get an agent to represent you?

It goes without saying that the work is what initially catches the agent’s eye, but you must back that up with talent, tenacity, determination, dedication, and a very thick skin.

Chuck SambuchinoThe best advice you’ll get when it comes to getting and keeping an agent comes from Chuck Sambuchino, a recent guest on Interviewing Authors, and an editor for Writer’s Digest Books.

Sambuchino literally wrote the book on the subject. He edits The Guide to Literary Agents, the industry’s Number One resource for information on the process of finding an agent, querying an agent, and getting an agent interested in your work.

His Guide To Literary Agents blog is one of the Internet’s top destinations for information on agenting.

In this excerpt from Chuck’s Interviewing Authors session he talks about how you must do your homework to make sure that you are targeting the right agents, how to craft an effective query letter once you have potential agents identified, and how to package your work for submission to those agents.

Chuck also talks about going to writer’s conferences to meet agents. Chuck met his own agent at a conference. Perhaps you will, too.

Scroll down for a complete transcript of the interview or click the Play button below to listen to the interview now. And don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know what you thought of this interview!

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The Guide to Literary Agents

agent-guide-100No matter what you’re writing – fiction or nonfiction, books for kids or adults – you need a literary agent to secure a book deal. The 2014 Guide to Literary Agents is your essential resource for finding that literary agent – without fear of being scammed – and getting your book published.

The updated edition includes listing information for more than 1,000 literary agents who represent writers and their work and these special features:

  • “New Agent Spotlights”–calling out literary reps actively building lists right now
  • “How I Got My Agent” success stories from writers who describe their paths from aspiring author to published success
  • Informative articles on query letters, synopsis writing, voice and craft, author platform, nonfiction book proposals, researching agents
  • “Ask the Agent” profiles of individual literary agents who are currently seeking writers.

Chuck Sambuchino On Agenting Transcript

Tim Knox: Let’s talk about the agenting process, how to get an agent which I think is as hard as getting published in it of itself. Give us some advice. If I’m a new author, I’ve got a manuscript that I think is ready to go, I go get The Guide to Literary Agents but what’s my process? What do I need to do to really get this noticed?

Chuck Sambuchino: Okay well one of the first things you’re going to want to do is realize that your work probably isn’t ready. A lot of people think their work is ready and it’s not. They need multiple people outside of their family and friends to read it to give truthful, honest, blunt, constructive feedback on how to make it better. The more eyes you can get on it the better it will be. The more tough love people give you the more you can sand off the rough edges.

That’s going to be one of the biggest things that you can do in the process of looking for an agent, maybe before you buy The Guide to Literary Agents. That’s the best thing you could do.

Now when you buy The Guide to Literary Agents, I would suggest just doing a lot of research on query letters. There’s articles in the book and there’s frequently asked questions in the book but also my accompanying blog, for example, has 66 or 67 successful query examples. The query is very important because when you submit your work to an agent they don’t review the book typically.

Typically they only review a one page query letter and from that one page they decide if they want to read your book.

So the query letter is extremely important. Remember that the two big tools that you’re going to have in the process is the query letter and the first pages. Some agents might ask for a synopsis, some might not but that’s kind of a smaller tool. Just make sure you have a good query letter, make sure you’re doing all the right things in it, make sure you’re avoiding these red flags and pet peeves that agents will reject you for. Then have your first pages starting strong. That’s basically the bare bones. If you want to ask me more specific stuff I can get into it.

Tim Knox: I do want to talk a little bit more about the query letter because I think that is probably… and I know there are great samples out there. Your blog is really wonderful for this but I think that a lot of new authors, and myself when I was attempting to get an agent, I’m like what exactly goes in this query letter? What’s the meat? What is going to get me noticed?

That really is, as you say, the most important thing because it’s typically the first thing the agent or the assistant sees of you. How much sweating do you have to do over this query letter and what are a couple of tips to get it right?

Chuck Sambuchino: Well you have to do a lot of sweating over it because there are going to be a certain percentage of agents out there, I’d say a minority, who are not going to put a whole lot of stock into the query and they’re going to say well the writing matters the most and we’ll just skim the query and get right to the sample pages you were instructed to paste into the submission. That will happen but most people do put a lot of stock into the query letters, simply because of the volume of submissions they receive and that just becomes the easiest way to weed out things that they’re not interested in.

So some basic tips, alright. First of all, how do you start a query letter? There is no hot and fast way. There’s two things you could do, which is start right into the hook, start right into the hook of the story or you can lay out the details. I’m a fan of the second way, laying out the details. I always find it’s good to start with an establishing sentence saying something along the lines of I am seeking representation for my completed 88,000 word thriller titled Dead Cat Bounce and then right there you lay out what the word count is, what the title is, what the genre is and you explain that it’s complete, and you do all that really quickly. Sometimes when an agent starts right into a pitch it’s a little bit jarring if they don’t understand the context of it.

When you pick up a DVD box you look on the back and the back has kind of the pitch on it of the DVD but before you even look at that you look at all the pictures on the front so you understand if it’s a thriller or if it’s a children’s book. When you start your query letter with a line like Billy Jankins has a problem, well you don’t understand whether Billy Jankins is an 11 year old who just lost his turtle or Billy Jankins is a Navy SEAL who just got caught in the Middle East and is being held hostage. So that establishing line I feel is very quick and really helps just set the tone.

After that establishing line a good bet is to write a line in there if applicable of why you’re querying that agent – something like I saw in your interview on the XYZ blog that you’re looking for more humorous middle grade fiction for boys or I saw you speak at a conference where you said you’re looking for more book club fiction for women. If there’s a reason that you’re reaching out to them beyond the fact that they just happen to represent your genre, which is kind of the general thing, then absolutely say it.

It’s like a hand reaches out and connects with them and they say, okay, I do represent thriller and I do represent this and this person is reading my interviews and they targeted me for a reason and this is a specific submission. Agents get a lot of queries and contacts and submissions that come in that are very bland and cold and people haven’t done a whole lot of research.

So whenever you’ve proven that you’ve done research and you’ve chosen them for a specific reason, not just picked them out of a hat, then they’re going to respond to that. That’s the quick intro, just two lines – one line about the details and one line about why you’re contacting them.

Then the main part of the pitch, the biggest part of the pitch, the meat of any pitch for any fiction book or any memoir is the pitch itself. The pitch is typically 6-10 sentences where you’re describing your book and you don’t give away the ending. This is very comparable to the back of DVD boxes. It’s comparable to back jacket of a book. It’s comparable to inner-flap jacket copy of a book. It’s either on the inner jacket flap or it’s on the back when they talk about the book for several sentences, introduce the main characters, the conflicts, some things about what goes wrong, what’s at stake and then they don’t tell you the ending.

You never find a DVD box where it tells you what the ending is to a movie because then that would take away some of the fun of watching it. A query is the same thing. It’s anywhere from 3-10 sentences, the pitch, but typically they’re in the 6-9 range and you introduce the main characters, you explain what goes wrong that propels the story into motion, you explain what the major plot of the book is, you explain how it gets more complicated, you say what’s at stake if the main character fails and then you wrap up with an unclear wrap up, without saying what happens. That’s about it.

Following that, the small third part of the query is the bio where you talk about yourself and anything you’ve done of note. If you don’t have anything nice to say about yourself you don’t have to say anything at all.

Tim Knox: You don’t have to make something up.

Chuck Sambuchino: Yeah they stress out about this and they see the white space on the page and they kind of panic and they talk about the fact that they own dogs or they’re a mother. This really has nothing to do with what the agent wants to see. They want to see if you’ve ever had anything published or been paid to write or held any positions as a writer, part of any national writing organizations or won any awards, anything like that that you would consider at least somewhat noteworthy.

It doesn’t have to be huge but at least somewhat noteworthy. If you don’t have anything to say you just don’t say anything at all. You wrap it up with thank you for considering my submission. I look forward to hearing from you, return, return, sincerely, return, your name. That’s basically it.

The tricky part there of course is that the major part of any query letter is the pitch itself and those are kind of difficult to put together. Some tips on that is besides some of the layout that I just kind of laid out for you, one of my biggest tips when writing any query letter is just simply to be specific because specific queries paint pictures in the agent’s mind. You would be completely surprised at how many query letters and synopses I’ve seen where people are very general.

They’ll say something like Billy’s having problems in senior year of high school and he is looking forward to getting to college. It’s like, okay, what kind of problems is he having? If you explained he was having problems with bullying at least we can understand that. If you just say he has problems it could mean anything. It could mean he’s addicted to pain killers or he’s having problems with bullying or he just got cut from the baseball team or his girl dumped him or a combination of them.

When you’re general that can mean multiple things, the language you use, and that is a big turn off. When you say something like Billy not only got dumped his senior year of high school, he actually got dumped at the prom in front of 250 fellow students. When you have a sentence like that that’s extremely specific, it paints a picture in the mind, a picture of an 18 year old boy at prom getting dumped in front of everyone and just the look of embarrassment that ripples across his face.

Or you could say something along the lines of when you’re introducing something that goes wrong you could say Joey lost his job today and nobody knows what that means. If you said something like after Joey Masterson put together his financial reports for the car company he works for, he quit by throwing the report in his boss’s face and storming out. Then you picture a guy throwing something at his boss in an office before storming out, not just some general sentence about a guy getting fired. Does that make sense?

Tim Knox: Yeah it makes perfect sense. You don’t want to be so generic that it’s boring.

Chuck Sambuchino: You don’t want to be generic at all, not just because it’s boring but because being generic is undefined. If somebody gets fired you’re like, okay, fired from what job and why was he fired? If you be specific then it paints the picture in someone’s mind and then they can start to see the book in their head before they read it.

Tim Knox: You make one point and I think this is so super-duper important and I don’t think a lot of authors do this – do your homework on the agent that you are querying. Don’t just pick up Writer’s Digest or the magazine or just get a list of agents and send them all the same query letter. You want to pick an agent that you’ve done your homework on and maybe there’s a connection to be mentioned beforehand, right?

Chuck Sambuchino: Absolutely. If there’s any connection that you can mention beforehand that’s great but doing the research on the agent, like you said, is important. Now more than ever before it’s easy because so many agents are on social media. Five years ago only half the agencies had websites and now it’s closer to like 90% of the agencies have websites. You can go and do your research on there. You can find them on Twitter. They’re on Twitter so you can learn more about them.

They create websites so they can brag about the books they’ve sold and thus you can start to learn more about them. Then you can see who’s selling the books that you’re writing, who’s selling books with strong military female protagonists or who’s selling books that are funny, middle grade books for girls or who’s selling romance.

If you want to know who’s selling romance go to the romance section or the Western section or whatever at Barnes & Noble, find those people, look in the acknowledgements section, find out the agents that are representing the books and then start to research them online.

Tim Knox: Yeah, you do not want to send a romance novel that doesn’t handle romance novel.

Chuck Sambuchino: Of course.

Tim Knox: That’s kind of just common sense you would think. I love The Guide to Literary Agents. I’m really a big fan of all the Writer’s Digest Books but once you have identified potential agents, you get your query letter together and I think another important point there is, and I know you guys cover this, is exactly what to send this agent. Some want to be queried by email, some still like the old fashioned letter, some want you to just send a query, some want a synopsis. How important is it to do exactly what they say? Do you know if agents just will dismiss a submission if it doesn’t meet their guidelines? Are they very strict?

Chuck Sambuchino: I would say you always have to err on the side of the agent being strict because you got to put yourself in the agent’s shoes. They wake up in the morning; they got 25 very important things that they need to do today that don’t involve you. Number 26 maybe for the day is maybe review the cold submissions that come in.

They don’t have a lot of time to do this and they try to do this quickly to kind of weed out the good stuff from all the stuff they don’t want. They have this specific guidelines designed individually as their perfect way to review the content and submissions that are coming in. If you break that, if you don’t write the word query in the subject line when you should then you should be prepared for it possibly to get deleted because they’ve given you simple instructions.

That’s the thing. There’s no good reason not to follow an agent’s guidelines or the submission guidelines because they’re all easy. Some might want snail mail, some might want email. They want this word in the subject line or they want this. They want something attached or they want it pasted. They want a synopsis. They don’t want a synopsis. They want 30 pages or they want 5 chapters. It doesn’t matter. It’s all very easy to follow. Just give them exactly what they want to give your work the best, fair shot.

You never really know if you’re coming across an agent that is looking for a reason to say no versus an agent that’s going to be more liberal and didn’t care and will review it anyway. So you always want to presume that they’re strict really.

Tim Knox: Do you think the agent is always looking for a reason to say no or a reason to say yes?

Chuck Sambuchino: I think they’re looking for a reason to say no, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing because if they were looking for reasons to say yes they would sign way too many clients, they wouldn’t sell the books. Most literary agents only sign an average of maybe like three clients a year. They have to look for any reason to say no. You can’t give them that. You can’t write a bad query. You can’t let your story start slow and get interesting on page 31. You can’t not follow their submission guidelines because you’re giving them the reason to say no.

Tim Knox: Now you’ve queried the agents, you’ve been contacted back that they want to see a synopsis or the first 100 pages or chapters or whatever. Talk about the importance of that manuscript, because you’ve also written Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript. Talk about how important not just the content is but the actual formatting and look and feel of that document that you’re going to send them.

Chuck Sambuchino: Well the good news about writing a novel is a novel is the easiest thing to write. You basically just double space it, start your chapters on a new page, make sure that you’re at 12 point font and you’re using some normal type of font like Arial or Courier or Times New Roman.

Tim Knox: You’re not using a Comic Sans.

Chuck Sambuchino: Yeah you’re not using like Wing Dings or something. So as long as you’ve got that and basically people don’t need instructions on how to format novels; people need instructions on how to format synopses and book proposals and how to format stuff if they want to submit a comic book or they want to submit poetry.

The real value of my book Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript is for people who want to be writers but don’t necessarily know what they want to write yet. You may want to write a stage play. You may want to write a screenplay. You might want to write a picture book. That’s kind of the definitive guide to go to. When you send your query letter in and they say I like this, I would be interested in seeing the first 100 pages and the synopsis, just make sure that you send exactly what they want.

The more complicated formatting thing is the synopsis itself because, for example, the kind of gold standard of any synopsis is one page single space. Some agents might request longer than that and if you have longer versions you can but if you have a one page single space synopsis that will be good across the board for any literary agent. It will get you in anywhere. Those that are kind of expecting to get a longer one will probably be impressed by how concise your synopsis is.

Also when you write a synopsis, any major character that is introduced for the first time, their name is capitalized. So when you introduce main characters for the first time in a synopsis you capitalize a name and that’s more important to know than the manuscript stuff.

Tim Knox: Do you think writing that really brief one page synopsis is the hardest thing the author might ever have to do?

Chuck Sambuchino: It’s kind of difficult. The whole thing is you just have to be detached from it. People get very attached to their stories and they include a lot of stuff that just doesn’t matter. They include little subplots and jokes and minor characters because they’ve fallen in love with them or maybe they’re really funny.

When you stand back objectively it’s very to see what can and cannot be cut. Like I said, I freelance edit synopses for people and so for me it’s very easy to see what belongs and what doesn’t. If you just take a step away and kind of bring a more objective… the other thing is when you’re writing a synopsis they’re designed to be dry.

They’re not designed to have clever language or flavorful or flamboyant or anything like that, any flair or voice. They’re designed to be dry. If one character shoots another you can just say Billy shoots Jim in the parking lot, period, whereas peoples’ inclination is to make that sentence three times as long and show you the suspense or the horror or anything like that but really all we need to know is what happened. Be dry, use short sentences if you want and that’s it.

Tim Knox: One more thing I want to talk about is on the agenting front. I know you mentioned that you met your agent at a conference. I met my agent at a conference. Talk a little about the various conferences, who’s going to them, why it’s a good idea for authors to get out there and network and meet folks.

Chuck Sambuchino: I’m a big fan of writer’s conferences. I think there’s a lot of great networking going on. That’s where you get your finger on the pulse of the industry. You learn the things you need to learn. You make writing friends for life. You pitch to agents. You meet peers like you and so on and so forth and you kind of recharge your batteries. If you’re interested in going to a writer’s conference chances are there is one that’s around you regionally.

First of all, if you bought The Guide to Literary Agents we do the conferences in the back. You can start there. It’s a great place to start. Besides that you can also use Google and just start Googling writer’s conference and then state or city and start seeing the dates. For example, if you lived in say Pittsburgh, I think there’s a… well first of all there’s the Pen Writer’s Conference, which happens every two years in Pittsburgh. There’s an annual event that’s not far in Charleston, West Virginia.

So right there, there’s one and a half events per year. If you live in the DC area, there’s a Baltimore Writer’s Conference, there’s a kids writing conference that happens in the DC area, one in Richmond, one in Newport News, one in Hampton Roads. That could be discovered by Googling the names of states, of cities and the words writer’s conference.

That’s how you find writer’s conferences and as Tim, like you said, you found an agent at a conference; I found an agent at a conference. They’re a great place to go out there and meet people face to face. You can go to one close and then you can spend the money to do one right. A great thing to do is if you’re going to a major American city like Seattle or San Francisco or Boston or whatever, Orlando, you can always see if there’s a writer’s conference there.

There will almost always be one and you can combine that trip with say a trip to a relative or combine it with a family vacation and then you can write off a lot of the stuff because technically it is a business expense. So definitely think about getting out to one. Writer’s Digest personally puts on two conferences a year. We put on one in New York, which is coming up August 1st through the 3rd in 2014 and we have one two weeks later in L.A. August 15th to the 17th. So Writer’s Digest is right there in the thick of things with the whole conference thing.

Tim Knox: How big is the Writer’s Digest conference? How many people does it attract typically?

Chuck Sambuchino: It’s anywhere from 400 to 550 depending on the pricing and the year. They’re always experimenting with different options and pricing. Can you come for one day? Can you come for half a day? The more options they have I think the more people they bring. The one in L.A., I think that’s maybe a little bit smaller. It’s somewhere in the 350 to 450 range. This will only be our second year in L.A., which is not say the conference isn’t great; it is. We haven’t gotten a firm average for the attendance.

Tim Knox: Conferences are great. Go meet agents, go meet publishers, go meet other writers. I think that’s one thing that’s really important. Writing can be a really lonely field. It’s just you in a room with a typewriter or computer. You get these opportunities to network and I think it’s great. Chuck Sambuchino, Writer’s Digest Books. You edit The Guide to Literary Agents, Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Your book, I’m waiting to see this on the big screen, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attach. You also do freelance book and query editing. How can folks get in touch with you and learn more?

Chuck Sambuchino: Well if you just Google my name, Chuck Sambuchino, the first thing that comes up should be my website, which is just ChuckSambuchino.com. Then from there if you look at the tab options up top, one is editing services and that will explain everything. So simply Googling me will answer all your questions about that. I do freelance edit queries, synopses and manuscripts. Like you said, when you go to a conference, one of the great things about going to a conference is making writing friends.

You make these writing friends, hopefully for long periods of time and if you do that, if you can do that and bring in several people who can help you then you don’t need someone like me. You can go out there and after you write your manuscript, you can give it to these trusted, smart peers and they can give you good feedback. It’s typically people who don’t have those circles of friends that they trust who want a critical eye on their work who come to me. Obviously if you can get that work done for free by intelligent friends then that is a good way to go.

Tim Knox: Exactly. Chuck Sambuchino, this has been a pleasure, appreciate all the great advice. The Guide to Literary Agents, check out Chuck’s website. We’ll put links up to everything. Also take a look at Chuck’s blog – a lot of good information there. Chuck, I appreciate your time. We hope to hear from you soon.

Chuck Sambuchino: Thanks, Tim.

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