Secret: Agent, man!

My Journey to the Top of the Best Seller List

As is the case with virtually everyone else who has ever written a book, self-publishing was not my first choice. I wanted a major (or minor, or any) publisher to take on the task of making my novel available to the public.

And why not?

To begin with, having a publisher is a major third-party endorsement. It means someone other than your friends and family think your book is worthwhile. Writing a book, especially a first book, is an incredibly scary, lonely and intimidating thing to do. A publisher greatly reduces those feelings (I’m guessing) by providing some assurance that you actually have some talent and are not a self-deluded idiot, the literary equivalent of the first-round contestants on American Idol who can’t sing a note but think they are superstars.

In addition to badly needed emotional support, publishers also provide an array of practical assistance – proofreading, formatting, artwork, distribution, publicity and more. That works out wonderfully, because you wrote a book to express yourself and share your vision with the world, not to start a small business.

There’s only one catch to this dream scenario: publishers won’t talk to you or look at your book. They will only talk to an agent. That means you need to get an agent. *

Good luck with that.

Agents are the Soup Nazis of the literary world. You have to approach them carefully, showing complete respect and doing everything exactly the way they want it done, or else… no book for you!

An entire industry has been built around telling writers how to get an agent. There are books, seminars, on-line courses, and even agencies that will help you get an agent. They will tell you what you need to do, and how to do it. I won’t go into the details here, you can find them all online: the type of paper to use for your query letter, font type and size, margin settings, synopsis length, number of sample chapters… the list goes on and on.

I tried doing it myself for my first book, and I used an agency for my second book: If you can afford it, an agency is the way to go. Writer’s Relief was extremely helpful in preparing, sending and tracking my agent queries. Unfortunately, in both cases, the ultimate result was that no one wanted to represent my book.

Most of the rejections were form letters or e-mails, which is understandable given the incredible volume of queries agents get. Those who did take the time to write a personal response were kind, thoughtful and encouraging. As a matter of fact, their wonderful words in praise of my writing were one of the reasons I decided to go ahead with self-publishing. My favorite rejection line was this: “I wasn’t connecting wholeheartedly with your book, despite its many charms (and perfectly executed opening scene.)”

If you can’t win them over with a perfected executed opening scene, I’m not sure what it takes. Actually, no one is.

By now I’m sure some of you are thinking that all this stuff about how to approach an agent is nonsense: if you write a great book it will sell itself. Sadly, that’s not true. Books are not like mousetraps – if you build a better one, the world will not necessarily beat a path to your door. Proof of this was firmly established in 1979, when a would-be author named Chuck Ross performed a famous/infamous experiment: he submitted a typed manuscript of Steps, a National Book Award winning best-selling novel by Jerzy Kosinski, to 26 agents. They all rejected it.

On to Plan B!

Chuck Snearly

* As with nearly every truism and rule about writing, this one can be disproven or broken. My friend, author Tom Morrisey, has written an excellent book for aspiring writers, The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider’s Guide to the Craft, in which he makes a compelling case for skipping the effort to get an agent and instead submitting your work directly to an Acquisitions Editor at a publishing house. It worked for Tom, check out his work at

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