Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Singapore, Australia, the UK, and the US. Rainbirds is her first novel.
People often ask me, “Do you have any advice on how to be a writer?” I usually quote Stephen King. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:
read a lot and write a lot.” I will also add, “Work hard, and never give up.”
But when people ask me for advice on how to publish internationally, or how to make
a living as a traditionally published writer, I will tell them to get a good agent.
What is a literary agent?
A literary agent is an agent who represents writers and their works to traditional
publishers. Agents assist in the deal and contract negotiation, and they’re paid a fixed
percentage of the proceeds. Some agents might also advise you on editorial matters,
offer career advice, submit your books to reviewers, and many others.
When do I need to find one?
If you’re working on a novel, you’ll need a query letter, a synopsis, and a complete
manuscript. Non-fiction books are often sold based on a proposal and sample
chapters. Your materials should be edited, revised, and polished—they should be the
best you can make them. You want to give yourself the best chance!
Once you’re ready, let’s move on to the next stage: querying.
Step 1. Create a system to track your submissions
We’ve all heard stories of writers getting an offer within a few queries, but be aware
that they made news because they’re rare. For most of us, querying is going to be a
long journey, and it’s best to stay organized.
I love using an Excel spreadsheet for this. These is the key information I include on
mine: agent name, agency name, the query sent date, partial request date, full request
date, rejection date, offer date.
I also had a separate document for personalized rejections, in case there is a recurring
pattern I need to address.
Step 2. Find potential agents
Next, you want to have some names to queries. Here is where to look:
1. Online resources: Agent articles and interviews, PublishersMarketplace.com,
AgentQuery.com, QueryTracker.net, etc. Some of them require subscription fees, but
some are free at least for the basic features.
2. Guides: Writer’s Market, Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, Writer’s Handbook, etc.
Your local library might have them.
3. Writing workshops, literary festivals, and conferences: this is a great way to meet
agents face-to- face. You may even have the opportunity to pitch in person.
4. Your favorite books: flip to the acknowledgment page. A lot of authors thank their
agents, and it might be a good idea to query the agents of the writers you admire
5. Referrals: if you studied creative writing, you can try to ask your tutors for
recommendations. Author friends can be good sources too. In short, you’re looking
for someone with a connection to an agent, who is also familiar with your writing.
Step 3. Narrow Down Your List
These are some of the criteria to look for:
1. Open to submissions
Yes, make sure they’re open to submissions. Though, there are a few possible
– Contests: online pitching contests are gaining popularity. They can be a lot of fun
(but also, a lot of stress… though that’s part of the fun) Contests sometimes connect
contestants with agents who might be closed to queries.
– Competitions: Nowadays, many competitions for unpublished novels are judged by
literary agents. Contests and competitions are also great ways to make new friends
and build your writing circle.
2. Receptive to your genre
Ensure that your manuscript is a good match to the agent’s wish list, though you may
want to broaden it a little bit (but not too much!) If you’re writing a thriller, you can
also try querying agents who are looking for mystery, crime, and suspense.
3. Have authors you recognize and respect in their roster
4. Have a track record of selling similar works to yours, preferably recent and in the
This is especially important for me as a writer of color. A lot of agents say they’re
looking for diverse voices and are open to submissions from minorities. But the fact
is, not everyone knew how to sell diverse novels.
An agent may say that she is open to thrillers, but if all her clients are romance
writers, this agent may not be the most effective for a thriller writer.
5. Has a recent record of signing debut writer.
Some senior agents are content with their rosters and not planning to expand. This is
something to consider especially when querying big agencies with multiple agents
you like. In general, you can’t query more than one agent in the same agency at the
6. Deals with publishers you want to see yourself getting published with.
Tips. The best way to check an agent’s sales record is through Publishers
Marketplace. Keep in mind that senior agents may not submit their deals under their
names. Instead, deals are recorded under other agents in the same agency.
Step 4. Divide them into batches
Even though you’re confident that you’ve edited your manuscript well, it’s wise not
to query everyone on your agent list at the same time. Most writers query in batches
of six to eight agents. You want a mix of your ‘super top dream agent’ and agents
you’re excited to work with. Monitor the response. Make sure you have a good
request rate, and there is no rejection pattern to address before sending the next batch.
Step 5. Send a Professional Query
Nowadays, most literary agencies have websites which list their submission
guidelines. Follow them. Don’t forget to double-check your email for spelling and
typos (especially the agent’s name!) There are no second chances.
Good to know
– Agents only earn a percentage of what you’re earning. The market rate is 15% for
home deals and 20% for foreign deals. Trust me, a good agent is worth much more
– Beware of agents who are charging a fee. You want to query agents who’re earning
their living by selling their clients’ works and not by offering services to their clients.
Last but not least,
Querying can often be a long and demoralizing process, filled with what might feel
like never-ending rejections. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have
friends who can support you during this period. Trust me, having a friend to talk with
when you received three rejections back to back makes a HUGE difference.
These cheerleaders might be your critique partners, beta readers, fellow querying
writers you met at a private Facebook group, or perhaps writers you met on Twitter.
They don’t even need to be a fellow writer (though that can be useful since they
should be able to understand your position better), but they need to be someone who
believes in you and your work. Someone who will tell you not to give up, even if you
feel like you’d had enough. Someone who never fails to make you feel better when
you received yet another form rejection. Someone who tells you to love your
rejections, because those rejections show that you’re trying.
We all know that there is an element of luck in publishing, but luck favors those who
work hard and never give up. And do continue working on your next project.