how to publish

How to win your literary agent over (and it’s not just about writing a great book)

The head of a literary agency answers the most important questions that writers should ask, but often don’t.

Perhaps because there are more aspiring writers in India than anywhere else in the world (there’s no research to prove this, but it’s hard to argue that this is wrong), literary agents are a harassed species. Here’s a handy guide for would-be authors on how to stay on the right side of the people who could get you that prized book deal.

What do we agents do?
Before approaching a literary agent, do familiarise yourself with what they do. At times I have received queries from writers asking me what exactly I do and whether I could explain an agent’s role to them. While different agents have different commission structures and contract templates it’s not our job to explain the basic role of an agent.

Some authors confuse literary agents with book reviewers and even book publishers! Some of them fear that an agent will hold the copyright to their works just by virtue of selling it to a publisher.

The letter
Personalise the query letter: Always address the agent by his or her name and not as “Dear agent” or, worse still, as “Dear publishing professional”. While simultaneous submissions are fine and one could say even the norm these days, don’t cc the entire Indian agenting fraternity on your query email.

Always write a short covering note introducing yourself and the book. A thoughtful, well-crafted covering letter immediately attracts an agent’s attention, while a sloppy one will ensure that the submission package is not even opened. Never ever send a blank email with just attachments.

Never send links to your blog, published fiction or non-fiction and then ask the agent whether they can see a book emerging from them. Never boast or sound irrationally confident. Don’t say things like, “This will definitely win the Man Booker Prize”; "A book like this has never been attempted in Indian writing in English”; or “It’s better than that overrated prize-winning novel”. Let your work do the talking.

The submission package
A biography: A bio should be just 2-3 paragraphs long and should focus more on your publishing history and credits. Never send a formal CV – an agent doesn’t need to know the name of your parents, your marital status, PAN card number or how much you scored in Economics in your CBSE boards.

While credentials are not important for fiction, they make or break a non-fiction submission. Unless you are a respected authority or expert on the subject you’re writing on, your proposal will not be taken seriously.

Main proposal: Different agents have different requirements for proposals – both fiction and non fiction. Some are even fussy about the file format font, page spacing and numbering. It’s always good to follow every single submission guideline of a particular agent.

Usually one can send a brief one-page synopsis and the first three chapters for fiction and a synopsis, chapterisation and sample chapters ( if any) for non-fiction. A fiction synopsis need not spell out the entire plot but should just give a good idea of the story – it should be like the text printed on the back jacket of a published book, although slightly longer.

If a non-fiction work is incomplete, do mention the approximate word count and delivery date. You should also always add a list of competing titles in a non-fiction proposal.

In an increasingly commercialised and market-driven industry, it’s always a good idea to outline a marketing plan, both for fiction and non-fiction. Here an author can talk about their social media presence, contacts with the media and with literature festival organisers, any existing platforms or avenues for selling and popularising the book that they have access to, and the eminent personalities who might be willing to endorse the book.

For instance, an author submitting a popular science proposal can talk about their access to the IITs and technology institutes for talks, etc. However, do remember that no marketing plan would work if an editor doesn’t take to your book.

Follow-up: Kindly don’t pop up on the agent’s gtalk, facebook and whatsapp minutes after sending the submission. Also, don’t send a message ten minutes after sending the query asking whether the agent has received it or not. If the mail hasn’t bounced then clearly they have received it.

Never visit an agent’s home or office unannounced. Some agents have a response time clearly mentioned on their website while others (including me) respond only if they are interested in a submission. If the author doesn’t hear within a reasonable timeframe, then they should assume that the agent is not interested in the proposal.

In the first case, drop a gentle reminder to the agent asking for a possible response and whether they need an extension. If the author has an offer from one agent, they can give a deadline to other agents so as to not lose out on the one offer of representation they already have.

It is always wise to remain professional and not resort to personal attacks and emotional blackmailing if your proposal is rejected. Publishing is, after all, highly subjective and what doesn’t work for one agent might be the best ever submission for another.

Kanishka Gupta is the CEO of the South Asia’s largest literary agency, Writer’s Side.

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