This is the second most frequently asked question in my life, right after, "what is your diet?" and a childhood friend wrote me about it last week.
If a question is asked this often, it's probably a good idea to answer it someplace once and for all so that I don't have to answer it again.
"How do I get an agent?" is unanswerable. It is unanswerable in the short run because I don't know what you want an agent for. Fiction? Nonfiction? Historical fiction? Cozy mystery? Biography? How-to?
First lesson: Know your category. No one can begin to tackle this until s/he knows what you have to offer. Agents tend to have likes and dislikes. I couldn't, for instance, get into fantasy for love or money, although I like magical realism. Nor did I represent romances or science fiction.
I was merely deeply skeptical of everything else.
Let's say you've written a novel. The next question that needs to be asked applies to every kind of novel: is it finished?
Next: have you copy-edited it tightly? Have you compared its length to other books in the same genre?
It costs more to publish a long book than a short one. That's a simple matter of paper, ink, printing charges and the time given the book by its editorial and rights staff.* I advise any writer in these days of a severely slumped book market to keep it short.
Have you edited it to be as compact as possible? I'm not talking pulling the margins out so that a 500-page manuscript becomes 400 pages. Is its word count as low as possible while retaining story and style?
OK. I'm assuming you've now clarified what genre the book fits into and that you've cleaned the manuscript up. It's time, then, to write the query letter which is now, more often than not, sent be email.
You have four paragraphs, two of which are perfunctory -- the greeting, in which you state the genre of your manuscript, and the thanks at the end. The second paragraph is a description of the novel, which you will make as brief as possible. DO NOT TELL THE AGENT WHAT THE NOVEL MEANS. Stick to its plot -- "Cinderella is the beautiful stepdaughter condemned to a life a drudgery. When the prince of the kingdom decides to take a wife..."
The other piece of that paragraph is mention who the novel's cousins are. If it's historical, is it literary, like GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING? Is it popular, Rosalind Laker? Is it the first in a series, like Philippa Gregory's novels set around the Tudor courts?
You might think you're unique or that it's dangerous to mention the competition. You aren't unique and Chevalier, Gregory and Laker are not your competition. They are your betters, what you aspire to as a first-time author. I'm not insulting you. Not that long ago these authors were being asked to define the writers and books they were like.
And publishing is not the most creative business in the world. It doesn't like books that fall between slots because it's difficult to market them. I know this because my books have fallen between slots. Health? Memoir? Diet and weight loss? I find my books in all kinds of areas in bookstores.
Your second paragraph is biographical and it needs to stick to what is pertinent to the sale of the book. Do you have prior publications? Do you have a degree that will make you more of an expert in this genre? Do you work in a field associated with your degree and genre?
The agent doesn't need to know if you're married, have children, like to knit or play golf. All of that can come up over lunch, later.
There are scads of books out there on how to get a literary agent. I'm giving you my experience here but you'll need to invest in at least one of them for the directory of agents.
In choosing whom to submit your work to, your first resource is who your cousins' agents are. You'll most likely find this information in the author's acknowledgments. You probably won't recognize all the names there and the author may not make it clear who her/his agent is, so use your directory to figure it out.
The directory will also tell you what the agent's interests are, what books s/he represents and, often, whether the agent is open to new clients and what kind of proposal s/he wants to receive.
The directory that I felt gave me the best space to represent something of who I am is Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents: Who They Are! What They Want! How to Win Them Over! I recommend it for that reason. If you're reading this, you can hopefully skip buying the books about "pitching" your book.
It's not that complicated. And back in the day, no one in publishing actually used the word "pitch".
Next up: Nonfiction.
*"Rights" refers to the various subsidiary sales in a book's life: first serial (excerpt in magazine in the same month of the book's publication), second serial, audio, book clubs, film and television, foreign rights)