This post first appeared in the Malaysian Writers Community Facebook Group and is written by Malaysian writer, Hanna Alkaf.

A quick introduction: Hanna recently wrote her first Young Adult novel, The Weight of Our Sky (affiliate link), which was well received locally and internationally. Her book is about a girl who is diagnosed with OCD and is set during the racial riots of 1969.

With the book published by New York based Simon & Schuster, Hanna is set to release her next book, The Girl & The Ghost, in 2020. It’ll be published by HarperCollins.

This simply means that Hanna knows a thing or two on how to get literary agents in order to get published overseas. Thankfully she was willing to share her thoughts on this. Thanks a bunch, Hanna!

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Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky.

Here is a TMI post on LITERARY AGENTS AND HOW TO QUERY THEM! Which is a thing people DM me about often, so hopefully writing it out here will make it easier for people to find.

For the record, none of this is new and all of it is easily Google-able, but when you’re first starting out it can be SO OVERWHELMING, and I know having someone lay out all the steps simply would have been helpful for me when I was starting out.

WHO IS THIS POST FOR?

Authors who want to be traditionally published by large (Western) publishing houses. Authors who have a completed novel that is as polished as you can make it on your own — meaning it’s been revised, revised again, sent to beta readers or critique partners, revised based on their feedback, and then proofread. Nobody expects the book to be perfect, but it does need to be the best you can produce.

WHY DO I NEED A LITERARY AGENT?

If you’re aiming to be traditionally published by a large publishing house — think HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan — then these publishers very rarely take unsolicited manuscripts, meaning they won’t even layan you, no matter how gorgeous your prose is (I should note that this is for publishers based in the West — PRH Southeast Asia does not require authors to have agents, as far as I know).

Agents use their contacts and knowledge of the market to figure out which editors at which imprints would be best for your work, wrangle contracts on your behalf, run interference between you and editors, marketing, or anyone else who needs your time and attention, and helps handle the sale of any other associated rights.

Some agents are editorial, if that’s what you’re looking for, and can serve as an additional beta reader to help you get your work in the best possible shape before going on submission. They’re like your business partner in this wide world of book publishing — they handle the business end so you can handle the creative end.

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Photo by Web Hosting on Unsplash.

SO YOUR BOOK IS DONE. NOW WHAT?

Time to research agents! You need to find one that represents books in your demographic and genre — and not just for this one book, but for others you may want to write in the future (ie your current book is a young adult fantasy, but in the future you might want to write adult romance).

For this, a good resource is Manuscript Wish List, which exhaustively lists what different agents are looking for. You can also look up the #mswl hashtag on Twitter to find them.

Another good trick is to pick up a book you enjoy that fits what you like to write, flip to the acknowledgements section, and look for the name of the author’s literary agent.

Every agency has specific guidelines to follow for submission, but in general, you’re going to need:

  1. A kickass query
  2. The first chapter/5k words/10k words of your manuscript cut and pasted below your query. DO NOT SEND ATTACHMENTS UNLESS THE AGENT/AGENCY SPECIFY THAT YOU SHOULD.
  3. Some agencies specify you can only query one agent from the same agency at a time. Some agents use a special query submission site. Always read the guidelines.

Also, please send out queries individually and don’t BCC (or worse…CC) every agent you want to rep you at the same time.

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Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash.

GOT MY LIST! NOW WHAT DO I DO?

Write a query!

A query is the email you send to agents pitching them your book. It’s…kind of an art all on its own. You know the back cover copy of books, the paragraph or two that entices you to buy it and read it? That’s kind of what a query has to be like.

A good formula to follow is one used by literary agent Eric Smith, who says that good queries consist of the hook, the book and the cook:

“I like queries that can explain a book quickly. Like the back of a book you’d pick up in a bookstore.

It dishes the hook, a quick one liner about the title. I’m a sucker for marketing hooks. “In this Mean Girls meets Jurassic Park adventure novel…” sorta thing. Also, if you’ve written a Mean Girls meets Jurassic Park novel, pitch it to me.

The “book” part sums up… well, the book! What’s the story? Dish it out. Sum it up the way you’d see it on the back of a book. If you can’t explain your book in a paragraph or two, there might be a problem.

And the “cook”, is well… you! Who you are. Maybe you explain your platform a bit. Your past projects. What you do in your non-book-life. For me, agenting is a VERY personal thing. I want to know about an author. Can we be friends?” (Eric says this literally ALL THE TIME, but for the record, the paragraphs above came from his Reddit AMA here.

A good resource for queries is to look through the archives at Query Shark for what to do right…and what NOT to do.

Also, you can read my query letter for THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY here, if you’d like!

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I’VE SENT MY QUERIES! EEP!

Great job! Now comes the part every writer hates (and has to deal with): Waiting.

Most agents will say they need at LEAST 6-8 weeks to get to your query. Faham-fahamlah, they get hundreds of these a day, and still have their own clients to handle, with books that need to be read and submitted, contracts to oversee, etc etc.

It’s hard to resist the urge to send an email being like “hey, dah baca ke belum?” but hold off until the 8 week mark has passed (and then you can totally feel free to send a friendly, polite nudge).

You can check QueryTracker to see how long specific agents take to respond to queries based on other writers’ experiences.

If your query worked and you manage to entice an agent who’s just dying to read more, they’ll email you back asking either for the full manuscript, or for a partial (usually the first 50 pages). This means more waiting, since they’ll need ANOTHER 6-8 weeks (at least) to finish reading that.

OMG! I GOT AN OFFER OF REP!

That’s awesome!

Before you do anything else, inform every other agent who still has your manuscript (whether it’s a full or a partial) that you have an offer of rep, and give them up to two weeks to finish reading your book. This gives them the chance to scoot you up the list and offer rep if they want to!

Now hopefully you’ll have done all your due diligence and this offer of rep you have is from a legit and amazing agent! BUT JUST IN CASE…there are a lot of predatory people out there, so make sure you check them out before signing anything.

  1. Schedule a call with the agent, and ask all the questions you want. This is a business relationship, and a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. This is a great article on the types of questions to ask.
  2. Every agent should be fine with you talking to their current clients about their experiences to see if they’d be a good fit for you.
  3. Sites like Writer Beware exist to warn writers about predatory agents, agencies and publishers.
  4. Remember, you DO NOT PAY AN AGENT. Agents get a commission when they sell your book (generally 15%). Money should always flow TO the author and not AWAY. *repeats like a mantra*

It’s so, so tempting to say yes to the first person who offers rep, but make sure it’s the RIGHT person.

OMG, I GOT MORE THAN ONE OFFER OF REP!

YAY YOU! All of the above still applies, but you’re going to have a rough decision to make at the end of it all. You need to find the one that’s a good fit, not just for this one book, but for your career as an author. What are the traits most important to you? Things to consider include:

  • Communication style. Do you need an agent who responds to emails within the hour? Do you need an agent to hold your hand throughout the submission process, or one who only updates you when necessary? This is highly personal and depends entirely on you.
  • Sales. How many sales has the agent made recently? How many of them are to small, mid-size or large publishers? What kind of figures are they pulling in for clients? For this, once you have agent offers, you can either Google them, do a quick Twitter search, or if you want more in-depth figures, pay for a one-off subscription to publishersmarketplace.com, where you can get detailed info.
  • Do you want an agent who is editorial or not?
  • Do you want a newer agent, who may not have a ton of sales but has a smaller list and can therefore focus more time and attention on you? Do you want a more experienced agent with a superstar list, who may not have the time to hold a newbie’s hand?

I GOT REJECTED.

Happens to the best of us, friend. Sending your queries in small batches may help you figure out the stumbling block: If you’re not getting any requests at all, your query may need tweaking to help hook readers; if you’re getting requests for fulls and partials but no offers of rep, then maybe it’s the book itself that needs work.

Whatever it is, don’t give up! Tons of writers wrack up hundreds of rejections before landing an agent and book deal. Remember...it only takes one person to say yes. - Hanna Alkaf Click To Tweet

Also don’t send agents angry emails telling them they’ll rue the day they ever rejected you. It may be true, but that’s just rude.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got. It’s a lot. Sorry! Feel free to ask me any questions I didn’t cover below and I’ll do my best to answer between like…wrestling these damn deadlines. Kbye.

*** Header Image by Azalia Suhaimi and Hanna Alkaf. Follow Hanna on Twitter, Instagram and check out her website.

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