If you’re interested in selling a novel, you probably know that finding an agent is the usual first step on the road to publication (after completing the manuscript, of course). The most common way to start the search is to consult the Guide to Literary Agents or similar publication and try to find one who represents work similar to what you write. Sounds easy enough, right? The only problem is that most experienced agents already have as many clients as they can handle. So how to grab their attention?

The first thing is to write a nice letter that says what your novel is about, why you were qualified to write it, and why you think it will sell. There are plenty of Web resources that can give you examples for this letter. Chances are, if you want to sell a novel, you’ve already checked them out.

Let me tell you something about this letter: Don’t screw it up. Don’t make any spelling or grammar mistakes. The composition of this letter should meet or exceed the quality of your manuscript, because the first reader at many agencies is not the agent, and his/her job is to screen the letters for relevance. She has to get rid of most of them. Don’t give her an obvious reason like a typo.

Problem is, even with a well-written query letter, the likelihood of writing to an agent who happens to enjoy exactly the type of novel you’ve written is remote. When an agent says she represents “thrillers,” that’s a description that casts a wide net. So know this: unless you’re a celebrity or have written an extremely timely and unique novel, most agents are going to reject you. It’s not personal–it’s a numbers game. Agents are the filter between you and the publishing house, and they receive thousands of queries a year. Thousands. Most don’t even have time to write you a personal rejection. They use form letters to do that, and sometimes don’t even bother with that. More than one agent sent my own letter back to me with a note scrawled at the top saying “no thanks.” A couple didn’t even bother to write. They just stamped my letter with “not for us.” Some guy wrote “sorry” on his own business card and mailed that to me.

You know how I found my agent? Through a friend I met online. Playing fantasy football on ESPN.com.

But again, you can’t take these rejections personally. There are only so many hours in a day, so many clients they can take on, and personal rejections simply take too much time.

I don’t know if other aspiring authors are like me, but when I was submitting, I didn’t even really think of agents as people. They were just a means to an end. Which sounds horrible, impersonal, but when you’re a nobody wannabe writer from the middle of nowhere, agents are entries in a book. They’re links on a Web site. I’d never met an agent in person until I visited mine in New York two years ago. All I knew about their days was what I read in essays in the Guide. What else could I do? I was young and desperate and a writer, and we writers aren’t always known for our interpersonal skills. We build more relationships on paper than in person.

You know how I found my agent? Through a friend I met online. Playing fantasy football on ESPN.com. You can enter a bio on their site, so I wrote that I was an aspiring writer, and one of the other nine people in my league that year was a former New York-based editor. Luck? Yes, it was. But if I hadn’t typed “writer” in my bio, I would never have met him. If I hadn’t already worked on my novel for a couple of years, I wouldn’t have been ready when I met him. He helped me with my book, and recommended me to ten agents. Nine of those rejected me, but more importantly, one didn’t.

And you know what I learned? Agents are people. Amazing, huh? What a revelation. But when I talked to this guy on the phone, he wanted to know who I was. What I liked besides writing. What my aspirations were. When I finally visited him in New York, after he sold my first novel, we talked more about sports and relationships and music than we did about writing. We became friends.

The most important piece of information I can pass along to unpublished authors is that, when submitting, write to agents like they’re people. And more than that, get yourself to conferences and other places where you could conceivably meet an agent in person. When you meet one, don’t look at him like a means to an end. Build a relationship, make a friend, and if you have something to sell, maybe they’ll take you on. Or recommend you to another agent.

I’m only one example, but I think to make it as a published novelist, you have to be either talented or fortunate or both, and you definitely have to be driven. Even a little obsessed. But don’t do what I did–don’t forget that agents (and editors, and publicists) are people. It sounds like such a basic thing, but I lost sight of it on my quest to be published…and I doubt I’m the only one.

If you have any questions about the agent query process, write me.

Take care,