Getting a Literary Agent (LA) is one of the hardest steps a young author can take. Many consider landing an agent a filter that separates the newbie authors from the professional elite. The problem is, so many people actually believe that, we've turned it into today's reality. An agent does filter the masses from the pro's. This has lead to book agents, no matter what their experience or expertise, receiving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts to look over each year.
How can anyone break through this overwhelming mass of desperate, unpublished authors? Well, it's a bit of a numbers game. But there are a few simple things you can do that'll help your chances.
The simple and most obvious thing you can do for yourself is simply to READ THE AGENT'S SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I cannot stress enough how important this most basic rule is, nor can ignore the outrageous number of agents who report hundreds of authors a week not even following this simple courtesy.
Most likely, the LA will want either A: a query letter, B: an introductory letter, or C: a letter of recommendation from a trusted third party. In the case of "C," you'll have to find that third person and pitch your book to them, but in the case of "A" or "B," you'll have to write them yourself. It's not that hard. More often than not, an LA will have their guidelines made explicitly clear. But, for the purpose of being thorough, I'll break down a typical query letter.
You can start simply enough by just being polite. "Dear (Person's name and proper pronouns)." After this line, you want to write your "hook," or the thing that catches the agent's attention. If you mess this up, your hook is literally the only thing the agent will read before moving on to the next author submission. In theory, you've written a whole book, so at least 5-20 chapters with 5-20 chapter openers. If you don't know how to write a good hook, you might need an editor instead of an agent.
Some quick tips? 1: Keep it short and easy to follow. 2: If you have published work, mention it. 3: Don't immediately jump in with what your book is about; you can save that for later. 4: If you have a personal connection with the LA, mention it. 5: Be polite. This one shouldn't have to be said, but here we are. 6: Be mindful of your LA's time. They don't owe you anything. Not even to finish the letter. 7: You'll want to mention your book's name and genre within the first sentence.
There's a lot of things to keep in mind, but it's not dissimilar to writing. There's a flow and a pace to a query letter. If you can catch it, you'll make a big impression. Above all else, remain calm and never, EVER take rejection personally.
Next, you're going to want a synopsis of your story. This is a short description of your story, plot, characters, and themes. Don't panic too much over this. It may have taken you thousands of words to write your story, but if you've finished your book, you've probably already gotten a good idea of what the core of your story is about. Again, try to keep it simple and easy to follow. Even a boring synopsis can outperform a vivid, imaginative one if no-one's able to understand what's happening.
This section, once finished, will be about half of your letter.
What do you do with the other half? Easy enough. Introduce yourself, your goals, and why you're into writing. More importantly, tell your agent why you want your book published. An LA may be your only lifeline in the world of business and legal contracts, but the reverse of that is true too. They have to rely on you to have the energy and drive to see the process through to the end. Show them a snapshot of you. (In writing, not literally.) If they know you as a person, there's a better chance they'll want to help you achieve your goals.
Lastly, you'll want to thank your LA for their time, and leave. Just like how a book is an open and closed experience, a query letter should leave your agent feeling like they didn't even do anything. You open, you lead them to your point, you show them their future with you, and you leave to let them mull it over for themselves. Even if they don't like any aspect of your work, if they reach the end of your letter, they've done you a favor. You owe them even just a small thank you. There are some kindnesses that people will remember forever. This is one of them.
Now, before we leave off this one, I want to mention the Elevator Pitch and how to compare your book to other books. I've seen plenty of authors stumble over this one, and it's a hurdle you can easily clear with just a bit of prep-work.
The Elevator Pitch is a quick 1-5 minute speech about what your book (or project) is and why the person your talking to should take it seriously. When done correctly, this little marketable blast will effectively hook your vict--I mean... uh... audience, so they'll want you to tell them more about your story. This pitch will take about 10 minutes to craft, and there is absolutely no excuse why any author shouldn't have one.
The elevator pitch is like a query letter, but MUCH shorter. Think 3-5 sentences instead of 1-2 pages. Leave off the introduction, except if your audience truly does not know you. And instead of a synopsis, you're going to want to give them your premise line.
A premise line is a one sentence description of your plot, character, and/or themes. That may seem daunting at first, but it's really not. It's just one big hook. For example: Star Wars is about a young boy named Luke Skywalker who goes to space to fight the evil empire and bring peace to the galaxy.
You should always have a premise line ready to drop on the first person who asks you "so, what's your story about?" You follow up this premise line with a call to action. Whatever your goal is with the specific person your talking to will work as a call to action. The last bit is to wait for their response, and follow up on it. If done right, it acts as a one-two punch that quickly hooks their interest, makes a good impression, and convinces them to aid you.
And now we get to the book comparisons. So, it's actually not fair to anyone to compare your book to other books. BUT people are people and they want to be comfortable. People are comfortable around things they are familiar with. So when you're trying to get published and someone asks what your book is like, don't tell them about some niche anime you got inspiration from. (Unless they're anime fans, in which case, go all in!) Instead, you'll want to find something the person is familiar with and compare your book to that.
So for some quick tips, 1: Don't lie. At the very least, try to believe your book is similar to the thing you're comparing it to. 2: Don't compare it to Harry Potter, Twilight, or other mega franchises that made all the money. It's cheap, and completely ineffective. Try to aim for "big, but still realistic" when comparing your books. To use one of my own books as an example, A Treasure Made of Death is like Game of Thrones, but with a D&D twist. Easy, right? Now you try.
And lastly, general advice for every section both in this article and beyond: Don't be shy or apologetic. Have some confidence even if it's a false front. Selling both yourself and your book is the name of the game in this industry. If you sell yourself short, they will too.
Extra link for people wanting more detail on how to write a query letter: