I took a deep class this month on attracting a literary agent. Offered by the Writers' League of Texas, it was provided good intelligence on getting books considered for representation. It might have been the single best $52 I’ve spent as an author and coach. For example, I learned that some agent businesses are a “solo shingle.” That's a single agent, successful at a larger company, who starts their own business and finds books to sell to publishers.
In another example, the instructor Becka Oliver (director of WLT, she worked at William Morris as an agent) had advice about writing the Compel section of a query letter. Despite all the other options of contacting agents, the query letter remains the lingua franca of agent pitching. By crafting your Compel paragraph, you try to lure the agent into requesting pages they might agree to represent.
Some agencies permit the submission of sample pages with your initial outreach. The agencies nearly always request a "cover letter." No surprise, that's your query letter. In order of materials requested for fiction, the readers at an agency dig into the query letter, then the writing sample. If they request a synopsis, Oliver said that agents are likely to look at it only if they're well along in the book and need a map to see where the story's headed. Nothing is absolute about this process, of course.
In another example, a query's Context paragraph is the best way to assure an agent you know where your book should live on the shelves. One phrase that I've used in query letters is, "This book is for readers of [commercially successful book like yours] and [critically successful book like yours]." Both these kinds of books like yours help the agent place your book prospects.
There was plenty to learn. Oliver drew out maps of the Big 5 publishing empires, plus independent presses like Coffee House and Dzanc. Both of the latter group will consider non-agented projects. They do prefer agented submissions, though. Lots of authors don’t remember to check up on the indies while querying. Those kinds of queries to the indie presses can go straight to publishers. The Big 5 imprints — and there are so very many of them — demand agented material.
Query letter advice was only a part of the WLT class. What to expect to hear when you get a call from an agent. What questions to ask an agent when you're offered representation. Ask them what they specifically love about your book, for example, just to see if they really read it. How to follow up: Wait for something significant to happen -- a contest, a publication of a short story. You want more good news to add to the submission.
You also will wait "as long as it takes" to hear from an agent. After a matter of months, it can be permissible to send a little email saying, "I know you might be just getting ready to read, and..." The submission of your book for consideration is a humbling affair. But agents, acting as gatekeepers, are a very good means to get a professional publishing contract.