Although I've not yet signed with an agent myself, I have had a fair amount of success in getting agents to read my manuscript, so I must be doing something right.  As a result a number of other unpublished writers have asked me for advice on how to go about it.  Given that I've repeated this advice a number of times, I think it might be worth putting it on the blog.  If you're writing something and hope to one day publish, hopefully you'll find it useful.

The first thing I'd say is that getting an agent is the number 1 thing you need to do to get a meaningful publishing deal.  Yes, they take 15% of whatever you get, but they make sure that the "whatever you get" is much bigger than you could negotiate alone and they then re-sell the rights all over the world to make you more so it's well worthwhile.  Also most major publishers are not even looking at work from un-agented writers, so they use the agents as a sort of screening mechanism.

If you're looking for an agent, the first thing you need is the "Writers & Artist's Yearbook" by Bloomsbury.  It not only gives you excellent advice on preparing your novel and submitting it to agents, but it also gives you a list of all the agents and what genres they are interested in seeing (it's an automatic no if you send your historical romance novel to an agent who only deals in Sci Fi or children's books.) It also gives you their submission guidelines, which you should follow to the letter.

Increasingly they want only email submissions, though some request postal only. Most of them want to see a covering letter, a one- two page synopsis of your plot (which does tell them the ending - they don't want to even read your full manuscript before they check the story makes sense - e.g. aliens don't land three chapters from the end).  They usually also ask for either the first three (consecutive) chapters of your book or the first 50 pages. The W&A yearbook will tell you which.  If they like it, they'll ask for the full manuscript. If they like that, you have yourself an agent.

This is my step by step advice about submitting to agents (for what it's worth) based on the advice I've had, my own experience and vitally, some direct advice from literary agents themselves at an excellent event called "How to Hook an Agent" by Bloomsbury (publishers of the W&A yearbook and Harry Potter.)

1) Is your book ready? Before doing anything, polish your manuscript to within an inch of its life, then put it in a drawer for a month, take it out and polish it some more.  Get people to proof read it, especially brutally honest people.  Family and friends can often tell you it's wonderful, but you need people who will tell you what's not so good so you can fix it.  Also make sure the length is appropriate.  A typical novel is 80-100k words long.  Longer for hard sci-fi or fantasy, shorter for Young Adult and even shorter for 9-12.  Stephen King might get away with turning in a 300,000 word epic, but you are very unlikely to.  Stick to the guidelines and you won't go far wrong.

2) Do your research. Pick out your favourite dozen agents from the yearbook (but don't send yet!)  Then look for them on google, on their company websites etc. Try to find interviews or articles where they say what they like or are looking for.  Then write your covering letters. By this point you should know which agents appeal to you and are likely to like your book.

3) Prepare your covering letter. The covering letters should be businesslike, say a little about you - any writing experience etc - just a couple of lines, then say in a couple of lines what your book's about (to nearest genre - so if it's mostly historical fiction, class it as that.)  Try to find a strapline that sums your book up. They pitched alien as "Jaws in space".  I pitched mine as "The X files meets the Railway Children" which agents seemed to like.  Don't go on about the book because that's what your synopsis and beginning chapters will do.  Then personalise the letter based on your research on the agents. E.g. "When I read your article saying you loved time travel stories, I knew you were the agent for me." Keep the covering letter to less than 1 page.

4)  Write your synopsis - this is a general description of the plot and main characters from beginning to end.  It's not a book blurb, so it needs to contain spoilers, but it's also not a chapter by chapter account of your novel. Think of the plot descriptions of films on Wikipedia or IMDB - that's what you're aiming at.

5) Follow the guidelines. Submit the first three chapters or 50 pages or whatever it is the agent has specified in the Writer's and Artist's yearbook (or submissions page on their website.) Don't submit anything other than what's been asked for and don't send your stuff to an agent who hasn't said they represent that genre. That's a shortcut to the recycle bin and a waste of your and their time.

6) Don't be exclusive.  Send out to 6-10 agents.  They're incredibly busy representing their current clients and so they can often take months to reply (some never do) and if you do it one at a time you will spend an inordinate of time waiting.

7) If they ask for your full manuscript - send it. Then wait.  Don't pester or email them (perhaps a polite query after 3 months.) If more than one agent asks for the manuscript, send it to them (unless the first agent has asked for an exclusive read) but be honest and upfront to all concerned, letting them know someone else is reading your MS. Agents do talk to one another and honesty really is the best policy. As a writer, your relationship with your agent will be the most important business relationship you have. They'll be seeking a writer with integrity, so demonstrate yours.

8) If they say no, don't be devastated. Most will say no.  Some because it's not right for them, some won't say why.  Some rare gems will give feedback. Treat this as something as precious as gold dust.  If a professional in the literary business has taken the time to feed back to you - take heed.

9) Keep going.  Almost all of the major names in literature have had multiple rejections before getting an agent and rejection is just part of the process.

10) If you get an agent.  Crack open the champagne and put in a good word for me!