Soon after you sign on with a literary agent (Welcome to Hell, by the way), you will discover that a surprising number of your friends are working on novels as well, and one of the first questions they will have is “How did you find an agent?”
And if you’ve done your due diligence (ie. Googled the question), you’ve discovered there are a couple of ways. First, you can have a friend or relative in the business. This, of course, is a disheartening piece of information to unearth because if you had a friend in the business, you wouldn’t have just googled the phrase “How to find a literary agent” would you?
Absent some sort of connection, you’re going to have to claw your way from the slush pile, past an agent’s assistant and into the rarefied realm of Those-Who-Have-Been-Asked-For-A-Partial-or-Full.
The question then becomes, how do I do that? The key here is the cover letter. The good news is that cover letters are really short, so you can rewrite them endlessly. The bad news is that writing a good cover letter is nothing like writing a good novel. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of excellent novels out there, unpublished, because the author can’t write a one-page proposal.
What I’ve got below is an annotated and slightly edited version of my own cover letter. I’ll mention at the outset that as letters go, it was pretty effective: I received manuscript requests from over half the agents I queried. (I would venture to say that my letter is better than my novel. Ah, well.) Note that this is formatted for email rather than a paper letter.
Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency
Dear Mr. Getzler,
Because of your professed interest in historical mysteries, I think you might like to see my historical mystery, The Midwife’s Tale: A Mystery. (Keep your opening brief. Do some quick research on your target agents, and pick ones who like books in your genre. Do NOT over-google agents. It is a waste of time.)
It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York . Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and – like other mutinous women – is sentenced to be burnt alive. Esther proclaims her innocence and begs Bridget to help clear her name. Bridget believes that her friend has been wrongly convicted, and sets out to find the real killer. (In the opening paragraph you have to provide a few things: the setting, the protagonist, and the central drama of your story. Make sure all three of these are compelling. If your reader doesn’t want to spend time with the main character, or in the time and place you have set the story, you are toast.)
Bridget is joined in her search by a new maidservant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York to start a new life. Martha proves a quick study in the delivery room, and Bridget has high hopes for her protégé. But when the two women are attacked in a dark alley, Bridget sees another side of Martha, as she shows herself far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be.
To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand. (Another couple of paragraphs summarizing the book. Do not go too long here, and if it is a mystery/suspense, don’t give away the ending. Your goal is to make the reader want to see more. N.B: If you write a synopsis, that is the place to give away the ending.)
The Midwife’s Tale is a 95,000-word historical mystery, and the first in a potential series set in Revolutionary England. I have a doctorate in history with a focus on early modern England, and have published articles on the history of midwifery in top historical journals including Social History of Medicine and Journal of Social History. (Let your prospective agent know how long the book is, and if it is part of a series. In certain genres, publishers want series. If you have any qualifications that make you a good fit for writing this kind of book, mention it here. Think a bit about this – there is probably a reason you chose to write the kind of book that you did.)
As a part of promoting the book, I would be happy to join in reading group discussions of the book. I can also give public presentations on the history of midwifery, and on the real Bridget Hodgson, who practiced midwifery in York during this period. Thank you for considering my work. I hope to hear from you soon. (I’m not sure how effective this was in my case, but if you have a platform from which you can publicize your book – a weekly radio show, for example – this is where to bring it up.)
So that’s it, easy-peasy. Now you shouldn’t have any trouble finding an agent.