Columns > Published on September 3rd, 2012

Ask The Agent: Clarifying Industry Semantics and Advice on How to Become an Agent!

Navigating the rough terrain of today’s publishing industry shouldn’t be a solo event. This week in Ask the Agent, I’ll explore and dissect two of the industry’s mysteries, straight from the shoulder.


Question from Heidi

Could you talk about the differences between query letter, cover letter, and pitch?

These three items are very much the same thing, but in different contexts.

Query Letter:

A query letter is what writers concern themselves with the most. It is what 90% of agents ask to see.

Boiled down into a few sentences, a query letter is a creatively written, enticing letter to an agent. It should include a very brief introduction to the writer (yourself), a bit of personalization (i.e., why the writer would like that particular agent to represent their work), and a concise blurb about the manuscript the writer is pitching. (I say blurb because this is NOT a synopsis. It is not meant to detail the plot and characters. Its purpose is to entice/convince the agent to read the manuscript. It should look more like the back copy on a book cover.)

I’ll say it again: It is not a synopsis of your manuscript. A synopsis is a narrative description of your ms from beginning to end. It conveys the major plot points and character development. It usually runs into a word count of the thousands, whereas a query should be no longer than one word document page. A query should never be so detailed to give away all the information.

Again: it is meant to entice.

Cover Letter:

To be honest with you, I don’t think cover letters are used when pitching a manuscript to an agent.

Cover letters are more viable when you are sending a piece to a magazine or journal, and you must give a brief introduction to both yourself and the writing. You may also use a cover letter if you have pitched an agent in person and want to remind them of what they have asked to see. But in that instance, it’s essentially a query letter.

Pitch:

A pitch is a verbal query of your manuscript. That term is often used in the industry when writers go to conferences and meet with agents. They then pitch their manuscript to the agent. In my opinion, a pitch is far more difficult to prepare for than a query letter. You don’t want to simply memorize your query letter and recite it back to the agent. That sounds as if you are not familiar with the plot of your own manuscript. I’m always so impressed with writers who can sit down and have an intelligent conversation about their book. Yes, it is a verbal query, but because it is face-to-face, it doesn’t have to be as formal.

There are times when I’ll stop a writer in the middle of their pitch to ask them a question about something they have just said, and they tell me to wait until they are done with their pitch! I notice they seem to forget what they have “memorized” when I stop them. It makes me nervous for them and in return, makes it hard for me to focus on what they’re telling me.

Pro tip: When pitching your manuscript, never be afraid to have a dialogue. It’s important to show enthusiasm and faith in your work.

Question from Lauren

I have a question that's a little different than the kind you usually tackle on LitReactor, but I figure you're still the right person to ask.

What advice would you give to someone looking to break into the literary agent game? It seems particularly hard to do if you don't already have 5 years of publishing experience and an internship under your belt (which are typically reserved for college students anyway).

I love this question! And fortunately, or UNfortunately (depending on the person), there is a very clear answer.

You must pay your dues. Right now in the industry, agents (almost always) have some previous experience in the publishing world. Whether it is a writer who then becomes an agent (See: D4EO’s Mandy Hubbard) or an agent who was once an intern for a literary agent (See: myself or D4EO’s Kristin Miller) or even an editor who is now an agent (this happens more than you think).

In my case specifically, I was a journalist turned literary agent intern turned literary agent. We all enter the game a little differently, but the common thread is that we have worked in publishing.

You absolutely do not have to have 5 years of publishing experience under your belt. But if you do not have the specific qualifications to work in the industry, an internship is very much your best bet. 

In fact, I’d say that if you are looking to become an agent, an internship is almost imperative.

You can start small. Many literary agents are looking for interns. Often it is only 10-15 hours a week and can be done remotely (i.e., from your own home). And it’s hardly reserved for college students. I had just finished my masters degree when I started interning for a literary agent. And one of my current interns is not a college student. I also have a few clients who intern… not college students.

If you have the passion to become a literary agent you should absolutely try to secure an internship. You might find you hate it. You might find you love it. You might find you just don’t have what it takes or that you have a supernatural ability to seek out great literature.

Pro tip: You miss 100% of the shots you never take.

Pro tip #2: Bookjobs.com is a great source for internships. Also, agents tend to tweet about internship opportunities. 

Thank your for all the wonderful questions this week. "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor


Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 6 of Ask the Agent. Issue 6 answers will be posted Monday, September 17th.

About the author

Bree Ogden is a literary agent at Red Sofa Literary and a comics/TV columnist and reviewer at Bloody Disgusting.

When she's not agenting, compulsively watching horror films, reading comics, hiding out at her local science center, or killing off her bee colonies, she serves as the managing editor of the macabre children's magazine Underneath the Juniper Tree, which she co-founded in 2011 with artist Rebekah Joy Plett.

Bree teaches query craft and graphic novel scripting at LitReactor as well as serves as the Assistant Class Director. Unless you are an exciting new piece of taxidermy, she'll probably never let you in her room. You can find her at agentbree.wordpress.com.

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