Steps for Approaching an Agent

Knocking on door

So, I happened across a Facebook group for writers and there was a discussion about finding an agent. One of the writers mentioned that an agent to whom she’d submitted had requested a book proposal for her non-fiction book. Her question was:

What is a book proposal?

Perfectly good question. But it shows this writer needs to get schooled on the basics of getting published. (If you’re writing non-fiction, an agent can’t sell your book to a publisher without a book proposal—that’s one of the basics.)

You’re ready for an agent when you’re ready to approach publishing as a business, even if it’s not your “day job.” Spend some time learning how it works. Take a little time to explore the business of publishing, craft a killer query and a knock-your-socks-off book proposal. THEN come knocking.

One of the most common reasons for agent rejections is that the writer simply isn’t ready: they haven’t spent quite enough time mastering the craft of writing or learning about the business—or both. If you’re seeking publication, here are a few things you might want to do first:

  • If you’re writing fiction, then you need to write a complete manuscript. If you’re writing non-fiction, research the market and make sure there’s a desire or need for your idea, and begin crafting your proposal along with a few sample chapters.
  • Sometime during that process, you may want to attend a writers’ conference so you can start learning about the business as well as meeting other authors along with editors and agents.
  • Edit, rewrite and polish your book or proposal. Get critiques if you can. Trade manuscripts with writing friends and get some feedback. Read books about writing and make sure you’ve done everything possible to make your book the best it can be. You may even consider hiring a freelance editor.
  • Research the marketplace and decide what kind of publisher is right for you, and by extension, what kind of agent will be right for you. Gather a list of names, your “target” list of agents and editors to whom you will submit. One way to do this is to spend some time in a bookstore, find books similar to yours, and find out who published them and who agented them. You can also use the Guide to Literary Agents or the Writers Market.
  • Spend time creating a winning query letter. Then begin sending your queries. Send a few at a time and see if you get any responses or useful feedback in case you need to revise the query. Then continue sending batches every week or two.  You’ll get an idea of whether anyone is finding your query interesting.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us what steps YOU’VE found necessary so far on your road to publication. Maybe I’ll learn something!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Natalie Evans on January 31, 2018 at 12:34 PM

    Sometimes what you think is amazing, is actually just mediocre. And what you think is mediocre, is actually amazing. Which is why it’s important to have as many people as possible read your work before you even think about querying an agent.

    Sometimes you have to let go of a project. It’s like going through a breakup. You love that person (that book) but it isn’t giving you what you need (agent/publication). You can try to make it different, try to make it special, but in the end, it just isn’t right.

  2. Paul Thomas on January 29, 2018 at 3:26 PM

    In my experience, the bullet pointed list above is the barest minimum one needs to do before knocking, then the agent who answers will say “Nice job–now go build a bigger platform!”

    But it’s all part of the process, and a strong query/proposal will strengthen the way you think about your book. May you be blessed with a vision worth not giving up on, everybody!

  3. Mark Stevenson on January 29, 2018 at 10:29 AM

    When I decided to write my debut novel last year, I commenced research on the writing and publishing industry. I found so many resources available to new writers. Concerning the subject you are discussing here, I purchased Chuck Sambuchino’s book, Get A Literary Agent, Wendy Burt-Thomas’ book Guide to Query Letters, and Ryan G. Van Cleave’s book The Weekend Book Proposal. They have been an invaluable guide to me once I finish my novel. But all the wonderful people, such as yourself, take the time to help us in so many ways. Thank you Rachelle for giving us great advice in this area.

    • Rachelle on January 29, 2018 at 10:50 AM

      Sounds like you did all the right things, Mark! Thanks for visiting my site.

  4. Gemgirl on February 13, 2010 at 5:19 PM

    >One thing a Christian writer (or any other) needs on this journey – friends who tell you the TRUTH. I figure if you can't take critique from those nearest and dearest to you then you are probably not ready to take rejection from a publisher or agent. Remember, they are telling you the mistakes or changes needed because they want to help you. Much like you, Rachelle. Thanks again.

  5. Gina Conroy on January 28, 2008 at 9:57 AM

    >Great advice! Not much to add from my experience that hasn’t already been covered.

    Thanks for participating in the Carnival of Christian Writers!

  6. Nancy I. Sanders on January 23, 2008 at 1:00 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for your timely words of wisdom! Yesterday I was hosting a mini-goal workshop at my local SCBWI Schmooze and a newcomer asked, “So should I get an agent?”

    I basically said what you stated on your blog today. Write. Get to know the business. Start acquiring published credits. Then ask that question again. An amazing fact that many writers don’t know is that there are A LOT of publishers who actually prefer NOT to work through an agent. They are either too small to afford paying an author AND and agent, or just prefer the more hands-on relationship working directly with an author.

    I’ve written a book that among other things discusses the “agent” issue as well as practical steps to get published. It’s called ANYONE CAN GET PUBLISHED–YOU CAN, TOO! PRACTICAL STRATEGY FOR THE CHRISTIAN WHO WRITES. I take the readers step-by-step through the process of getting published. And to answer your question about the steps I’ve found necessary on my road to publication:
    I always advise writers to walk down 2 trail at once. Being a Two-Trails Traveler is what my book is all about. How do you do this? Always be working on 2 manuscripts at the same time. One manuscript is that project that is near and dear to your heart. This keeps your writer’s passion alive, but can sadly end up in an overwhelming pile of rejections. The second project is to write a brand new manuscript specifically targeted for publication:
    Research a publiher.
    Find a hole in their list that you’d like to write for.
    Write a manuscript that zeroes in on that target.
    That’s how I’ve gotten all my books published so far.
    -Nancy I. Sanders

  7. Pam Halter on January 23, 2008 at 9:57 AM

    >Ditto to what everyone has said so far.

    And I would like to add that authors must now learn about marketing and publicity and add that plan to their proposal.

    The most helpful thing for me has been my mentor. Right up there with her is my writing partner. Without these two women, I would have given up long ago.

  8. Cathy West on January 23, 2008 at 8:52 AM

    >Don’t ever think you’re above learning anything further about your craft. Pride is a dangerous emotion. Sure you can be proud of what you’ve accomplished, especially if you have completed a novel. Apparently a lot of would-be writers never even get that far. I’m proud of what I’ve written, but I wouldn’t ever say it’s perfect. Every time I sit down to write, I realize how much I still have to learn. I’ve been blessed enough to get advice and help from some published authors whom I really respect. Those connections are invaluable. Sometimes they come as gifts from God, other times you have to go after them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t be a pest either. Especially if you’re asking for something from someone who’s got rewrites and deadlines to deal with. Be humble, be gracious, be teachable.
    And be persistent. Writing is hard work, getting published is even harder. But if you know you’re called to it, don’t give up. It’ll happen in God’s time.
    Oh, and please don’t jump off a cliff when those rejections come in. It’s all part of the process. Not a fun part, but nevertheless, a necessary part. Look at it as another chance to go back and do some more revisions…uh, yeah. Speaking of which…I’m going back to work now. :0)

  9. Katy McKenna on January 23, 2008 at 8:48 AM

    >While I’m learning, attending conferences, networking with others in the industry, and WRITING, I’m also attempting to build a readership for my work. Whether it’s through blogging, offering free opt-in e-letters, joining groups on facebook, or developing a speaking ministry, I can do a LOT today to strengthen the marketing section of my proposal and deliver a built-in audience to my eventual publisher.

    Thanks, Rachelle! You’re posts are always challenging and thought-provoking….

    Katy McKenna

  10. LurkerMonkey on January 23, 2008 at 8:30 AM

    >Everything you said, and Dr. Mabry said, plus … hang out with other writers. Seek out published writers who are more experienced than yourself, and practice willful osmosis. Make friends and contacts within the industry because, like all businesses, this one is an insider’s game. Surround yourself with people who have already done the thing you seek to do.

    And (just because it bears repeating), write every day and revise, revise, revise, revise, revise. I didn’t write a winner until my fifth completed novel (gasp), and I worked it over obsessively until I could offer up a reason why every sentence was in its place. And even then (meaning today), it still isn’t quite perfect.

  11. Richard Mabry on January 23, 2008 at 8:02 AM

    >Wise words, oh sage one. I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to writing than just writing. I thought that my first novel was a sure-fire winner. Now, three years later, I read it with pride that I completed it and embarrassment at the elementary nature of the writing.
    Conferences are mandatory. Input from others is essential. Reading books on writing is a must, but it’s not enough to read–commit the principles to memory and practice them until they’re second nature. Revise, revise, revise. I was surprised to find that most of the accomplished, published authors I know revise from half a dozen times to “too many to count.”
    And yet, there’s more. You’re exactly right, the would-be author has to learn the business. That means knowing the stuff that you’re telling us here. Thanks so much for putting this together for all of us, reminding some and educating others for the first time. I still think there’s a book there–if you can find the time to write it. And if you do, I know a great agent you can approach.