The Do’s and Don’ts of Submitting to a Literary Agent

Literary Agent, Kelly Sonnack, of the Andrea Brown Agency shared the following list of Do’s and Don’ts for submitting to a literary agent at the 2009 SCBWI LA Conference.

Before Submitting:

  • Become part of a critique group. Get feedback on your work. Agents do not want to be your first read.
  • Get your book to be as perfect as possible before submitting it.
  • Read other authors who have published in your genre. It is good to have an idea of where your book will be shelved in the book store. Know who your peers are, and what other work is already out there.  Find out what authors/books you are similar to.
  • Research publishing houses. Agents like to see that you are doing your homework and that there is some level of education and research done on your part.
  • Pick a good and original title. This helps as a marketing tool to sell your book.
  • Set realistic goals for your book.
  • Separate your dreams from your goals.

The Manuscript:

  • Proof read your work! And proof read your query letters!
  • Don’t submit a working version of your novel. You must have a finished book. Don’t send chapters with a synopsis, or ideas. Finish your book!
  • Format correctly. Correct format includes: double spaced pages, 12 point font, normal margins, and page numbers.

The Query Letter:

  • Present yourself professionally! Think about this like you are applying for a job. Show that you are reliable, punctual, and 100% professional. The agent wants to make sure you will not embarrass them or hurt their reputation.
  • Keep your query to one page only.
  • Your query only needs to be three paragraphs long. First paragraph should explain why you are choosing this agent. The second paragraph should be a summary of your project. The third paragraph should be your credentials.  Your project summary is a teaser, it does not have to tell everything that happens in the book.
  • Personalize your query. The agent wants to know why you’ve picked them. Mention your research, or that you met them at a conference. Etc.
  • Get to the point, be upbeat and interesting. Be positive and professional. Be concise.
  • Include your contact info! Name, email, phone, and address. Even if you send an email be sure to include email address in the body of the query.
  • Do not include your vacation schedule or when you are available.
  • Give a sense of where your book fits into the market. Kelly likes to have you compare your book to other books.
  • Don’t give exaggerated notions of your book, don’t build up expectations you can’t live up to (i.e. This book will be a best seller).
  • List your writing credentials and accolades in your query. These do add up and are important. These are things like writing awards, education, experience that relates to topic of the book, etc.
  • Do not fabricate or over exaggerate your unrelated experience. Writing text-book manuals does not translate into writing for kids. Self published books are NOT experience, unless you have sold upwards of 10,000 copies. (See note below on why self publishing is seen as a ding on your publishing record).
  • Let the agent know if this is an exclusive submission or not. That can simply be phrased as: “I have chosen to query you and several other agents.”
  • Briefly mention other projects you have or are working on. The key here is BRIEFLY! The agent likes to have a sense of what else you might have and your career plans.
  • Picture book clients need to have at least three good book ideas to be represented by Kelly.  She wants to see that there is a future and a career, and that this writer is not a one hit wonder.


  • Always present your work professionally!
  • Be sure you have carefully selected what agents you want to send your work to.
  • Always, always, always read the submission guidelines of the agency. Be sure you have read them carefully! Follow the guidelines.
  • Don’t call and ask unnecessary questions that you could have learned by looking on their website. Do your research!
  • Don’t send submission to more than one agent at the SAME agency at the same time. At Andrea Brown agents share work with other agents if they think someone else is better suited for this particular client. Because of this if you receive a “no” from any agent at Andrea Brown, then you can assume it is a no from the whole agency.
  • Do not submit more than one project to an agent at a time, unless requested by the agent.
  • Do not mass email agents by sending the same general query to many at the same time (and you’ve put all the email addresses into the same email). This is super bad etiquette!
  • Do anticipate what an agent might ask for. Such as: Pitch – One or two line pitch of the story. A three-sentence synopsis of story, and one to two-page synopsis of story (this will tell what happens in the end of the story). Have all three of these on hand to send back ASAP if requested.
  • Tap any sources you may have for an endorsement (published authors, etc.)
  • Honor the agency’s response time and polices. For Andrea Brown if you have not received a response in 6 to 8 weeks you can assume that it is a “No.”
  • If you mention that you heard Kelly speak at SCBWI conference she will try very hard to give you a written response.
  • Do not send nasty messages. This is a small world!
  • Do take suggestions and notes from an agent or editor to heart. Come back and re-submit when you’ve changed your manuscript based on those suggestions.
  • Don’t send attachments. Links to a website are ok. Attached .jpegs are okay.
  • Thank agents for their responses. Thank-yous are rare and much appreciated.

When You Get A Bite:

  • Get excited!
  • Be Professional!
  • Re-familiarize yourself with that agent’s agency and list. You may have submitted to multiple people and forgotten what they have done.
  • Prepare questions. Some questions that will show you’ve done your homework will include: What is your working style? Do you prefer to communicate via email or telephone? What is your transparency with submissions to editors? How often should I expect to hear from you? Etc.
  • Discuss your expectation and your goals. Ask what the agent’s expectations are for your book. Don’t ask how much the agent will make you on your book.
  • Be honest and forthcoming. Finding an agent is like a marriage. What didn’t work out with your first agent? Have you self published before? Etc.
  • Don’t attempt to negotiate non-negotiable items. For example an agent will usually take 15%. This is standard. If an agent asks for more than that – walk away!
  • Make sure you and the agent are a good fit for one another. This is a very serious decision.
  • Enjoy the journey!

Other Notes and Comments:

Why Self Publishing is Bad – Self publishing means there is a book out there with an ISBN number associated with your name. If a publisher is trying to make a deal with Barnes and Noble or Borders for your book and they go to order your new book, your old book will show up with its ISBN. If your self published book sold only 24 copies there is NO WAY Barnes and Noble or Borders will pick up your new book because the last book did so poorly. This is a huge deal. There are ways of getting around this if you’ve already got a self published book. For example you can use a pen name. This above scenario is not as big a deal if you are an illustrator as illustrators names are not as often associated with ISBN numbers. Be forthcoming with your agent if you have self-published, it is something you can work through together.

Finding the Right Agent – It is important to figure out your communication style and to make sure you and your agent will be able to talk to one another effectively. It is also good to find someone who loves your work and is passionate about it.

Sending Work Directly to Editors – Agents don’t like that you’ve sent your work out to an editor in the past. Agents don’t like this is for two reasons. The first is that you cannot usually send that book to anyone at that publisher if it’s already been rejected, and the agent is disappointed that you sent the book out before it was ready or as good as it could be. And second, sometimes the Agent has a great idea of who to send the book to, but you’ve made a connection with someone else that the agent doesn’t think is quite as good for your project and they work at the same house.

Special Formats – Beware of having a book that is dependent upon a special format – die cut, glow in the dark, etc. These are expensive and hard to sell, and usually are not done for first time authors.

Kelly Sonnack is a literary agent at Andrea Brown Agency. She represents picture books up through young adult fiction, as well as graphic novels and non fiction. Her clients include: Steve Watkins, Merrily Kutner, Jin Pyn Lee, Candace Ryan, and Heather Leigh.

About Kelly and Her Style: Kelly is very picky about rhyming picture books as they are hard to sell. If you are a picture book writer Kelly likes you to have a minimum of three good projects before she will take you on as a client. In regards to revisions, Kelly likes to go through at least two cycles of revisions with an author. Sometimes there are more. You can count on a couple of months of revisions.

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13 responses to “The Do’s and Don’ts of Submitting to a Literary Agent”

  1. Melle says:

    This is such a great blog – I’m printing it out! Thanks, Ingrid!

  2. This is hands down the most thorough post I’ve seen anywhere on this subject. It also illustrates the importance of researching an individual agent’s preferences. Many of the things mentioned as “Do’s” for Kelly Sonnack are definite “Don’ts” for other agents.

    Thank you for the wonderful information!

  3. Vonna Carter says:

    Thanks, Ingrid and Kelly. Great advice!

  4. Just posted a link to this on our blog–such a great article!

  5. Julie Musil says:

    Such great tips for us. Thank you!

  6. Sherry says:

    No Joke! This is the most informative post I have read about the query process. Thank you so much and Thank you Kelly. I took some good notes and plan to use them.

  7. Claire Coker says:

    Just fantastic – I’ve spent all morning looking for advice, this blog stands out as by far the most helpful!! I’m printing it too and sticking it in a folder and ticking the points off as I prepare my submission!

  8. wendy says:

    A fantastic post detailing such vital information. Thank you

  9. Is it good to send a full stapled manuscript? Or just a query letter

    • Ingrid Sundberg says:

      Query letter only. Most queries are done electronically through email these days. Always check with an agent/agency to see what their current submission guidelines are.

  10. Sara says:

    By mistake I submitted a manuscript to an agent at the same agency where a different agent had already requested a full. There was about a month interlude between the two submissions. Is there anything I can do?

  11. Linda Deenen says:

    Fantastic advice for a first time author in Young Adult Fiction. I am printing it out.

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