How to Publish Your Novel: Part 3

Years ago, when I first thought I might become a published author someday, I started researching how to achieve my goals. What I found was completely overwhelming. I needed an agent, but there were thousands of them. Each of them wanted different documents I had never heard of. Query? Synopsis? What?

In this series, I’m going to share what I found and break down how to publish your novel. I’ll cover a the difference between the types of publishing currently available, writing a query letter, writing a synopsis, and finding the ideal agent to query. The process can seem overwhelming, but I hope to offer some clarity and simplicity so you can approach publishing with confidence.

Welcome to Part 3: Organization Amid Chaos. Catch up on previous sections here:
Part 1: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
Part 2: Finding an Agent

Organization Amid Chaos

You’re trying to get your novel published in the traditional way, which means finding an agent. But an online search returns scores of possibilities!

Don’t get overwhelmed. (Okay, allow yourself a moment to get overwhelmed, then pull yourself together!) Writing is hard work, and so is getting your manuscript published.

Compiling an ideal list of agents is going to take some time and focus. Buckle in, follow the guide below, and it can be a smooth and, dare I say, fun process.

Literary Agents:
How Do I Find THE One?!

This is the research method that works best for me. There is no “right” way, so take what you like and develop your own system.

Start a Preliminary List

Let’s get a rough list of potential agents together. Open a new document in Excel, Google Docs, whatever works for you.


I label the columns as such: Fit, Agency, Agent, Website, Notes, Query Method, Synopsis, Pages, and Response Time. That seems like a lot, but I want to save myself from having to look up information later.

In the last post, I covered finding potential agents online. Using whatever genre-specific list you’ve found (AAR, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, etc.), start filling in your table. Write the agency name under “Agency” and the specific agent under “Agent.” If more than one agent is listed for each agency, feel free to write them on a new line. If there’s a website, copy that down as well.

You now have a chart that looks something like this:

I find it best to just continue through the online list, writing down every agent, agency, and website so you don’t lose your place if you have to stop. Once you’ve exhausted the list, it’s time to dig in.

Fill in the Blanks

Starting at the top, visit the first agency website. What you’re looking for is a list of agents and what types of manuscripts they want. Some websites have this information in a section called “agents,” some have it in “submissions,” or “about.” Some have it in multiple places! Scour the website. The whole thing. In your spreadsheet, start filling in some of the other columns.

Under “Notes,” jot some things the agent likes. Sweeping, epic fantasies. Mystery with a bit of romance. Stories about families. Whatever seems relevant to your manuscript.

They will also have a preferred query method, typically email or Query Manager. Note whether they like to receive a synopsis. If they want the first several pages of your novel, how many? If there’s information on response time, put that in, too. It will save you from wondering later.

Getting Organized

While you’re reading up on each agent, you’ll get a sense of their personality and preferences. You’ll also get a sense of whether this person may be right for you and your manuscript. Here’s where the “Fit” column of our spreadsheet comes in. Rank each agent from 1 (terrible fit) to 5 (absolutely amazing). I do keep a list of the ones who aren’t a good fit to avoid forgetting and trying to re-research them later.

Now your spreadsheet might look something like this:

You only want to submit to agents who are actually open to submissions. Do not submit to agents who aren’t open. If an agent seems like a good fit, but isn’t open, mark them with a 0 in the Fit column and note the actual fit next to their name in case they open later on.

By the end, you may have a list of 50 or more agents with varying ranks. It’s time to pare down the list.

But How Do I Find the Perfect Agent?

Start with agents ranked 4 or 5. You may have only 20 of these. Revisit their website.

We’re going to give each agent a secondary fit ranking. For example, if you noted someone was a 5, a perfect fit for your manuscript, and you find they’re still a perfect fit, mark them 5-5. Someone who’s “merely” an excellent fit might get a 5-4. This will help you focus on who you’re going to submit to first.

If you have multiple agents from the same agency listed, you’re going to have to pick just one. You can save their information for later, but most agencies frown on duplicative submissions unless explicitly stated.

You now have a list of the 15-20 agents you think are the best possible fit for your manuscript.

Who Do I Submit to First?

Submissions should be done in rounds. Do a little rearranging of your list to create three (or more) bundles of 5-10 agents each. Your first round of submissions might go to two agents with a 5 ranking and three with a 4 ranking. For example:

This is fairly arbitrary, but I would advise against putting all your top choices in the first round. That way, if you don’t get the responses you want initially, you can revise your submission documents and still have good-fit agents on the list.

Great. I’ve set up my list and separated the agents into a few rounds. But everyone seems to want different things!

They do…and they don’t. There are a few basic documents that most agents will want: a Query Letter, a Synopsis, and the first few pages of your book.

In the next post, “Query Letters,” I’ll go over what this is and how to write one that will catch an agent’s eye.

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