Before I go on to explain how to get an agent, I thought it might be helpful to first give an overview of how a manuscript makes its way through an agency. This information is based on my experience at one place, but I’m reasonably sure that the protocol is pretty universal.
The mail carrier arrives early with a giant sack filled with manuscripts. Packages that are addressed to a specific agent are put in the correct mail slot; packages addressed only to the agency end up in a general slush pile, perhaps on the receptionist’s desk. This is a very unfortunate place to be as the general slush has the lowest priority in the whole house, and is only given attention when the receptionist has a spare moment.
Those packages that have made it into a mail slot are picked up by the agent’s assistant, who is probably in her early twenties. The assistant adds it to the mountain already waiting for her on her desk. In between answering phone calls, chasing down paperwork, and attending to the agent’s needs and the needs of her clients, the assistant slowly chips away at the ever-growing pile of manuscripts. By the time she gets to yours, anywhere from six to ten weeks have passed. Yup, it really does take that long.
I’d like to put a word in here about the age of the assistants. Some people really resent that manuscripts are pre-screened by kids fresh out of college. “What do they know?” is a common refrain. Well, let me tell you—they know plenty. A person’s critiquing ability develops much faster than her writing ability. Ninety-five percent (or thereabouts) of that mountain on her desk is mediocre, so when something special comes along it’s glaringly obvious.
When the assistant has time to open the mail, she is looking for a reason to reject you. As she should. The pile is too overwhelming and she simply doesn’t have the time to fawn over every manuscript. So she begins sorting. Manuscripts sent without the required return postage might go in the trash. Manuscripts that include a postage-paid envelope but seem off in some other way—handwritten pages, colored paper, tiny print, poor spelling and grammar, an arrogant query letter—might get a quick glance before getting mailed back with a rejection letter. Not following proper protocol indicates a lack of professionalism.
Manuscripts that follow proper protocol will get proper attention. Usually, agents ask that you send only a sample chapter or the first ten or twenty pages of your manuscript. This might not seem like very much, but the assistant can tell almost immediately (within the first page or two) if you know how to write. If she likes what she reads, she will contact you and request more, say fifty pages. If she still likes the manuscript after that, she may request the rest and then write up a reader’s report for the agent.
I’ve never read a reader’s report, but from what I gather, it’s a bit like a book review. The agent then reads the report, determines if the manuscript contains elements that he feels strongly about, and if so, will take the time to read it. If, after all that, he decides it's something he wants to pursue, you'll be getting a call.