Most agents make their living from established writers with a contract in hand and an established readership and market. They rarely undertake to represent first-time book writers unless they have produced an exceptional manuscript, or are already known to them, or are recommended by someone in the business.
Although agents are reluctant to read unsolicited manuscript, they are all, nevertheless, always on the look-out for exceptional work of quality. To prevent your manuscript being returned unread, your best approach is to telephone, write or fax first to give them some idea of your proposal before sending anything through the post. Some agents have submission guidelines and business terms which they will send you if you forward a stamped self-addressed envelope.
If an agent agrees to look at your work, send a covering letter (see next page for sample) and include your publishing resume, a synopsis of the work, and two or three sample chapters, preferably the first three to give some idea of the content and development of your piece. If you have no history of publication either in book form or in periodicals, you are unlikely to be taken on by an agent. A history of successful literary prizes can persuade an agent to look at your manuscript, so start entering the numerous competitions advertised each month in Writers' Centres' newsletters.
Don't forget to include a sufficiently large stamped self-addressed envelope for the return of your manuscript. If you do not wish your manuscript to be returned to you, say so and send a smaller stamped self-addressed envelope for the agent's letter to you.
A few agents charge a modest fee for reading unsolicited manuscripts to see if they are publishable but will not provide critical comments on the manuscript. Most will let you know of their decision within six to eight weeks.
Agents' terms vary, but generally they take a commission (ranging from 10 to 20 per cent) on any money that you earn, whether from a manuscript, a short story, a public speaking engagement, or overseas sales. Some agents also charge a fee for reading your manuscript and for postage and photocopying expenses.
Certain agents ask you to sign an agency agreement outlining the terms and conditions of the arrangement. Others are satisfied with an oral agreement. If you are unsure about anything you are asked to sign in such an agreement, the Australian Society of Authors and the New Zealand Society of Authors can offer advice.