All agencies are run differently, and may attend to submissions in different ways. This can make it hard to know exactly how to pitch a manuscript.
In general terms, it is always wise to research the agent, their list and signs of preferred works or genres. Using sites (although some limited by subscription-only) such as The Bookseller or BookBrunch can provide a wider indication of industry trends, news and personnel. Within an agency of multiple agents, ensure that your submission is addressed to the agent whose tastes you think will most suit your work – misdirecting your enquiry may mean rejection from one, where another may have responded more positively.
In submitting, look to ensure that the following three points are attended to:
1. The Subject Line – The subject line of an email submission may seem trivial, but when a reader is presented with columns of unread emails, this can have significant bearing on which he or she is drawn to. Of course, most agencies will attend to emails in order – but drawing attention to your submission may lead the reader to open it out of curiosity. Vital in doing this is to include the relevant information: title, author, genre and word count. Genre should suggest whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, but include this if not clear. Any unpublished work should be placed within single quotation marks, e.g. ‘The Submission’. If to a general inbox, but aimed at a specific agent, include attn: NAME. Remember that the subject line of an email is the first impression given to the reader: the clearer and more straightforward this is, the easier the reader’s job is. The point here is that the reader’s eye is drawn not by broad statements or all-caps, but by a clear and concise demonstration of ability and understanding.
2. The Email – The email itself should be direct and simple in address, stating the details given in the subject line and briefly introducing yourself as an author – with any experience or information you feel relevant. Again, the more to-the-point this is, the more the reader’s interest will be maintained; stream-of-consciousness style addresses quickly lose the reader’s attention. Three short paragraphs would be an ideal length: the first stating the details about the manuscript (title, genre, word count) and a brief pitch (two or three lines); the second giving your information as an author (including experiences); the third signing off, i.e. ‘Thank you for your consideration, I hope you share my enthusiasm…’).
3. The Attachments – The standard when submitting to an agent is to attach a synopsis and first three chapters as Word documents. This is typically for ease of reading, so that documents (in my own experience) can be read as previews without having to be downloaded. To this end, it is helpful for the reader to have attachments as Word documents – endearingly so. The synopsis (and this is a debated issue) should be no more than a page in length. Its style is debated even more-so, with some preferring a cliff-hanger blurb-style and others opting for a direct beginning-middle-end. Try to strike a balance here, in giving a clear, causal structure of the plot whilst demonstrating its dramatic qualities.
In looking for an agent, you can use the Association of Authors’ Agents site and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook as directories. In submitting, the main point to remember is that the reader is doing a job – likely, the easier it is for them to review your submission, the more disposed they’ll be to a reading.