Chuck Sambuchino of the F+W Guide to Literary Agents recently delivered a little gift to 20-plus writers and members of SCBWI (see, you really should join) at Borders in Montrose.
The gift he delivered? Good news, bad news, and laughs to make it all go down a little easier. From my admittedly incomplete notes:
On agents -- you should identify your top five agents and query them, not send out mass queries. And yeah, you can query agents and publishers simultaneously, but that's kind of dumb. (What good agent wants to rep a manuscript that's been turned down by 30 different publishers?)
On agents, 2 -- simultaneous submissions are OK, multiple submissions are not. (eg, don't submit three different manuscripts to the same agent - send your best!)
This surprised me -- we're so often cautioned NOT to call I was surprised to hear CS say it's OK to call a publishing house to say (honestly) "I loved the book [title here], can you tell me who the agent was who represented it?" and then query the agent.
Do your homework -- read blogs! Many agents have them.
Do your homework, 2 -- send your best work, and your best query. See QueryShark.com to sharpen your query.
The 5 versions of your book/manuscript you must develop:
1. Log line (the one-sentence description; include the who/what/where/when/why)
2. Pitch (arguably the most important part - the back-of-the-book description that piques interest in 3-5 sentences but does NOT give away the ending)
3. Short synopsis (1 page, single-spaced or 2 pages, double-spaced)
4. Long synopsis (approximately 1 page for every 45 pages of the book)
5. Manuscript (ms) (always double-spaced)
Why you need both short & long synopsis -- some agents specifically ask for one or the other; if the agent doesn't specify, you should send the better of the two with your query.
About the rules -- There are rules because there are rules. Deal with it. There are always exceptions to the rules but most rule-breakers get to make exceptions because first, they played the game by the rules. The first Harry Potter book in the series wasn't much longer than the average YA novel. Success allows for a lot of latitude, after the first book was out JK Rowling was a proven commodity, an exception who was allowed to break the rules.
Note -- the above rules apply to fiction. For non-fiction works, the rule is to make the BUSINESS CASE for your book.