Agents: Needle, meet haystack. Haystack, needle. Part Two
(This is Part Two of a blog post about the basics of finding an agent. Read Part One here.)
Casting the Net
If you want to start gathering agent names for that magical day when you start your submissions, I would suggest reading every page of www.agentquery.com and subscribing to Publisher’s Marketplace (http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/) to learn the etiquette, understand the markets, and find lists of active agents. Bear in mind that you only want to query agents in your genre; blitzing agents in all fields is seen as poor form and word does get around.
While querying is the traditional method for finding an agent, I found that meeting agents and getting requests for my manuscript was much easier by attending conferences. Agents are there to scout for talent and can get a feel for your work just through conversation.
Be aware that these agents might (I stress might) be young, inexperienced, or on a loosing streak. Super-successful agents are busy making deals, you might assume, not attending conferences. But this certainly isn’t always the case…do your homework on the sites mentioned above, find the agents that sound right for you, and go to the conferences they do. There are plenty of agents that simply like discovering new talent and you might be the next one (though see my suggestions for conduct, #3, below).
Acting the Part
- You need to be exacting, courteous, and above all, professional in your contact with agents. You will read agent horror stories of opening submissions with glitter in them, or written in blood (for a horror novel) or with pages turned upside down to see if the return rejection was read. Trawl through agents websites for their submission requirements. Understand that their wish is your command, down to type face, font size, margin width, email and attachment style. You do not have a say in the matter. You are, let’s face it, a supplicant at this stage. You’ll have to act like one.
- You must work on your query letter like you worked on the first chapter of your novel. There are whole books out there dedicated to the query letter. While you don’t have to drive yourself nuts over it, due diligence is required. Borrow those books from the library and study.
- If you meet an agent in person at a conference or otherwise in a setting conducive to writing (and I’m not talking about stalking the agent of your dreams and waylaying them at the gas station), do everything in your power to be normal. Real difficult, huh? Well, spend some time at writers’ conferences and you’ll see just how hard this is for a lot of people.
It can’t be stressed enough that meeting an agent face to face benefits both of you immensely (you don’t want to work with a jerk, they don’t want to represent a lunatic), but only if you are courteous, professional, and amenable. Don’t shove your credentials in their face, don’t mention the title of your manuscript every second breath, don’t laugh at everything they say. If you’re at a conference or seminar, understand that they aren’t there by accident, they’re there because they are looking for talent. If you interest them–even marginally–as a person, they are incredibly likely to ask you for your manuscript. Three hours spent at the bar at Bouchercon is worth 100 unsolicited submissions.
But it will only happen if you don’t act like an idiot or a used-car salesman.
There are a ton of scammers out there. Protect yourself from the get-go by educating yourself and being aware of what an agent does, how they make their money, and what they owe you in return. Supplicant you might be, but you become a client once that contract is signed.
There are good sites out there to help the author just starting out:
- Preditors and Editors – pred-ed.com
- Writer Beware – http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/
- Again, agentquery.com (especially www.agentquery.com/writer_bs.aspx) and publishersmarketplace.com.
- AAR: Association of Authors’ Representatives – aaronline.org
When speaking with a prospective agent, beware of:
- Agents asking for a reading fee – no reputable agent charges to read work
- Referrals – don’t listen to anyone who thinks your work is great but thinks it could benefit from a “book doctor” or editor whose name, number, and email address they just happen to have handy.
- Fees or payment that are higher (or radically different) than the generally universal 15% of royalty
- Wants to represent anything other than your domestic print rights (unless they have demonstrable experience in film, TV, overseas rights)
- Not always bad, but no wins or sales in the last year (or ever). If they’re young and are just starting out, they won’t have a track record and that’s understandable (even desirable, as they’ll be hungry), but they should be honest and forthcoming about that. If they’ve been in the business for 12 years and haven’t sold anything for a while, not good.
And that sums up my aggregate knowledge on finding an agent. If there’s one message here, it’s that this knowledge was gained over time by looking for it. It might be incomplete, wrong, or not for you. Continue the hunt yourself, be educated, draw your own conclusions, and share with the community.