My wife recently received a call from someone from Bookwhirl.com asking for me. They wanted to talk about my “book” and marketing plans they could offer. My wife said she’d take their number, pass it on to me, and get back to them if we were interested. The caller was polite, spoke decent English, and didn’t push.
(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.
I belong to a small chapter of statewide writing club that includes published and unpublished writers. We connect via a monthly meeting and an online newsgroup, sharing tips, tricks, and sucesses.
There was a flurry of newsgroup posts recently about agents from writers who were (or thought they were) ready to seek representation. I tried to respond as well as I could, sharing my experiences–not from being agented, which I’m not, nor being traditionally published, which I also am not–but from five or six hard years of learning the writing business from research, conversations with published authors, and attending talks, seminars, and conferences.
Like a lot of knowledge that coalesces over time, you tend to forget that this isn’t general knowledge that’s imparted to every dewy-eyed would-be novelist that cracks open a copy of Publisher’s Marketplace. I found myself writing to some of my fellow club members with my eyebrows near my hairline, as I found so much of what I was writing to be, well, common knowledge. Or so I thought.
So, here’s a little capsule of what I learned. I freely admit this is all available elsewhere…it’s how I learned, after all. But if my shortcuts help the next newbie that can’t quite find the right resources, then I’ve done some good.
The Basics – Ground Zero
No matter how gifted you are as a writer, you need to educate yourself about the industry and the marketplace. This has never been more true than right now, with digital publishing having turned traditional publishing on its head in just a few short years.
This is not a waste of time. You are not stealing anything from your writing time; think of it as an enhancement. You may well be the next Michael Chabon and have your manuscript sent to a New York agent without your knowledge, but the overwhelming chances are that, to succeed as a writer, you will have to sell yourself a little or a lot and you don’t want to go cheap.
More to the point, you have to do this at some point. Don’t waste valuable time with amateurish moves and wasted gestures. Do your homework and get it right before you start.
- Dean Wesley Smith’s blog – www.deanwesleysmith.com
Very much slanted against tradition publishing from someone who knows, but an excellent primer from an experienced author. For purposes of this blog post, make a special effort to read DWS’s entry, The New World of Publishing: Why Bad Agent Information Gets Taught http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5997
- Miss Snark (archived) – misssnark.blogspot.com/
An anonymous NY literary agent that provided a much needed wake-up call to hopeful writers and gave many tips on submission, ethics, and trends in the field. Blog ended in 2007, but still available.
- The Marshall Plan for Getting Your Novel Published: 90 Strategies and Techniques for Selling Your Fiction
Basic information on formatting, common slip-ups, amateurish moves from would-be novelists.
(These are tips that you will pick up if you do your homework, above, but are worth reiterating here.)
If you wish to be traditionally published by a Big Six publisher (who put out the kinds of books you see in airports, libraries, and those thingies that sell books…right, book stores), you must have an agent. No one publishes directly to the large publishers any more and hasn’t for a long time. This is called “over the transom” submission because it humorously refers to authors that would chuck their manuscript through the transom of the publishers’ offices (assumedly, it wouldn’t fit in the mail slot). Since the word transom itself is archaic, you can guess just how outmoded this method is.
Agents now serve as publishers’ first readers, sifting the wheat from the chaff, and trying to sell the wheat. Sometime they hit, much more often they miss. But either way, there is a 99.9% chance you won’t get a response if you send your manuscript directly to a publisher.
Some authors preach going direct to the publisher anyway. It couldn’t hurt, I suppose, and you probably won’t be blackballed by the industry, but your chances of being found are slim. If you don’t believe me, check out this picture of unsolicited slush (manuscripts) that were sent to a publisher. The pile is what the intern is sitting on.
If you are looking at a small publishing house, much of the above does not apply simply because many small publishers don’t require an agent. But you might. Paying an agent 15% of your royalties might be worth it to have someone representing you and looking out for your best interests. There are plenty of horror stories of small publishing houses holding authors to unfair contractual agreements, subjecting them to litigation, and generally making the Big Six look like Boy Scouts.
This does not describe the majority of small publishers, but unless you are a lawyer during the day, an agent may still be a smart move. Remember, signing with a publisher–of any kind–means you are signing over your rights to some part of your work (often future work, as well, and sometimes even your name as a brand). Be smart.
- Short poetry and short stories do not need representation. And you will not get it. Short, single items do not make publishers money (they can’t charge enough for a public that wants value), so agents will not represent it.Your best bet for short works are journals and magazines. With enough success in that industry, you may be able to publish a collection, but even then–without a longer work to your credit–you are fighting an uphill battle.If you wonder why, ask yourself when the last time you bought a short story collection was.
- If you have a novel or other long work, it must be finished. “Finished” does not mean you reached 75,000 words, saved the Word doc, and printed it. It means rewritten, edited, critiqued, re-re-written, and polished. You almost certainly have one shot to impress an agent. If you haven’t crafted the best product possible–let alone finished it–you will almost certainly not get past a form rejection letter.
This is a lot of information to absorb. Check out the second of two installments in this post (Agents: Needle, meet haystack. Haystack, needle. Part Two.) to find out what else I think I know about literary agents. Share your stories and experiences!