any writers discover that writing a book is the easy part. Selling it is what’s hard. Once you’ve typed “The end,” that’s when the work really begins.
New authors may hear conflicting information about agents: some writers have landed good publishing deals without them, while others wouldn’t dream of not having one. Do you absolutely need a literary agent? The short answer is no. Plenty of authors have books published by dealing directly with a publisher. However, a good agent will make it easier for your book to be read by the people who need to read it. Many of the major publishing houses won’t accept so much as a query from unagented writers. They don’t have time to weed through huge slush piles, so they count on agents to act as mediums for them. Agents are expected to pitch what they feel are the right books for a particular publishing house. The reason so many agents are located in New York City is no accident; New York is also home to most of the big publishers. Agents and editors do a lot of face-to-face meetings, so it’s easier for them to be in the same area.
What will an agent do for you?
Some writers aren’t sure why they may need an agent or what an agent will do for them. An agent’s primary responsibility is to sell your book to a publisher. Reputable agents do not get paid unless your book sells; therefore, an agent who has your best interest at heart will do his best to get your book in the hands of the right people. Your best interest is also his best interest. If you have a good relationship with your agent, he’ll be interested in your writing career, not just one book. He’ll give you direction and advice.
Agents handle the business end of your work. They negotiate advances for you and make sure you get your money after they deduct a standard commission fee (usually 15% of domestic sales). They knock on doors and make phone calls so that you can concentrate on what you love to do: write.
Where to find agents?
There are several books that are great agent resources. Jeff Herman's Guide to Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents; Writer's Market Guide to Literary Agents; and Writer's Market are just a few. You need to make whichever guide you purchase your agent bible. These books contain useful and important information, especially in the area of who to contact at various agencies. You should look for such information as the contact agent(s), the genres they represent, if they’re currently accepting new clients, how many clients they represent, what they’re actively seeking, and any other helpful tips.
You’ll receive more positive responses if you query agents who say they are actively seeking new clients.
Agent Query is an online resource that lists many agents you might not find in books. Because publishing goes through changes just like other businesses, it’s always a good idea to check an agency’s website to see if any information has been updated since the current book you’re referencing came out. Writer’s Market publishes new editions every year, but a website can give accurate information much more often.
Also, read the Acknowledgements page in books. Many authors thank their agents here. If you read a book in your genre by an author you admire, put that agent on your list as a potential contact.
"Present your book in as unbiased a way as possible."
How can you land an agent?
There are a few proven ways to make contact with an agent. The most effective methods are through these channels:
There are some simple things you can do to make sure your query is the best it can be.
- Do address the right person (check your agent book and the website). If you’re unsure about gender, use the whole name. “Taylor” can be either male or female. Don’t annoy Ms. Taylor Editor by addressing her as Mister. Curtis Brown Ltd. Agent, Nathan Bransford, admits on his blog (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/) that during one 3-day weekend, he reviewed 47 queries and only nine of them were personalized. In addition, four “…were addressed to ‘sir’ or ‘To Whom it May Concern,’ and [two] more were obviously mass-mailed (and several more than that were semi-obviously mass-mailed but with a better macro).” Out of the 47, how many do you think he requested more from?
One. I’m willing to bet it was one of the nine that was addressed directly to him.
- Submit to the right agency for your genre. There’s probably no quicker way to get your query and any accompanying materials tossed than to send a romance query to an agent who specializes in science fiction or a young adult query to an agent whose profile lists that she only represents adult fiction. It is crucial to do your homework in this area.
- Send what the agent requests (again, check your book or agent’s website). Although this would be an easier world if every single agent wanted the same materials sent to them, the fact is that agents are as varied as anyone else in the publishing industry. Some agents only want to see a one-page query while others want to see the first three chapters right away. It’s important to check the agent’s profile in Writers Market, in Agent Query, or in Publishers Weekly…wherever you can find their list of specific needs. Follow it to the letter and this will greatly improve your chances of a request for a partial or a full manuscript.
- Do keep it brief. If you’re asked to only send a query, keep it to one page. Agents are busy people.
- Do say that you’re working on your next novel (but only if you really are!). Agents want to see that you’re serious about having a writing career and that this isn’t a one-book deal. If you’re working on a series, that’s even better. Make sure you mention that you have plans for a trilogy if you do.
- Do list your publishing credits, but not all 100 of them. List the most recent or most prestigious, but keep it to about four or five. If you have no publishing credits, don’t mention it.
- Don’t proclaim your book the next #1 bestseller or compare yourself to the Big Name Author of the day (many agents confess this is a turnoff). Agents aren’t interested in your opinion about your book because hopefully, you love it. They’re more interested in everyone else loving your book because the better your book sells, the more money can be made for you and for them. Present your book in as unbiased a way as possible. Instead of saying “my book is destined to become a classic,” stick to the facts: the plot of the book, who the book is intended for (target audience), and the genre.
- For fiction writers, don’t contact the agent until your book is not only complete, but also polished. If you’ve written one version of your novel, you’re not nearly done. Just because you’ve reached your word count goal and all the ends are summed up in a satisfactory way, edits and revisions are just as much a part of the book-writing process as the actual writing. Non-fiction writers don’t need to have a completed book, but do need a strong proposal which outlines your qualifications for writing the book as well as your target audience.
- Don’t send queries on with cute fonts, or with pictures of your cat. This reeks of amateurism. Publishing is a business, which some writers forget. Publishers want to make money just as much as you do. Use margins all around the page and a font like Courier or Times New Roman in black.
- Don’t send simultaneous submissions to agents who specifically say they don’t accept them. This has the potential for literary disaster for you if you query two agents and they both request a partial. You’ll either have to explain that Agent A also requested to read your work, so you can’t send it to Agent B or you might not explain at all, leaving both agents hanging and possibly missing out on the agent who would have signed you. If you can’t stand the wait, only query agents who say simultaneous submissions are fine with them. If you’re fortunate enough to be asked for an exclusive read, immediately contact the other agents you queried and let them know that.
- Don’t hound the agents. Yours is only one of hundreds or perhaps thousands of queries they have to read. Many agents list a time frame of when you can expect to hear back from them. This may be as long as six months. It’s best to wait until after the suggested time frame before you politely ask if the agent received your materials.
"…sitting down with an agent is like speed dating…"
If you’ve never attended writers’ conferences, you may wonder what they’re all about. Are they really necessary for landing an agent? Are they worth your time? In most cases, meeting an agent face-to-face is an excellent way to find one. Speaking to an agent in person allows you to gauge how well you think you’ll be able to work with this person. Is he abrupt? Distracted? This may be a result of a busy schedule or this may be how he is all the time.
You can find out if the agent you want attends a conference you’re interested in. Agent resources often contain a list of conferences for the year and which agents are expected to attend. Once you get information on the conference’s schedule, you can decide which meetings/symposiums you’ll go to. If there’s a session for Meet the Agent, do make sure you get there. Many times, sitting down with an agent is like speed dating: you have only a few minutes to convince this agent why they should take you on. You’ll have to make the best first impression possible. Have all the necessary materials ready to send (query, synopsis, 3 chapters or full manuscript), with your name and page numbers on all pages.
Sound excited about your book because if you’re not wowed by it, you can’t expect anyone else to be. Appear professional and cordial, but be yourself. Also, remember that agents are extremely busy and these conferences may involve long days for them. Do not shove your materials at the agent if you weren’t able to secure a meeting with her. She might not remember every single moment that happens during the conference, but rudeness (and the people connected to it) has a tendency to stand out.
This is probably the most effective way to get an agent to look at your work. Instead of being an anonymous person, you’re connected in some way to someone the agent knows. The better the relationship between the agent and whoever recommends you, the better. It shows that someone whom the agent respects thinks highly enough of you to pass on your name.
This is where networking helps. If you know an author who has an agent you would like to work with, ask if the author will make a recommendation for you. The editor you worked with several years ago may be a potential contact for you, so it’s always wise to maintain friendly relations with anyone you work with in publishing.
"Agents scout contest winners and respected literary journals for new talent."
Contests and Literary Journals
There are many writing contests throughout the year that you can enter, in all genres. Some will require a reading fee, but some won’t. If you win a contest, don’t be shy about it. Tell everyone you can, blog about it, and definitely mention it in a query to an agent. This demonstrates that people in the business recognize your talent.
Submit your work to literary journals. It will be easier to start with the smaller journals before you move on to the major ones. It’s best to send your writing to journals that pay, even if the pay is small. Having your work published and rewarded helps your reputation as a serious writer.
Agents scout contest winners and respected literary journals for new talent. If you don’t submit your work, they won’t see it.
What is the AAR?
The AAR is the Association of Authors’ Representatives. This organization maintains strict membership requirements and a code of ethics which all members are expected to adhere to. Just because an agent isn’t a member of the AAR isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. She may be new and hasn’t been in business long enough to apply for membership yet or she may choose not to join such organizations.
It’s wise to try and select agents who are part of this trade group because members are held to professional standards and are required to show they are capable at their jobs.
"Reputable agents only get paid when your book sells…"
Agents to Avoid
It’s better to have no agent rather than one who is inept or only wants to collect fees. A shady agent may contact you instead of the other way around, but this isn’t always a sign of a bad agent. If you’ve won a well-known writing contest or had your work published in a respected literary journal, a reputable agent may indeed contact you. A bad agent, however, will probably ask for fees upfront. Reputable agents only get paid when your book sells and none of them will ask for money in advance. If an agent requests fees for anything before she has sold your book, run the other way. Shady agents may also refer you to in-house editing services (for which they might collect fees), refuse to tell you about their recent sales, or pressure you to sign a contract in a hurry.
Note: Many agents may charge you office expenses such as copying and postage, but they shouldn’t do this until after they’ve agreed to represent you and any legitimate agent will discuss all of this with you beforehand.
"…be prepared for rejection."
Don’t be discouraged
Whenever you decide to contact an agent, be prepared for rejection. Lots of rejection. Being a writer isn’t a profession for the easily offended or for those who can’t take criticism. When you receive a rejection, try not to take it personally. The agent isn’t rejecting you and many times, he isn’t necessarily rejecting your work. Agents send rejections for a lot of reasons besides not being interested in your book. They may not feel it fits in with current publishing trends or they may not know how best to market it. Some of the bestselling authors in history received dozens of rejections before they made a sale.
You’ll receive many form letter rejections, which can be crushing. If a rejection has any handwritten notes on it or if it’s personalized to you, that’s a good thing. That shows an agent took time out of his busy day to acknowledge you. You’re that much closer to a “yes.”
Finding an agent may seem daunting at times, but when you find the right fit for you, your dreams of having a book published will be closer to reality.
Del Sandeen lives in Northeast Florida, where she works as a writer and copy editor. She also writes speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in FIYAH: Speculative Literary Magazine and Gay magazine, and she's the author of three young adult educational books, including Maya Angelou: Writer and Activist (Enslow, January 2020). You can read more about her at her website: www.delsandeen.com.