How do you get an agent?
How do you FIND an agent?
How do you decide which agents are good and which are not?
Good questions, all. It took me months to figure out the answers. I did a lot of research. And since it’s a Thursday, and we haven’t had a research post for a while: voilà. Here is the distillation of my knowledge. As with all distilled beverages, sip carefully, pick only the flavors that you like, and know when you hit your limit.
Profound Piece of Advice Number One: Become familiar with the basics of what agents do.
A great one-stop resource for this is Agent: Demystified, an e-handbook by the anonymous and uber-helpful Authoress, who has run a blog for aspiring writers for years and who has had two agents (one great, one…eek). This little guide helped me a lot. Much of it might seem like common sense, but when you’re starting out as a writer, everything’s uncharted territory.
But I’ll tell you a few cardinal rules. Agents sell books. They serve as intermediaries between authors and editors. They review contracts, negotiate (and sometimes brawl) for improved terms, and maintain connections in the publishing industry. They get no money until the author they represent makes money.
Let me repeat that: an agent gets paid only when an author gets paid. An agent who asks for money up-front is a scammer.
Once an agent makes a book deal for an author and the publishing house pays out the money, the agent takes 15% of domestic income and 20% of foreign (for example, for a German or Russian edition of the book).
An agent can often negotiate far more than a 15% or 20% improvement in contract terms over what an author would receive without an agent’s savvy. So this is a good deal for everyone..when the agent’s good.
Which brings us to…
Profound Piece of Advice Number Two: Figure out which agents would be good to work with.
This means agents that are:
b. representing your genre
c. seem by virtue of their online presence to be someone you could work well with.
How can you check this? There are resources galore. You can start by searching some databases. A few of these are www.agentquery.com, querytracker.net, 1000literaryagents.com, or even http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/search.html
You can search by genre–so if you’re writing a romance, you’ll get a list of agents who represent romance authors. Not all agents represent all genres. There’s no point in chasing an agent who doesn’t work with the type of book you’re writing.
In fact, you might think of some authors you really like or whose books yours are similar to. Then you can try to find out who their agents are, often by looking at their websites. Or they might be listed here: http://www.querytracker.net/clients.php
Once you have some possible agents in mind, you can search these forums to see what people have to say about specific agents and agencies: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/
Keep in mind that many people who don’t get their work accepted by an agent are likely to be disgruntled. That’s not the agent’s fault, and that’s not a red flag. Real red flags are:
*charging fees for reading or submitting work
*being publicly abusive (on blog, Twitter, etc.–it’s rare, but it happens occasionally)
*not responding, even to a polite follow-up, when they’ve far exceeded the amount of time they stated it would take to read your work
And a personal red flag is anything that makes you uncomfortable. Not all personalities mesh well. Lots of agents blog or tweet, so go hunting to see what their online presence is like. See if you think you could work well with that person. If you don’t think you could, that’s not a criticism of either of you. Just move on to someone else.
Always follow your preliminary searching up with a look at the agent’s website. The agency databases I listed above might not be up to date. The agent’s website is the best authority on what they’re accepting, what format they require for submissions, or if they take submissions at all.
Profound and most important piece of advice Number Three: Publishing is a business. Sell it, yo.
As always, when I try to be cool, I’m probably only confusing. Here’s what I mean: by the numbers, there are approximately twenty-seven billion people writing a novel at any given time (note: statistics may be totally made up). Twenty-six billion will never finish it. But that still leaves a billion people who are all trying to get noticed by an agent at the same time as you.
Here is what you can do to get ahead of 90% of those people:
a. Be professional.
b. Be systematic.
c. For Pete’s sake, don’t query until your book is completed and edited and revised and revised again.
In other words:
a. Be professional: Treat your writing as you would any other job. Write a query letter that is polished, informative, clever, and follows the guidelines of the agency you’re submitting to. Consider it like a resumé: you’re trying to get your book a job (kind of). You want your book to appear to best advantage. You want yourself to seem like someone who would be easy to work with, who could create excellent work, and who would never, ever flounce all over the Internet.
Do not compare your book to Harry Potter. And do not say that your mom loved it.
Those are the query basics, but you can find a lot more online. Sometimes agencies even put query how-tos (not just guidelines) on their websites. Here’s a quick guide on the Folio Literary Management site, which happens to be my agent’s home. 🙂 You can also find examples of stellar query letters online, too. Agent Kristin Nelson has posted a few of those on her blog (scroll down the right sidebar), along with the reasons why they worked for her.
b. So: systematic. You’ve got your list of agents who are taking queries, in your genre, and are totally reputable and you’d love to work with them. Right? Grrreat.
It’s ok to query more than one agent at once; in fact, most agents expect this. Just be sure that you individualize each query, addressing the agent by name and following the agency’s submission guidelines exactly. Doing that much will, again, put you ahead of 90% of queriers. (Don’t believe me? Check out this blog.)
If you’re sending out a lot of queries, it might help to keep a log of who you’ve queried and what their response time usually is. (I know, it sounds compulsive, but it really helped me. I used Excel.) Response times can range from a day to six weeks. Remember about being professional? Don’t hassle an agent until their stated response window has passed, plus an extra week. Then you can give a polite follow-up nudge.
If you’ve written a smokin’ query, agents might follow up asking for a partial. This is part of a manuscript–often three chapters or fifty pages. The agent will tell you how much he or she wants to read. This gives them an idea of your writing style and the story pacing. Most importantly, it gives them an idea of whether they think they can sell the book.
Because as we know, agents don’t make money unless they sell books. If they love a book, but they can’t think of an editor who would buy it, they won’t take you on as a client. And that’s ok, if you’re writing what you love. It doesn’t mean you should stop writing what you write; it just means you might need to look into different avenues for publication. Many small publishers and e-publishers are more flexible than large print publishers, and they often don’t require an agent.
That’s a whole new set of blog topics, though. Let’s move on to…
c. Your book is done. It was done and beautiful before you queried it, right?
Welllll…probably not. Done, yes. But beautiful? Maybe. The first version, and even the second and third versions, of your first novel will probably be…ahem, not awesome. This was certainly the case for me. Hoooooo yes. I had no idea about that when I started querying. It took time, and second chances, and two house floods. Hopefully it won’t take all that for you. But the only way to get better at writing is to keep writing, and keep reading.
Anyway, eventually, if you’re determined and systematic, and you keep writing, and you keep revising and improving, an agent will probably request a partial from you. If he or she likes it, a request for the full manuscript will come next.
Then you wait. And wait. And waity wait wait. Agents have a lot to read, and current clients come first. Again, keep their time guidelines in mind, and nudge verrry politely if they get beyond that.
If the agent likes your work, and thinks it can be sold, the agent will offer representation. Since you’ve only been querying agents that are awesome, this should be excellent news.
What comes next?
An agency agreement. An auction, if multiple editors are interested. But–sometimes no sale at all. Agents aren’t really mind-readers, and sometimes they simply can’t sell a project.
That’s out of your control. What you can control–both before and after you get an agent–is what you write. That’s it. So, make it your best.
Do you have any questions? This is the quick and not-too-dirty version about finding an agent, but I might know a speck or two that I didn’t shove into the post.