You, Me, and Literary Agents

Some time ago I got an email from an unsigned author I’d worked with years before:

I would like to hire you to look over my much-fretted-over query and synopsis and give me your feedback. Also, I would like you to critique the first five pages of the manuscript since this is what many agents want to see along with the query. I would also like the names of five agents you think might be interested in my manuscript.

I get asked about agents all the time. Do I know any? (Yes.) Can I recommend one or more to you? (No.) Why? (Different agents specialize in representing different types of books. I just don’t keep up with all that.) Can I recommend you to an agent? (No.) Why? (You are asking me to use my personal goodwill reputation to recommend your project. Think about that. When you hire me as an editor you should assume you’re going to get editorial work from me.)

Honestly, kids, I’m really not your woman for advice about why you need an agent, where you might find the right one, and how you get on with him or her after you’ve signed a contract. But I’ll tell you what little bit I’ve picked up.

What agents do …
• There are lots of literary agents out there. Some are better than others. Some are more experienced than others. Some have no idea what they’re doing at all.
• Agents choose which types of books they want to represent. Some of this involves personal preference; some of this is knowing what publishers are looking for.
• Agents have connections at publishing houses and they maintain them. They also maintain their relationships with other agents, so it’s not a good idea to play one off against the other. They talk to each other, y’all.
• Agents are keeping up with trends, news, and activities in the industry. They know what’s selling and what’s not getting any traction.
• You may have written a perfectly splendid manuscript, but if an agent or agency already represents a writer in that genre or a project very similar to yours, they cannot sign you, because your project would represent competition to what they already represent.
• Legitimate agents do not charge writers for the opportunity to represent them. If you find an agent who charges an upfront fee, look elsewhere.

How to find an agent …
• Follow agents on Twitter! They say all sorts of things an unsigned author might be interested in. Here’s a list (incomplete) of agents who are active on Twitter. There are probably others.
• Do your research; don’t send queries about your YA project to agents who do not represent YA. Selectively target the agents who represent the sort of book you write.
• Check the acknowledgments of books you love; the agent is often mentioned here.
• Go to writers’ conferences. Go to several conferences. Network—with agents and other authors.
• Be patient. And don’t ask anyone if he or she (or I) can recommend you to his or her agent. Wait for them to make the offer to do so (if). No one likes to be put on the spot.
• There are several websites that maintain lists of agents:

> Absolute Write Index to Agents, Publishers, and Others
> AgentQuery
> Guide to Literary Agents blog
> Literary Rambles
> Preditors and Editors
> QueryTracker

Be persistent. Don’t give up.
• That said, most authors don’t land an agent with their first manuscript, but with their second or third manuscript. Those first-novel-I-ever-wrote success stories are outliers. Honest.
• So when I say Don’t give up, a big part of that is Keep writing.
• Timing is also important. Agents often receive several manuscripts based on the same hook, the same idea, the same period of history, the same locale—all in the same month. (Like something’s in the air!) But if yours is the third such manuscript, it’s going to be a hard sell.
• You could also enter pitch contests.
• The surest way to interest an agent is to write a great book. Then you polish it up and submit it to said agent. However:
• All agents have guidelines for submissions. One size does not fit all. Follow the guidelines to the letter.
• The query letter is crucial. Check out Query Shark.
• Get organized. Keep track of which agents you’ve queried.

Working with an agent …
• Don’t assume your new agent will edit your manuscript. If it needs an edit—listen to me! if?—you should hire one and get your manuscript into great shape. Never, ever send an agent your first draft.
• Agents don’t make a dime until they sell your book. This can take weeks or months and even years of time-consuming work. Be patient, trusting, and kind.
• Remember nothing happens fast in the publishing world.
• Follow the agency blog.
• Don’t discuss the details of your agency contract or your latest book deal with anyone but your agent.
• Listen to your agent, and follow his or her advice. Your agent is interested in a long-term career relationship.
• When you have questions, complaints, or doubts, take them to your agent first. Probably best to keep them off social media altogether.

Bottom line …
Me, I’m paying attention to the craft of writing. Agents know about craft too—they have to!—but they are paying a lot more attention than I am to the business of selling books.

Tweet: Do I know any literary agents? (Yes.) Can I recommend one or more to you? (No.)
Tweet: I’m not your woman for advice about why you need an agent or where you might find one.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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