I know there have been many articles on this subject, but since I’ve spent the past few months searching for a literary agent, I thought I’d add my voice to the discussion. I’ll admit that I did look at a few of the existing articles on the subject just to get some inspiration and see if my list was adding to the subject or just rehashing the information already put out. I fell somewhere in the middle, so some will be familiar, while some may be new. I felt I could add something to the discussion which is why I decided to post. I hope you find some helpful information, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I thought I’d start with the elephant in the room. Why do you need a literary agent? Do you really need to give up 15% to someone else? I can tell you, as a self-published author, there is only one answer to this question. YES. Why? An agent uses their knowledge and connections to place your work in the hands of the right publisher. They handle all negotiations and act as a buffer between you and the publisher. Many agents have worked in the publishing field for many years, often with large publishing houses, so they know what to look for, what to avoid, and how to get the best deal. In addition, agents are in-tune with the market, so they know what will and won’t sell. Most have keen radar and can accept or deny a query based on the first few lines.
What does this all mean? Well if you’ve taken the time to write your book, then you’re probably in the market to sell it. I can tell you from personal experience that marketing a book on your own is no easy task. In fact, you can end up spending more money marketing the book than you will ever make. An agent can sell your book to a publishing company who will then use their resources to help market your book. Note that I said HELP market your book, that’s right, if you think you won’t have to do any marketing, then you are fooling yourself. You should always be thinking of new ways to get your work in front of your audience. Building an audience is a writer’s lifeblood, without them, you are nothing. Don’t expect to be a best seller, you have to become a seller to get your name and work out there.
Now that you understand what an agent can do for you, you have to ask yourself a few questions. First, is your work ready to be put out there? Agents are critical, and they don’t do this to be mean, they do it because publishing is a tremendously competitive field. If you think agents are tough, imagine what critics will say about your work. I don’t say this to scare you off; I say this to prepare you. Finding an agent is hard work, and it’s not guaranteed. Once you find an agent, there is still no guarantee that you’ll sell your work. Preparation is 90% of the fight. You need to understand what you’re getting in to. You are one of many that are seeking representation, so you need to shine if you want agents to fight for you.
Second and this is assuming you’ve made peace with the first; you need to ask yourself if you really want an agent. Are you writing just to put work out, or do you want to sell your work? Are you looking for a writing career, or do you just want to be a writer? If you want a career, then you need an agent. You need someone that can manage your work and get you a publishing deal while you work on writing. If you just want to be a writer, then consider self-publishing – see my article on publishing with Createspace.
So, if you’ve made it this far, it’s safe to say that you’re interested in a career in writing, and you have faced the truth about your work and you’re ready to move forward. Writing is subjective, and you really need to research any potential agent to make sure what you’re offering is something they might be interested in. Don’t send out query letters until you’ve done the work. On that note, don’t send out any query until you’ve perfected your letter. There are many books on the subject, but ultimately, it comes down to content. Many writing groups offer query letter critiques, find one, in fact, find two. Make sure there is at least one person in the group that is going to tell you the harsh, bitter truth. Without that person, you’re wasting your time.
Now we’re ready to look at misconceptions about agents. Hopefully by sharing share my experiences I may shed some light.
Agents don’t DO anything for their 15%, why should I pay them? This is probably the most irritating thing I’ve come across. I get that people don’t understand what an agent does, but do a little research and you’ll find out that agents work very hard for that 15%. From editorial guidance, advocating for an author’s rights and benefits, negotiations, being a buffer between the author and the publishing company to extensive guidance and knowledge, an agent is an author’s best friend and best weapon. In short, an agent can help make your work better, help guide your career and get your work in front of the best publisher for your ideas. Most agents form lasting friendships with their clients, so don’t dismiss their wisdom and experience. Remember, they are there to help you stay on the path to success; they aren’t your mother, your psychologist or your boss. I prefer to see an agent as a partner in my career. We both bring something to the table, and you need each other to thrive.
Never trust an inexperienced or new agent: I completely disagree with this statement. First off, everyone was inexperienced at some point, so don’t disregard someone new to being an agent because they are new. Most agents become agents after working for major publishers, interning for established agents, and after career experience in related fields. Just because someone hasn’t always been an agent doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t excel as your agent. In addition, inexperienced agents usually move up from earlier positions within an established agency. They’ve been doing the work day in and day out; they just don’t have clients of their own yet. Add in the fact that they are establishing their client list, and this is a bonus in my book. They are willing to take a chance on an unknown, they are still establishing their reputation, so they are going to be extra careful in everything they do. Plus, they are still getting to know the business better, so they have other agents within their agency they can rely on for guidance. My take on this, you’re an inexperienced author to them; they are taking just as much chance on you as you take on them. A wise person would not throw away any opportunity.
It’s best to be represented by a big or prominent New York Agency. While every author would like to believe they are the next big thing, most of us just want to make a steady living doing what we love. I see big agencies much like big corporations. Sure they have money, but they also have to answer to investors and boards. Selling one person to take a chance on your idea is hard enough, selling to an entire company can be impossible. Also, unless you’ve written the next best seller, you’re not going to get their attention. And let’s say that you do get their attention, you’ve just added the expectation that everything you write needs to be on the best seller list. I personally don’t write well when I’m under the gun like that, but if you think you can handle that pressure, then seek out the big dogs. Personally, I don’t think I’m just another cog in the machine, and I don’t see my work this way. I would rather have someone who is as passionate and caring about my work as I am. It goes back to that partner thing I touched on earlier. Sure it’s nice to have a partner who can wield power, but not to be too cheesy, with great power, comes great responsibility. Besides, just because an agency is small doesn’t mean they don’t command the same respect in the publishing world as a big corporate conglomerate. Don’t discount the little guys; most times they have more flexibility to get you where you need to be.
All literary agents work out of New York City. While a large number of literary agents are based out of New York, the world has gotten smaller with email and cell phones, so this is no longer the case. A literary agent can work from anywhere in the world, and just because someone doesn’t work in New York doesn’t mean they can’t get you the same (or better) deal working somewhere else. Yes, there was a time where if you weren’t in New York, you didn’t have access. But I’ll put it this way. There was also a time where if you were a writer you had to live in New York. If you can write and produce work where you live, there is no reason your agent needs to be in New York either. Another benefit to this is that you’ve got a better understanding of who your agent is. If they choose to work out of Boston, think about why they made that choice. Think about this, people in New York and people in Texas see things very differently. Remember, reading is subjective, so environment plays a big part on an agent’s taste in manuscript. With Skype, Face time, instant and text messaging, cell phones, email and all the other technology, you may find a more passionate advocate outside of New York.
I signed with an agent who promised me (deal, promotion, etc.,) and never delivered. Like with any business, there are always going to be people who take advantage. Any agent who makes promises to you that they can deliver something with certainty should throw up a red flag. Agents can’t predict what will happen any more than you can, so don’t expect them to. They can offer up their opinion on what they feel they can do, and they can use their experience and judgment to guide you in the right direction, but ultimately, they don’t have psychic powers – if they did, they would have won the lottery long ago. Arm yourself with knowledge. Make sure you thoroughly research any agent you feel would be a fit for your work. Not only will you make a good choice, but you’ll be able to approach them in a way that works to your benefit. Anyone offering to sign you without reading your work first is a scam artist, run. Agents never charge reading fees or any fees for that matter, so if you’ve got someone asking you for money to read your work, run. Research is another weapon in an author’s arsenal. There are many websites that offer information about agents, and I have yet to find one without a forum. An agent’s best asset for new clients is the testimonial of their existing clients. Go out and meet some!
A good agent will get me more money, so a bigger named agent will get me the best deal. Again, I refer you to my thoughts on a big agency, it applies here too. Just because an agent is well-known doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best agent for your work. Your agent should be focused on your career, as you are. Think of the agent / author relationship like any other relationship in your life. You didn’t settle down with your spouse/mate after one date, and you certainly didn’t settle down because of their name or power. If you did, well look at your marriage, I’m guessing it’s not all you hoped it would be. Finding an agent should be like falling in love. There is one right agent out there, and it doesn’t matter how much money, how much power, or where they are, they are the right one for you. Just like you want your agent to fall in love with you, that’s why they have the same passion for your work that you do. It’s a symbiotic relationship, if it’s not, it may work for a minute, but it’s not going to last. Careers are made for the long haul, not a short trip, so be patient, and kiss all the frogs you need to until you find the One. Bigger isn’t always better, it’s just bigger.
A good agent will help me find (land) a big name editor. Ugh. Again, big names don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. That big name wasn’t always a big name. If you approach finding your agent like I’ve advocated, then you’ve found the right agent. And the right agent is going to help you land the RIGHT editor, regardless of name or status. We aren’t all Stephen King, JK Rowling or Diana Gabaldon: so why would you need a big name editor? Focus on finding the editor and agent that will make your work shine and give you your best chance to thrill your audience. After all, you’ve worked hard on your masterpiece; why not find the people that see it for the great work that it is?
A good agent will get me a multimillion dollar book and movie deal. I’m not going to say that a good agent can’t get this for you, but if you’re basing your agent query on this fantasy, you’re going to be very disappointed. I won’t lie and tell you that every author isn’t dreaming of that perfect ‘deal’ that gives them everything they started writing for. We are, by nature, dreamers. But pie-in-the-sky dreams have to be relegated to dreams and reality has to prevail. Realistically, most authors aren’t going to hear Hollywood knocking anytime soon, if at all. Most agencies have foreign rights coordinators, e-publishing managers and some even have; you guessed it, multimedia entertainment liaisons. So the connection to Hollywood is there in many cases. But in truth, if Hollywood ever does come calling, it won’t matter if your agent has experience with movie deals or not. If you’ve done your job in securing a real partner, they will make sure that your interests are well provided for. After all, they are the advocate of your work, so why wouldn’t they make sure it’s handled correctly? It’s what they do for their 15%.
I don’t envy literary agents their jobs, and I respect what they do for their 15%. They are bombarded every day by writers desperate to win their favor seeking representation. They have to carefully weigh their decisions quickly and efficiently. And in some cases, they have to reject work, for whatever reason, and they know they are breaking some poor writer’s heart with their words. In my experience, I have found that agents are some of the kindest and compassionate people I’ve ever come across. Yes, there have been the form rejections, but there have also been the personal, heartfelt notes that, even though they contain rejection, show the agent’s real character. I personally find these the hardest to read. I see how wonderful it would have been to work with them and realize that I won’t have that opportunity.
Are there agents out there that aren’t as kind? Sure. Just like we all have different personalities, agents come in all shapes and sizes. So, yes, you need a thick skin to survive the hunt for the perfect agent. Remember, it is NEVER personal. Just because an agent doesn’t connect with your work doesn’t mean no agent will. Don’t ever bad mouth agents or publishers, not just because it’s unprofessional, but because you’ve never walked a mile in their shoes. If an agent says something mean or rude do you retaliate? Absolutely not! First off, it’s unprofessional, and even though the agent has said something ugly, you should never lower yourself. Second, your perception of what’s said may be skewed by your hurt over rejection. I know that sounds a bit off, but believe me hindsight is 20/20, but I’ll explain.
I received a rejection from a publishing company, and I’ll start by saying it was incredibly kind. When I read the response the first time, I was hurt by the disappointment and swore the response said “I don’t see a market for your work.” I responded with a polite email message and a thank you for the opportunity. That was several months ago, and while writing this article, I went back and read that response again.
What I had perceived the first time I read it, was completely off base. The response simply said that they “were having trouble determining the reader for the work”, and that they didn’t feel they could adequately market the book to its full potential. Certainly not the same message I took from my first reading but time has given me a sharper perspective on the words. So if you are hurt or offended by something in a rejection you have to put it aside and always remain professional and kind. You never know if you’re vision is blurred by your disappointment, and publishing is a close society. One bad response can color you for other potential agents, and you always want to present your best face. There are many organizations online that can assist with concerns you may have, but if you’ve done the work in researching, you’ll find an agent that you will love and will be the best representation of your work.
I hope that this article has helped some of you see that literary agents aren’t mythical figures that will magically make all your dreams come true. In addition, I hope that you’ve garnered some helpful advice on finding the right agent, and what that right agent can (and should) do for you as an author. As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. I try to always respond as quickly as I can.
As always, Sending you Love and Light