Six impossible things

On agents, part the second

So you have your FINISHED novel-length manuscript, and you’ve done some thinking about what you’d like your agent to do for you in addition to submissions, negotiations, and collecting from your publishers. Now it’s time to actually start looking for an agent.

And the first thing you do is, you check around and make a list. If you have writer friends, ask who their agents are, whether they’d recommend their agents, what their agents do for them, and whether they’ve heard of any agents who’re looking for new clients. Check Literary Marketplace to find out who is agenting your favorite authors. Make friends with your local indie bookstore owner (especially if it’s a specialty store specializing in your field) – they often hear a lot of industry gossip, including stuff about agents.

If there’s a writer’s organization in your field, check their web site for information (the Science Fiction Writers of America have a number of excellent articles on the subject of agents and the etiquette of agenting, for instance; some other sites have lists of reputable agents). Some writer’s organizations accept serious-but-as-yet-unpublished writers as affiliates (the RWA and the SCBWI, for instance); the memberships can seem pricey to a cash-strapped beginner, but if you’re in this for the long haul, you’ll probably be joining something eventually anyway, and they can be an invaluable source of inside information. If there’s an active local chapter, you’ll have a place to meet other folks who are actively working in your field, many of them professionals. (Do remember that they are not there just to give you advice and answer questions for you, though. People are a lot more willing to talk to folks who’ve shown up at a few meetings and offered to help with organizing the refreshments than to someone who shows up out of nowhere with a list of fifty important questions that they need answered right now, and never mind that discussion about ebook contracts you were trying to have with someone else.)

The Association of Authors Representatives is another place to check; not only do they have a nice, informative FAQ, but their members are required to subscribe to a code of ethics that they have published on their web site.

Once you have your list of named agents, check them out on Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors to eliminate scam agents and as many other problem types as you can. Google the remaining names.  Agents who are taking new clients often mention this on their web sites; also, in this day and market, you want an agent who is web-savvy enough to at least have their own web site (you’ll want to decide for yourself whether a particular agent is or isn’t putting enough/too much time into maintaining a web presence). You also want to check whether the agents on your list are familiar with the field(s) you’re writing in; if you are trying to write hard action-adventure SF, for instance, you probably don’t want an agent who sells mostly children’s fantasy and paranormal romance. If you can, find out one or two of the agent’s current clients and talk to them; if you can find one of the agent’s ex-clients, talk to them, too. In both cases, try to consider what you’re told objectively, bearing in mind that current clients are likely to be happy and ex-clients are likely to be unhappy and sometimes it’s about personalities and not actually about service.

Yes, this is a lot of work. Yes, this will take a lot of time. Yes, you do all this before you ever write or email an agent. Why? Take another look at #3 under “what you can expect a legitimate agent to do” in the previous post. Your agent is going to be collecting your pay. ALL of your pay, and then sending your share along to you. Do you really want to put that kind of trust in someone you haven’t thoroughly checked out?

So you have a short list of possible agents. Now what?

Ideally, you’ve been sending that novel-length ms. around (or at least querying) while you’ve been doing all this research. Ideally, some editor will have offered to buy your book while you’ve been busy making up your list. Ideally, you had the sense to tell said editor “That sounds really great, but give me a day or two to think” and then immediately called the first agent on your short list to ask if she/he will negotiate this contract with a view to taking you on as a client.

If your life is that ideal, it is very likely that you’ll get an agent to bite within two or three tries. Having an offer on the table is not a guarantee that you will get your first-choice agent; an ethical agent with a completely full client list won’t take on another client even if she really, really would like to, because she doesn’t have the time – and trying to make the time will mean shortchanging not only you, but all her existing clients. But if you’ve done your homework as outlined above, you have several possible agencies to try.

If your life is not ideal…well, the process is pretty much identical to getting an editor: you query the agent, submit the manuscript, and wait; repeat as necessary. The only difference is that the cover letter says “…and I hope you will consider taking me on as a client” instead of “…I hope you will consider publishing my book.”

And just as with editors and publishers, there aren’t any reliable short cuts. If you have a friend who is a published writer, they may be willing to recommend you to their agent, which will probably get you put on top of the agent’s slush pile. It will NOT get you an automatic acceptance; in some cases, it may not even get you to the top of the slush, depending on what the agent thinks of that particular author’s judgment. And if you don’t know the author (and I mean know them really well, not just as a casual acquaintance), don’t ask for a recommendation. I personally find it annoying to have someone I’ve seen twice in the hall at a convention come up and demand a recommendation right now for a book I haven’t even read (and probably don’t have time to read right now even if that sort of approach didn’t automatically make me disinclined to even look at the first page, which it does). I’ve been known to recommend people to my agent, and she’s taken a few of them on, but in most cases I was the one who offered, based on what I’d seen of someone’s work. The one time I recall being asked, it was a) someone I’d known for several years, b) whose work I loved (and she knew it), and c) a general letter of recommendation, not a specific referral to my agent (who, sadly, wasn’t taking clients at the time).

A few last points: even in this day of Internets, most agents live within a short driving distance from New York/Boston (if they’re book agents) or Los Angeles (if they’re screenplay agents). This doesn’t mean you should ignore the perfect person who lives in backwoods Montana, but it does mean you should be a little more careful to ask around before you sign on with such a person, to make sure they are legit and have the experience they need to run an literary agency at a distance from their primary customers. If you can arrange to meet with a prospective agent at a convention or some other place you’re going to be, by all means do so; if not, a phone call once you’re at the negotiation stage is definitely indicated. A lot of writer/agent agreements fall apart because of personality clashes that might have been dodged if the two people involved had actually talked to one another for a few minutes before entering an agreement.

  1. It’s interesting to me that this post seems to suggest it’s likely that an unpublished author might have the ability to choose between agents. I was under the impression that it was much more of a buyer’s market than that, and that an author with a finished ms might submit queries to scores of agents (serially, or however appropriately following their submission guidelines), and still have a fairly low liklyhood of being picked up. Makes me wonder if this is better advice for selecting an agent for your second book, once you are a published author. (I guess it is all different if the “ideal” case occurs and an editor picks up an ms; I have no idea how often that happens though?)

    I suppose the low probability of success through querying should not prevent authors from doing research on their agents. But it seems that it might be better to concentrate on agents who will take and sell your book, rather than agents who may have the best-aligned business sense with the author. After all, better the book sold for a little less than ideal than the book never sold at all.

    p.s.: paying attention to your blog again since Amazon moved up estimated delivery for Across the Great Barrier to July 25.

    • John – Well, to begin with, it’s a matter of knowing what you’re getting into. If you do your homework and come up with ten possible agents who fit your criteria, and you submit to all of them and none of them takes you, you can move on to your second-ranked set of agents, knowing that they likely won’t be as good a fit and you may not stay with them long. Second, if “taking and selling your book” is the one vital thing as far as you are concerned, and you are confident that you can handle any wobbles in the contract negotiations and payment-collection part yourself, then that IS part of the “what you want from your agent” stuff I told you to think about in the first half of this post. Just be very, very sure that “take and sell” really is the long-term vital point for your, and not just the thing you think is really important now. I’ve seen way too many unhappy second- and third-time novelists out agent-hunting again, because they didn’t do their homework and just grabbed the first person who’d take them.

      I think I’m going to have to do a part three for this post.

  2. I have a question: about how many authors does the typical agent work for?

  3. Thank you so much for tackling this topic. These posts have been really helpful to me. It’s great to have it all broken down point by point.

  4. I am sixteen and currently in high school. I finished writing a book of my own, but I’m not sure if it counts as a novel (what is the required length of a novel?) nor how well it is written. I know it definitely needs to be revised if it’s ever going to be published, but I think it has a good story/plot and characters.

    I’m thinking about publishing it, but I’m not sure where to start. Could you give me any advice? Thanks.

  5. Wow. That was quite the answer (“Great Wall of Publishing”), thanks! Meanwhile, in the instant gratification department, your book is 30 miles away and will somehow take 3 days to move that distance 🙂 — should have gone with brick-and-mortar…

  6. Angela, the amount of words necessary to be counted as a novel is 50,000 (I think) but I’ve heard that most novels published today are about 100,000 to 120,000 words. Hope that helps.

    • Julie – You’re welcome.

      Katya – I don’t know. They don’t talk about it much, and it depends on how productive the agent’s clients are; ten people, each of whom produces a novel every six months, means the agent has twenty books a year to sell, while ten people, each of whom produces a book every two years, means only five books a year (if they’re on staggered schedules), and the agent would have a lot of potential room in her schedule.

      Angela and Katya – What counts as a novel depends on a couple of things, including who’s doing the counting. Basically, though, Katya’s right about length for most current adult-market genre novels – they run about 100,000 to 120,000 words. YA tends to be shorter, around 50K-80K; middle-grade, shorter yet, at 30-40K, and so on. Where you start if you want to publish is by collecting information – SFWA’s Information page has a lot of good articles, and I’ll have a few things to say myself coming up.

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