Monday, July 28, 2014

The Great Agent Hunt

The "How Do I Get An Agent?" question is coming at me from all directions this week and I figured I'd better put the answer all in one place so I can just refer people here.

So you've finished your first novel and now you face the dreaded question: What do I do now?

Well, first, MASSIVE CELEBRATING. Most people who try to write a novel never finish at all. You are officially awesome.

And before we talk about HOW,  I'll address the question of WHY you need an agent at all.

If you're planning to go right into indie publishing, great!  You don't need an agent. Skip this step and go straight on to a whole other set of scary issues. :)

But if you're looking for a traditional publishing deal with a traditional publisher, yes, you need an agent. I know, people do it without. Fine - if you're one of those people, I'm not talking to you.

(If you're planning to sell directly to a Harlequin category line, you don't really need an agent at first, either. But you do need the professional savvy of Romance Writers of America. I strongly recommend that you join up.)

But for those of us who DON'T have that kind of business savvy to negotiate our own deals with a multimillion dollar corporation, this is what an agent does.

A good literary agent lives in New York (that's CITY). An agent's job is pretty much to go out to breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, and drinks with every good editor in the city, and know what those editors are looking for, so that when you hand your agent your new book or proposal, your agent will know exactly which editor is looking for what kind of a book - know each editor's taste intimately, so that your agent can submit to exactly the right editor at each publishing company and put you and your book in the position of making the best possible deal available on the planet at that moment.

Really. That's what your agent does.

When your agent submits your book, s/he will most likely submit it to 8-10 of the top publishers in New York simultaneously, and you need to have that book submitted to the editor MOST LIKELY TO BUY IT at each house, in the hopes of -

1 - creating an auction and/or pre-empt situation

2. - getting the best possible editor for you and your particular book and the best possible deal out there.

You cannot do these things yourself. An agent can. This is the difference between writing for a living and writing in those spaces between the demands of the day job.

An agent also is or functions as a contracts lawyer (or a good agency will have a department of contracts lawyers) who will, after the sale of a book, negotiate a contract that is far better for the author than the boilerplate (basic contract) - such as retaining rights in other media and other countries, reversion of e rights, and other critical bargaining points.

Writers without representation or with less than ideal representation might realize just how unfavorable the contract is only when it's much too late.

And here's some video of a panel discussion that I did with Dusty Rhoades and Stacey Cochran that goes further into what an agent will do for you and why it's so important to have one. The question I was asked in the beginning of this tape was "Can I sell a book without an agent?"

And continued here:


So that's the why. On to the HOW.  Legendary Putnam editor Neil Nyren has this to say about finding an agent:

"The question I always hear the most at conferences is about how to find the right agent, and I always say, “Homework.” Now that homework is easier to do than ever. Besides such sites as Publishers Marketplace, AgentQuery, and the like, every agent in creation has his or her own website where you can find out about their preferences, authors, deals, ways of doing business. Really, people, there’s no excuse for cluelessness anymore."

Amen to that.  If you're not spending - I would say at least a month - doing your research, you're not taking this seriously enough.

I know a lot of authors recommend starting with the lists in Writers’ Market, but the very thought makes me cringe. How are you supposed to know who’s a good agent from reading randomly through that enormous book? Instead, I highly recommend making your own targeted list of agents who represent books in your genre, who have made recent sales, and who other authors you admire are enthusiastic about. We are SO LUCKY to have Google to allow us to do this kind of research instantly, right from our own desks.

I also know that getting an agent is so hard these days that a lot of aspiring authors jump at the first offer of representation. That is a TERRIBLE thing to do. You only have one shot to get your book read and bought by the major publishers and you need the best representation you can find. An agent with “clout” can get you thousands more in advance money, just because of their relationships and who they are. It can easily be the difference between you writing as a hobby - and writing for a living. It’s worth taking the time to do extensive research, and approach the agents you most want to work with first, before you settle for the first thing that comes along.


You knew that was coming, didn't you?

While you are doing this research, I recommend that you build a list of at least 20 agents who you feel would be good representation for both you and your book. Take good notes, because when you query these agents you may want to say things like: "I feel you'll respond to this book because of (these similarities) to your client's excellent book (title).

Here are just a few great resources to consult when you start your agent investigation:

1. The Backspace forums

Backspace is an invaluable resource for all aspiring authors (and published authors, too!) There are public pages, but the real gold is the private forum – it’s a $25 or $30 one time fee to join but invaluable. You can get your questions answered directly by great agents and editors, and get public or private feedback on particular agents or your query letters by other Backspace members.

2. Here's a great site with over 1500 agent listings and software to research agents and keep track of your queries: Querytracker

3. And another:

4. Subscribe to Publishers' Lunch, a free newsletter that you can sign up for on the Publishers' Weekly site, and start a notebook in which you list agents who have sold books in your genre that week and the editors and publishing houses they have sold to.

5. Continue to build your targeted list of agents by going to the library or a bookstore or your own bookshelves and selecting at least 20 popular books in your genre and turning to the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS page. Unless s/he’s a complete and total ungrateful idiot, the author will have thanked her/his agent in the first few lines.

You can also often find your favorite authors’ agents’ names on the authors’ websites, complete with contact info.

6. If you need help finding current, successful books in your genre, ask your local librarians and independent booksellers, who are your best friends.

7. Always check with Writer Beware to make sure that agents you're approaching are legit.

And GalleyCat is a must-read blog for your agent hunt.

8. Go to writing conventions in your genre that agents will be attending, especially if you can sign up for pitch sessions. Meeting agents face to face in these situations is the best way to establish the connection that can lead to signing with an agency. The Shaw Guides provide a comprehensive list of conferences and conventions, nationwide, as does Jacqueline Deval's excellent book PUBLICIZE YOUR BOOK - a comprehensive list of conventions in the back. If there’s a particular agent you have targeted, check to see if that agent is participating in pitch sessions at particular conferences It is absolutely worth it to go make the initial contact in person, in a structured setting like this. The personal contact will not only most likely get your submission read, it will give YOU a chance to see if you really want to work with that agent, which is equally important.

9. Go to conventions and hang out in the bar. I particularly recommend Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, the Backspace conference, Romance Writers of America National Conference, and Romantic Times Booklovers Convention. (Thrillerfest's Agentfest, in July, has a massive number of attending agents.) If you've signed up for a pitch session at one of these conferences and an agent has asked to see a partial (or a whole book!) then you are light years ahead of a cold querier. I think for most aspiring authors it's the very best way to speed up the getting an agent process.

Be pleasant and charming, buy an agent a drink. Again, the personal contact will not only likely get your submission read, it will give you that chance to see if you really want to work with that agent.

So now that you have your list, you need to query. It's a specific process, so do your research on how before you send those emails off.


Folio Literary Management has an EXCELLENT blog on all aspects of agenting, publishing, and writing careers.

Check out this post on the perfect query letter:

And then go ahead and delve into the other posts!

More on query letters and Who To Query - from Murderati's Louise Ure.

Lisa Gardner on writing queries and synopses.

San Francisco agent Nathan Bransford, with Curtis Brown, also has an excellent blog on these and other topics - check out his essential links on the right side of the blog.

Here's a free downloadable e book on writing query letters.

Good luck with it!

And I’d love to hear of other good sources people have found so I can keep adding to my lists, so please let me know what I’m missing!

- Alex

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available in all e formats and as pdf files. $2.99 and $3.99


Amazon UK

Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE



Mir Writes said...

Kristen Nelson-- Denver
Chip MacGregor--Oregon
Steve Laube --Arizona

Three agents off the bat that I know are smart and ethical and do right by their clients. One does not have to be based in NYC anymore. Skype, email, digital mss, etc. Geographical proximity is not essential these days.

I'm big on folks just going indie. Especially anyone with many mss in the waiting room. Just get them out there. If readers want to read them, find them, enjoy them, the writer may quit their day job.

It's the 21st century. Skip the agent and self-publish. I've seen too many folks approached by trad publishers AFTER they've gone indie and gotten visibility that it's not worth waiting and waiting and submitting and submitting. Go for it. :D

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Mir - I wondered who was going to be the first to call me on "must live in NYC" !

Thanks for the names, and yes, it is possible. But it is MUCH less likely that an agent living out of NYC is going to be as effective as one who does. Technology is great but it is never a perfect substitute for face time.

This post is not for people who know the ropes of publishing and who have the resources to find out insider takes on specific agents. It's a how-to for people who are just starting out on the publishing track. It's important to steer them away from potential pitfalls in a broad sense.

I post on self-publishing, but I wouldn't recommend it across the board to beginning writers, either. I think you need to give people an overview of both paths and let them do their own research and thinking about which way to go.

One very positive thing about starting with a traditional agent hunt is that you will refine your skills at pitching and selling your book - CRITICAL skills for all authors, especially those who self-publish. You learn from it. You might benefit from a traditional route. And if you don't think you can waste the time it takes to submit, you're very probably in too much of a rush to actually do well at indie publishing.

Mir Writes said...

I think if someone has been trying to get published for 5 or 7 or 10 years and is not yet contracted, then self-publishing is quite, quite viable. Even advisable. It gets product out there, and they learn how to "pitch" and "refine" by writing blurbs, marketing copies, promo materials. Only this time you're pitching to readers.

And who knows if the person is ready or not. That manuscript that is sitting there collecting dust as it waits for approbation may start garnering a readership for the author, that then wants to see the next and next and next books. It's the test of the real waters. Can the book survive in the new millenium competition that isn't just publishing house against publishing house but the internet's e-shelves?

No one knows who will do well in indie publishing. And no one knows for sure what unknown will do well in trad publishing. Ask all those once starry-eyed midlisters who got dropped. The discouraged ones who once had a 50K or 500K advance sale (and yes, I know just such an author who had a 500K small bidding war for a tome and then...faded away.)

No one knows. So, I do encourage anyone who has been writing and submitting, writing and submitting, and not yet reaped the fruit of their labor in traditional publishing to just do it. Just put it out there for readers and do their best to get the word out. Then put the next one. It may fail. It may succeed. It may fail today and succeed in 3 years. But in there years, that author will still have all their rights and the majority of the income that comes in. What's lost?

So, who out there knows if one is ready for indie success? No one but God. No one knows until they dive in and see how the waters treat them.

(And as one of my pals found out, one can SP, sell nicely, and then have a trad offer five figures for it. It's a very permeable barrier in the book world these days.)

Unknown said...

Great post, Alex! I am currently doing my research now on agents. I have queried a few for my screenplays, but not for my novel yet, Thanks for the tips.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mir, I agree. I'm a big advocate of self publishing. I've done it myself very successfully and I've posted about it here extensively. I just compiled some links to past here a few weeks ago.

But people have been asking me specifically about agents, and that's what this post is about.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You're very welcome, Krystol! Good luck with it!