This article is the Good Parts Version of several
I stole them all. Thanks to everybody.
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© 1997, 1998 Sarah Smith; last updated 04/03/2000
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An agent is not your fairy godmother. Having an agent doesn’t mean that your book will be published. But it’s an almost essential step, and a good agent can strengthen your career and serve as your ally.
A bad or badly matched agent can be a drag on your career.
What is an agent?
An agent is your employee on commission. You hire him or her to sell one or more of your books to a publisher. An agent’s commission is typically 15% of whatever the book earns. If it earns nothing, the agent gets nothing.
Your agent can not only sell your book to publishers but also sell subsidiary rights, such as audiotape, film rights, electronic distribution and adaptation rights, and foreign rights.
All but the largest agencies work with other agencies while selling these rights. For example, your East Coast book agent might work with a West Coast agent who specializes in selling film rights; your American agent might use a German agent to sell German rights.
Agencies come in many sizes, from one-person to large. Smaller agencies tend to specialize in one kind or another of book, for example, trade fiction, mysteries, nonfiction, or children’s books.
Do I need an agent?
Once upon a time, ten or twenty years ago, the theory went that a novice writer could send a book manuscript to an editor, who would read it, decide it was good, and buy it. The writer could either represent herself in contract negotiations or use the sale to get an agent.
No more, because editors’ jobs have changed. Your editor has much less time actually to edit your book. Instead, most of her time goes into selling it internally to the publishers’ sales representatives. The sales reps then go out and persuade independent bookstores or the chains to buy it.
Your editor has no time to look at books that come in “over the transom.” She never really did because most unsolicited MS are bad and it’s a waste of her time.
The usual reader of your unsolicited, unagented manuscript, if the publisher still accepts them, is a 22-year-old editorial assistant, just out of school, who is reading six of them during his or her lunch break.
This is not an exaggeration. I used to do it as an 18-year-old editorial assistant. Most unsolicited manuscripts, sadly, could be rejected just that fast.
Many publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts. Editors now depend on agents to “pre-read” for them and avoid wasting their time. When an agent submits a book to an editor, the agent implicitly is saying that the book is good enough to publish and it suits the editor’s wants and needs.
That’s why you need an agent.
Should my agent charge a “reading fee” or refer me to an editor?
One or two very prestigious agencies used to charge a reading fee, because they got so many inappropriate proposals and manuscripts. Scott Meredith was the major one.
However, within the last couple of years, companies operating as agencies have been scamming unpublished authors in the following way:
The most notorious of these scam agencies is Bill Appel’s Edit Ink, which has done business under several other names. His material implies that prize-winning authors edit manuscripts sent to Edit Ink; however, an Edit Ink ad for prospective editors specified only college grads and proposed to pay them about $6/hr.
There are real editors out there, who get in the range of $15/hr. and up. Their services can be well worth it. You can also take a course, find a Sisters in Crime mentor, or form a workshop with other writers. Your agent can agree to read and edit your books.
But your agent should get his money from selling books, not reading them.
If in doubt, check the Writer Beware list of warnings and alerts maintained by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
How do I get an agent?
1. Decide what kind of an agent you want.
Small or large? In a small agency, you’ll probably be handled by the principals, but if something happens to them, there’s no backup. A larger agency can have a lot of clout and specialists, but you’re likely to be handled by a junior person.
New York or local? (Many very successful agents live and work outside New York. The fax machine and e-mail have changed the rules.)
Do they specialize in what you’re writing?
Discard anybody who charges a reading fee.
2. Get a list of agents.
The Association of Authors’ Representatives (PO Box 237201 / Ansonia Station / New York, NY 10003) distributes a list of its members. Writer’s Digest publishes an annual guide to literary agents, which should be available at your library. Literary Market Place (available at your public library) lists agents.
If you are looking for a local agent, check the telephone book. Ask your published friends.
3. Go through the entire list and select out the agencies that fit your needs. (Small, local, Southern fiction? New-York-based, good connections to TV movies? Agent knows Oprah personally?)
4. Write the best single-page letter you ever wrote.
This letter should say you’re looking for an agent, introduce yourself, briefly describe the book you have ready to sell, and ask them if they would like to see some or all of it. You’ll find sample letters in the Guide to Literary Agents.
At this point, your manuscript should be really, really close to send in case they phone back and want it instantly. But don’t worry, this is unlikely.
5. Send the letter to your top prospect agencies.
Toni Kelner and others suggest sending it to between 40 and 50 agencies.
Most of these will say no. They aren’t taking any new clients. They don’t do mysteries any more. They are dead, or winding up the agency, or just not interested that day. My agent gets 300 letters a week and says no to most of them. It happens; don’t take it personally.
A few will say yes, please, do send the manuscript. Pat yourself on the back.
Now comes the nervy part.
6. Call them up.
The mystique of agents is such that you’re apt to forget it’s a business relationship. You’re happy to be courted. But you should be looking at them with the same care that you’d look at a nanny or a secretary, and they are taking the same look at you.
Now is a good time to read one or more books on the literary agent’s job. Think about the relationship that you’d actually like to have with an agent. What would you like this person to do for you?
Call them up. (Be sure to ask if it’s a convenient time; if not, call back when it’s mutually convenient.) Ask a few questions about the business. Who are their current clients? How do they like to work with clients? What do they consider their strengths? What makes this agency special? What questions would they like to ask you?
It’s perfectly all right to tell the agent that you’re talking to several agents and that you’re calling up to get an initial sense of who they are.
Through the phone calls, you’ll get a sense of who you click with, who you think could get you the best deal, etc. Rank the agencies in order.
7. Send the manuscript to the agency you want most. Write nice notes to the others.
Unless everyone involved lets you do a multiple submission, you should send the MS to only one agency at once, because you are now asking the agent to spend substantial unpaid time reading it.
Tell the others that you remain interested, that it is out to one agency, and that you would like to remain in touch with them.
8. Noodge the agency (gently) if you have not heard anything in two months.
By letter is best.
It is possible to get your manuscript back from every agent on your list. (One Sister in Crime, who now has a very successful career, was rejected by over 100 agents.) If this happens to you, start again from Step 5.
Eventually you will find someone you believe in, who believes in you, who wants to sell your manuscript. While she’s doing it, you can start on the second book.
And may this be the beginning of a great career!
Two of Sarah Smith’s historical novels, The Vanished Child and The Knowledge of Water, were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year and became bestsellers. Her most recent novel is Chasing Shakespeares. Sarah can be reached through her website, sarahsmith.com.