Saturday, February 17, 2007

How do I find an agent for my book?

Who's asking: Various clients, at various times

Once again, I'm giving away work for free, but only because this may be the professional question that makes me feel the most helpless and incompetent.

A good agent is advocate, therapist, editor, financial advisor, publicist and coach. The search for one is more difficult than looking for a job, and only slightly less difficult than looking for a spouse. Anyone who says otherwise is either very lucky or trying to sell you something.

That said, I have some feeble advice to offer, and if any of my author pals feel like expanding on the advice, please do.

First, don't approach an agent before your manuscript is finished. If you have three good chapters and an outline, great; finish the book. We've all heard stories about the authors who sold books based on a proposal scribbled on a napkin, or a great first chapter, or a five-minute pitch; we hear about these things because they're freaks. Advances for first novels are rarely enough to let you quit your day job to finish the book, so let that fantasy go.

In the real world, you're wasting your time and the agent's when you submit unfinished work. If an agent rejects the first three chapters of your unfinished work, he or she won't want to look at it again once it's finished. If they like the book and want to represent it, they won't want to wait three months, six months or however long it takes you to finish -- if you do finish.

You can, however, do some homework while you're writing. Professional associations are useful sources of names and contact information, especially in genre fiction. I'm skeptical about the value of pitching to agents at writers' conferences, but it always helps to meet potential agents in person.

Look for books and authors that appeal to the audience you're writing for, and check the acknowledgements. Most authors thank their agents, and if an agent likes a book that resembles yours, they might like your book, too.

Many reference books and websites provide information about the best way to approach individual agents. The book I use is The Writer's Market, but other directories have similar information, and you'll find several in any decent library. Before you send out your query, check the agent's website for updated information about whether they're accepting submissions, and how they prefer to receive them.

And don't put all your eggs in one basket. Identify as many potential agents for your work as possible, and submit your work to all of them. It's not like sending stories out for publication; if more than one expresses interest, terrific.

Finally, don't pay anyone any money up front. Agents earn their living by selling their clients' work; publishers pay advances and royalties to the agents, who take their percentage and send you the rest. Legitimate agents don't ask for money up front, and don't charge "editing fees." (They may suggest that you seek help from an independent editor, and may even recommend one -- I've had clients referred to me this way -- but those are independent arrangements between writer and editor, and the agent receives no compensation for these referrals.)

Finding a literary agent is hard, even for established authors. I know a few successful authors who have had to go through this process more than once, because their original agent retired, or because the relationship just wasn't working out.

If it was easy, everyone would be Dan Brown (and then Dan Brown wouldn't be Dan Brown...).


Tom Ehrenfeld said...

A few additional thoughts:

A great agent plays two hugely important roles. First, by dint of being good at what he does, your agent knows the market, and as a result can assess the quality of your work while maintaining a clear-eyed appraisal of its commercial viability. Moreover, as a result of knowing the market, and selling books, they have the relationships to make it easier for your book to be noticed and bought by the right editor. Second, a great agent serves as your advocate when you need someone to step up for you. They do have long-term relationships with publishers and editors to consider, sure; but they should also be individuals who you would feel comfortable with when you need someone to stick up on your behalf.

I think the best advice for people who are considering an agent is similar to people whose goal is to get published: never confuse this milestone for the final destination. Landing an agent, and getting published, are important events in the bigger story of becoming a really good author who develops a loyal audience based on producing great books and helping them succeed in the marketplace. I have found that many individuals often spend too much working the details of the process—seeking an editor and submitting manuscripts—before making sure that they “know their song well before they start singing.” I happen to believe that for all the apocryphal stories of great manuscripts being turned down by agents and publishers, if someone hones their craft, works diligently, and produces great material, they will be able to sign with a good agent and land a book deal. This ain’t easy, and there are many huge problems with the publishing business today (not worth going into.) But I think that individuals who are early in their writing careers (hence seeking an agent) should examine if they are READY to be seeking an agent, and READY to start the brutal process of preparing material for publishers to consider.

Jim Winter said...

I'd like to add something that became perfectly clear this week when I signed with a new agent.

Rejections are your buddy. They tell you who likes your stuff and who doesn't. When you start out, the only two things you should care about are whether they said "yes" or "no." However, sometimes, you get a note back that says, "Not bad. What else ya got?"

Remember those people for the next project. Remember the agents who gave referrals. Remember the ones who took the time to call you and say, "I like your style. Here's what I'm looking for." Because if there's potential, an agent is going to take the time to actually type a note out (or even hand write one) to tell you how you and (s)he might be able to work together, even if it's, "I want the next one you shop."

My new agent and I have gone round and round on two books already. We came close on the last one, and I think timing more than anything killed that one - She didn't have time to explain her problems with a book I really had put too much time into already. But that told me this was someone I needed to send my next finished project to.

Yes, rejections really suck after the first dozen or so. And form letters are meaningless other than to tell you to send out the next batch of query letters, go after the next referral, and keep that partial ready to mail.

Now ask me what I think when she sells the book.

Lefty said...

Also, could you provide a list of the agents who will accept ideas written on the back of cocktail napkins?

BW said...

I picked up a guide to literary agents and leafed through until I found one who sounded compatible with me and my subject matter. I did, she was, and that was that. Not everyone will be so lucky, but there are worse places to start.