According to Bowker, over a million books will be published this year. Two thirds will be self-published. That’s a lot of competition. A book, today, has less than a 1% chance of landing on a bookshelf in a bookstore. Reading the Bowker report is kind of a dream crusher, to be honest. 80% of books sold to the New York publishing houses are represented by agents. These depressing numbers, along with my personal inability to negotiate a decent deal even at the flea market, led me to the conclusion that my only hope is finding someone to fight on my behalf. Hello, agent.
What do Agents do?
I like to think of agents as literary bouncers to the very exclusive publishing nightclub. They are a filter between the swarming masses of aspiring writers of all abilities and the comparatively few available publishing dollars. Their job is hard–they don’t get paid unless your book gets sold, which makes them picky customers, indeed. They work on commission–15% of your earnings. Why do we need them? Let’s take a look at everything an agent provides.
They are an author advocate
Your agent is there to work for you. They will bring their expertise and vastly more well-developed network of publishing professionals to the table. They will negotiate the best possible deals for you. Need a deadline extension? Change your book tour dates? Your agent is there to help.
They shop your book
Your agent’s job is to know the industry. They know who is looking for what and what genres are on the downtick. They know the inside business of the trade. They have a valuable network of relationships with publishers and editors that authors just can’t establish on their own.
They will negotiate the terms of your contract
Contracts are tricky things. They know the ins and outs. They can negotiate to retain sub-rights which may be sold directly at a later time. For example:
- Territorial rights
Your agent MAY offer other services such as
- Offering guidance on edits
- Getting it into the hands of an editor
- Secure an advance
- Sell your book at an auction
You can expect your agent to
- Return your calls in a reasonable amount of time
- Define expectations
- Advocate for your best interests
- Disclose information on status of your project
- Come to you with offers before accepting or rejecting them
Do Not expect your agent to
- Edit or rewrite your book themselves
- Guarantee a sale
- Guarantee attendance at an auction
What Should You Look for in an Agent?
Now that you’ve decided you would benefit from an agent, how the hell do you choose one? There are a lot of considerations, but the big-ticket items are to make sure you are dealing with a legitimate professional who can do the job. Ideally, you should evaluate each potential agent based on
- What is their track record?
- Do they have success in your genre? Know Your Genre!!
- How recently was their last deal?
- What publishers have they worked with?
- What authors have they worked with?
- Are they taking new clients?
- Are they a member of a professional association
- Association of Authors’ Agents
- not a necessity, but a good resource
- Association of Authors’ Agents
How Do You Find an Agent?
There are websites, blogs, magazines, and books all geared toward showcasing agencies and agents. Do your due diligence. There are many ways to vet an agent. Extreme vetting, people–it’s all the rage, I hear. Here is a list of some of the tools and what they offer.
- AgentQuery.com free searchable database of agents. You can search by genre or by name. Pretty fun.
- Publishers Weekly website Choice of many free newsletters,General publishing news, a deals link (look for it on the lower right corner under Most Popular). These are the bigger deals in the industry. PW is a personal favorite because it’s easy to navigate and interesting.
- Manuscriptwishlist resource spelling out specifics of what agents/publishers are looking for
- PublishersMarketplace.com This requires a subscription. It’s $25/mo, but no commitment required. It offers up to date contact information for agent members, cross referencing, links to top 10 most visited agents, general news about publishing industry
- PublishersLunch.com You can get a free subscription here. You can get a newsletter sent to your inbox. Lists of agents and their deals.
- Writer’s Digest website and/or magazine. Guide to Literary Agents blog. The magazine also has some great resources such as an agent showcase page. Each month, they do a segment called Breaking In which showcases newly published author’s and introduces their agents.
- QueryTracker.net a great free resource with a database of 1527 agents. Queries can be tracked by when they were sent, what replies were given. You can look at agent data.
- Writer’s Market Free newsletter. Agents listings but that portion requires a subscription. Starts at $5.99/mo. Agents listings, news, articles. Great resource.
- Acknowledgement pages of books that are in your genre or similar to yours. Many times, there will be mention of the agent. This is a great practice for querying. Your agent query should contain a few comps, and finding agents who represent the kind of work you do is the best way to find representation. If you can point to a specific successful work they have represented, it makes for a more powerful query.
- Do a search of Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com for the bestsellers in your genre and read those acknowledgement pages.
- Conferences, retreats, anywhere publishing folk congregate. Here is a list of conferences
And Now You Query
So, you’ve researched agents and found a list who are accepting submissions within your genre and who have a background that satisfies your requirements. The rest is smooth sailing, right? Agents receive anywhere from 5000 to 20,000 queries a year. They are inundated with writers wanting to get their work into the world. Your chances aren’t great. Know that from the outset. You will likely be rejected, but really, I am looking forward to collecting rejections–makes it real. Your query is your golden ticket, so you had better make it count.
What are your query materials?
You are going to need a well written query letter, a one page synopsis and sample pages. Not every agent will want a synopsis, but they are horrible to write, so just do it and have it at the ready.
What should I include in my query letter?
Remember the part where I said that agents receive 9 bajilion queries a minute? Keep that in mind. Agents are a busy people. They need to be able to take a quick look at your letter and make a decision. Don’t try to “stand out” by breaking protocol. Just give them the information and get out of the way.
A one page letter with a three-part structure is ideal.
- A personalized salutation–research the agents you query
- Paragraph I – Give them genre, word count, why you chose them and comps. Now is the time to give your elevator pitch. You can personalize this paragraph, as well, by mentioning why, specifically, they might be interested. (Did they mention it in an interview you watched? Was it mentioned in their bio on the agency site?)
- ex. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt has been plagued all his life by his stalker neighbor of the same name, until now. JJ plots his revenge on his lifelong stalker while eluding the prying eyes of his detective uncle in a series of unlikely twists and turns. Because you represented The Gingerbread Man, I thought you might be interested In my crime thriller, The Jingleheimer Schmidt Diaries, complete at 65k words.
- Paragraph II/III – A brief synopsis of your story. Keep this to one or two paragraphs.
- Final Paragraph – A brief bio listing achievements related to publishing. Don’t talk about your hobbies. Nobody cares, sadly.
What Should be Included in my Synopsis?
Studies show that most people would rather guzzle dirty bath water than write a synopsis. Granted, the studies were conducted in my living room and I was the only participant, but I stand by it, nevertheless. The idea of the synopsis is to cram an entire 80-100k story into a single page. The main characters should be introduced, major plot points hit, and the ending revealed. I can’t make it sound any more palatable than the horror that it is. Good luck with this aberration of all that is good.
Polish your sample pages until they gleam like moonlight on a oilslicked lake. You get the point. You are putting your best foot forward. Make sure you wear nice shoes.
How Many Agents Should You Query?
As a debut author, you will definitely want to send out multiple queries, but how many? Hopefully, doing your research gave you a plump stack of potential agents to query. The wise thing to do is to pick maybe 5 or so and send out your query to them first. When the replies start to come back, you will have a better idea of how well your query materials are being received. If you get no replies, for instance, you may need to rework your letter and/or sample pages.
If you hear nothing back, you can probably take that as a big fat rejection. When you get your first request for either a partial or full manuscript, you will have more information on how that manuscript reads. Look to the agent’s pages for an idea of how long you should wait to hear back from them before inserting a fork into your thyroid and moving on.
The bottom line is literally to query until you get an agent. Don’t stop believing, people.