Monday, March 10, 2008

How to Find an Agent that's Right for You

Ok, enough motivational and creativity talk. I want to address a very important practicality in the writing business--how to find an agent.

To answer the question "Do I Need an Agent?" see my post: Why You Need an Agent

I strongly suggest you do find one--if you want to be a top author in your genre, see your mass markets in Walmart with your name in big shiny letters and have a shot at NY Times. Without an agent, you can still get published, but it's likely you'll stay midlist, if you even stay published beyond a couple of books.

Lecture over. So how do you find this stellar, godlike being who will take your career from nothing to mega-stardom?

You write the best book you can write.

You research.

You pitch or query.

You take a chance.


1. The top questions to ask yourself are:

  • What genre do you write?

  • What agents represent my genre?

  • Of those agents, which have clients who write things similiar to what I write?

  • Does this agent have a good track record of recent sales?

  • Is the agent small and independent or work for a large agency? (There are advantages and disadvantages to both--another post)

  • Does the agent land good deals for at least some of his/her clients?

(Note: I won't even put in the question: Does the agent charge a reading fee? because that's an automatic disqualifier. Never send to an agent who charges a reading fee. Never, ever, ever. Ever.)

2. Go Hunting.

  • Read Guides to finding an agent, such as: Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents (This is the best, most up-to-date guide. Amazon has it at a good price, but most libraries carry it as well).

  • Check sources such as Predators and Editors: where complaints can be lodged against fraudulent agents. Look for agents with "$" after their names, which means there is a record of them making sales to legitimate publishers.

  • The Association of Author Representatives lists agents who fit their criteria (no reading fees, and the standard 15% of royalties after they sell you, among other things.)

  • Double-check anything you find in a print or online guide against the agent's own website (if he/she has one) or by asking his/her clients. The very nature of print guides ensures that the info. is out of date as soon as they hit print, but they are excellent places to start.
  • Reading an agent's blog is a good way to figure out what kind of books they like and are having the most success with.

  • Make sure the agent charges the standard fee after they sell you of 15% of your royalties.

3. Make lists

  • List agents who represent books in your genre, who have made sales for authors at legitimate publishing companies (not vanity presses), and who you think you'd like to work with.

  • List your "dream" agents as well as agents you might not have known about who on paper fit your criteria.

  • List what conferences your agents will be attending and see if it is convenient and cost effective for you to meet them there.

Now you can go two ways: 4. Send out queries; 5. Pitch at conferences. Most people do both.


4. Send out queries

  • Learn how to write a good query letter. There are plenty of books out there to teach you, or see my guide to writing queries.

  • Send out query letters five to ten at a time. (A tip from my own agent--don't make it obvious that you're doing a mass mailing. An agent likes to be approached as though you put a lot of thought into seeking her out because you thought she would be a good match for you. EVERY agent in your list should be someone you think would be a good match, or you shouldn't be querying them. Do take the time to make the letters a little personal.)

  • When a query comes back with a rejection, file it and send the next letter to the next person on the list.

  • When a query comes back with a request for a partial, send a well proofread synopsis and first three chapters (or whatever they ask for) with a SASE--right away!

  • When a query comes with a request for a full, print your ms. (if they don't ask you to email it), put it in a tyvek priority mail pouch or box and send it. I say priority mail, because it's worth the $15 it will cost to get it to the agent quickly and efficiently. Buy delivery confirmation to calm your nerves about whether it got there. That $15 is a write-off anyway. If you feel like throwing more money around, send it Fedex.

  • When a query comes with a request for a full ms. with an exclusive--go ahead and give the agent an exclusive--with a time limit! 60 to 90 days is reasonable. If they're that excited, they should be reading it quickly anyway, and we're all aging.

  • When an agent calls you to offer you a contract, be careful. Ask to look over the contract before you make any promises or sign anything. (Feel free to jump up and down and scream in excitement as well.)

5. Pitches at conferences

  • You get six to ten minutes to pitch your book at a typical agent appointment. A pitch is your verbal query letter.

  • Don't waste any time! Hone your pitch to a few sentences.

  • Print those few sentences on a notecard (with the title and your name and contact info), and give it to the agent when you're done. You can give him a nice business card too, but it's not mandatory. (Or you can give him a business card with the name of your book and a sentence about it on the back.)

  • Don't use the entire pitch time to pitch. Pitch fast, then ask the agent if he/she has any questions about the book.

  • Ask the agent questions. After all, she will be working for you! Some suggested questions: Why did he/she become an agent? What authors does she represent? (If she represents big names, she'll be proud to tell you.) What kind of things does he read for pleasure? What book has he sold that he's excited about?

  • When the agent asks for a partial or full, follow the steps under query letter above.


An agent has called you to say that he loves your four-book magical turtles fantasy series, and wants to represent you. What now?

1. Look over the contract carefully. What kind of fees is your agent expecting? I reiterate that 15% is standard. They might charge 20% for foreign rights sales, which is ok. Ok also if they charge small office fees like copying and mailing. (My agent does this, and so far it's been a negligible sum, which I take as a tax deduction anyway.)

2. Sign the contract and see what happens.

Unfortunately the last part is what you have to do. If you found an agent that's a good fit for you, he/she will be out there pitching your manuscript to the editors he knows are looking for what you write.

Note that the agent selling you might take a while!!! I hear authors complain that they finally found an agent, but he hasn't sold anything. I ask them how long they've had said agent and they say: "Two weeks."

And I politely try not to laugh (or sometimes I just laugh anyway, depending on who it is).

It might take your agent a year to sell the book. That's ok--if they are genuinely trying.

What you DON'T want is an agent who sits on your book and never sends it out. If they have an editor in mind that it's perfect for, and he/she knows that editor is closed to submissions for six months, she might wait for something like that. And that's fine.

But an agent with no strategy and no enthusiasm for your work is worse than no agent at all.

How do you know before you sign with them?

  • You talk to their clients. Most authors are willing to say whether they like their agent or not. Talk to a range, though, so you don't just get that one sour grapes author who couldn't get along with the agent. Hear tales of good and bad.

  • Sometimes you just don't know, and you have to take a chance. It's like marriage.

When do you know when you should break up with your agent?

  • If your agent has not been sending out your work, or sending it out half-heartedly and making noises that she doesn't think it will sell at all.

  • If your agent doesn't sell the first ms. and makes no indication she wants another, or won't work with you to make your mss. more sellable.

  • If your agent won't return your phone calls for a month or more. (A few days is ok if it's not an emergency. When I have an emergency, my agent is back to me within hours.)

  • If the agent has sold some things for you, but is unwilling to help you grow or unwiling to help you change direction.

How do you break up with an agent?

  • In writing. Write a formal, professional letter (no venting), telling your agent you need to terminate your agreement and find other representation. You can give a time limit (e.g., "our agreement is terminated thirty days from the date of this letter.")

  • Depending on your contract, it's common for your agent to retain the selling rights to everything you've given her up to this point. Even if you move to another agent, your first agent still gets to try to sell what she has and take her 15% from your sales. Plus she retains 15% from what mss. she's already sold.

  • Pitch a new book to the new agent you have in mind. The new agent will not want anything that another agent can dispute is hers to sell.

Breaking up is hard to do.

This business, unfortunately is a lot about learning to let go. You will have to fight many battles as a published author--pick ones that are most important.

We love our work and are emotionally attached to it. Leaving a precious book with an agent who didn't do much for it is hard, but it's the way it is.

Write something even better and pitch to an agent more enthusiastic about you.

Please don't think it's always bad news. The majority of authors I know, and the most successful ones, have agents they have been with for years, agents who have seen them grow from midlist nobodies to mega-stars.

Your agent can be your best friend in a business that is hard and often unfair. Again see my earlier post (Why You Need an Agent), and also my list of what a good agent does.

One last thing. When I looked up Jeff Herman's book, I saw a post by an author who basically said that there is no chance an agent will read anything by an unknown and unproven author.

That is simply not true.

As I've said elsewhere, I was an unpublished nobody when I started, and I knew no one. I found an agent who took a chance on me, and sold the book I pitched to him nine months later. He got me a three-book contract with that ms., and the next month got me a second three-book contract in a different genre.

I was lucky, true. But I also made my luck.

I had been burned by a beginning agent who really didn't know how to sell mss., and I had to write the termination letter. I researched more carefully the second time around! Also, I worked very hard on the books I pitched to my second agent, and made them as well crafted and marketable as I possibly could. No, I didn't leap to instant stardom with them, but they pushed my career off to a good start and I never looked back. (They were, if interested The Hanover Square Affair and The Pirate Next Door.)

One truly final thing to leave you with. I decided to sign with the second agent because he was:

  1. looking for books in my genre (in this case, mystery).

  2. a fairly new agent looking to build a client list.

  3. an editor for about 20 years at top publishers (HarperCollins, Crown, and others).

  4. based in New York City (this isn't strictly necessary for everyone, but that's what I wanted).

  5. showed genuine interest in the Hanover Square Affair and had ideas about where it might sell and to whom.

  6. didn't charge a reading fee and had a reasonable contract.

  7. responded to me within a reasonable amount of time (I pitched in December, we had a signed contract by April).

I hope this is helpful! This is as always, what worked best for me, plus what I've gleaned talking to editors and agents and authors.