The Secrets of Agents
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
The Literary Agent. Almost every writer wants one, but not every writer needs one. So, when do you need an agent? What can an agent do for you, the writer, that you can’t do on your own? If you determine that an agent is the right choice for you, how do you find a good agent, one who “gets” your book? How do you avoid the scams, the rip-off artists, and the agents who are merely incompetent? You begin by doing your homework and a lot of research.
When do you need an agent?
You don’t need an agent for: poetry, short fiction, nonfiction articles, op-ed pieces, short creative nonfiction, and most picture books. An agent earns her living from the commission (usually 15%) she receives from the sale of your writing to publishers. The writing genres listed above either pay nothing (poetry) or such small amounts (fiction, nonfiction, and picture books) that it’s not worth the agent’s time to market these genres for you.
You do need an agent for books. This includes novels, memoirs, young adult books, and nonfiction books. Before you approach an agent to represent your novel, memoir, or young adult, the book should be polished, edited, and complete. The first step is to send the agent a query letter. If the agent is interested, she will then request sample chapters and a synopsis. To learn more about writing the synopsis, visit this site:
A nonfiction book can be sold on the basis of a query letter and a requested book proposal. The proposal needs to have a complete outline of the book and some sample chapters, but the entire book doesn’t need to be written. These two sites explain the book proposal:
What can an agent do for you?
In addition to finding the right publisher for your book, an agent can also negotiate contracts, market the subsidiary rights to your work, and help you develop a long-term writing career. She can make suggestions for changes that will improve your book’s chances of publication. A good agent will also see that your book receives the proper promotion and support from the publisher from the day of the sale to the day it arrives in the bookstores.
How do you find a good agent?
The best way to define a good agent is to recognize that the relationship between the writer and agent is very much like an equal business partnership. There should be open communication and a mutual desire for shared success. Never, never pay a reading/editing fee to an agent who says he/she is interested in your work.
Remember, the agent makes her money when she sells your writing, not before. Look for good agents in the following places:
Writer’s Conferences. Many conferences offer the opportunity to meet with an agent and pitch your book to her for a small extra fee. To find a conference near you, start your search here: http://writing.shawguides.com/
The Bookstore. To find the name of agents who represent the type of books you write, take a trip to your nearest bookstore and look in the acknowledgment pages of books that are similar to your own. Authors, especially first-time authors, often mention their agents by name.
Books. There are several guides that are published annually with lists of legitimate agents. These books are a good starting point, but you should always visit the agent’s website for the most up-to-date information. Look for these agent resource guides in your library or bookstore:
Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents
Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents
2009 Writer’s Market
The Writer’s Handbook 2009
The Internet. The Internet is an excellent resource to research agents and find their websites. If you enter literary agent+agent’s name at Google, you can find the agent’s website and links with references to the agent. There are also several good databases of agents. Try these sites:
And, to find information about agents who are making the best deals for their clients, look here:
Other. Other places to find information about agents include writer’s groups, referrals from published authors, creative writing classes, and professional organizations for writers. The most important thing is to network, network, network!
Beware the scams. The process of searching for an agent is not a quest for the unwary. Scams and rip-offs abound. It’s absolutely essential that you do your homework. Before you send your work to anyone, double-check her credentials. To confirm that the agent you’re interested in is legitimate, try these watchdog sites:
The effort to find an agent to represent your work can be daunting, but if you have a book ready to market, there is no time like the present. Do your research, draft that perfect query letter, and start submitting. Happy writing!
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.
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