Monday, September 14, 2009

Researching Agents

I've talked to multi-published authors and unpublished authors, and everyone has an opinion on agents. Talk about a hot topic!

What is a literary agent?

Literary agents represent authors by selling their books to publishing houses and negotiating their contracts. Agents rarely charge reading fees. They earn a percentage of the proceeds (usually 15-20%) when the book is sold.

Do I need an agent?

Few publishing houses accept submissions directly from authors. Most publishers will only accept submissions from agents.

Agents work very hard for their commission. They build relationships with editors and understand what books these editors are looking for. They also are well-versed in contracts and will do their best to get their authors the best deal possible. They will negotiate things many unpublished authors don't even know about, such as wrangling a good release month or getting more free author copies.

Nathan Bransford wrote a terrific snapshot of the publishing process over at his blog, Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent. Read his post "How a Book Gets Published" and pay particular attention to the paragraphs describing what happens after the contracts are signed. Agents help authors through this process.

Authors can get published without an agent. If you want to try to get published without one, you should research publishers who accept queries directly from authors. You'll also need to understand contracts. There are plenty of good books to help. One in particular, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published by Sheree Bykofsky and Jennifer Basye Sander, has several chapters on agents, contracts, and editors.

What should I look for in an agent?

First, spend a few minutes thinking about what you want from an agent.

-Do you want someone to praise your book, to hold your hand through the publishing process, and to be your cheerleader?

-Do you want someone who doesn't pat your back every five minutes, but who will aggressively sell your book?

-Do you want someone who will help edit your book before submiting it?

-Do you want someone who keeps you on track with deadlines?

Next, spend time researching reputable agents. What agency does the agent work for? Find out the company's policies.

Look for agents who represent the genre books you write. Check their client roster. Keep a list of potential agents to submit to. If you belong to a local writer's group, ask the members about agents. Read interviews of agents. If you attend a conference, go to workshops featuring agents and set-up a pitch appointment. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

The more research you do on different agents, the more you'll get to know if they offer what you're looking for. Always keep in mind, though, the relationship is a business arrangement. You are not their only client. Yes, agents should, and do, work hard for you, but they also work hard for their other clients. Don't have unrealistic expectations. Expect them to do their job, yes. Don't expect them to be at your beck and call. Always be professional.

And if you are querying an agent, please print out and double-check the submission guidelines. Don't sabotage your submission by straying from them. Give agents exactly what they ask for.

Join me on Wednesday when we'll look at trends in publishing.


  1. Helpful tips here. Thanks. I know so few publishing houses accept unagented submissions, but I wonder if you do receive a contract from one that does, if it would be easier to get an agent. I know it's no for sure, but maybe.

  2. I've done so much research my head is spinning. I have a journal full of names/details, etc. You'd think I would have already sent out more than six queries, but I keep hearing I wait.
    ~ Wendy

  3. Good Morning!

    Eileen: Actually, yes, it is easier to get an agent when a publishing house offers you a contract. I know a few authors who have had this happen to them.

    Wendy: It's hard to keep all of the information from spinning around in my head too! I think it's always a good strategy to send out a batch, wait until you hear back from them, and send out another batch.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. Hey, Jill! This is awesome, thanks! I'm not at a querying stage right now, but when I get there again I'm going to remember your advice!

  5. I am finding it hard to make a good list of agents. I find myself thinking I shouldn't go for the big agencies. This part of the process is hard:)

  6. Helpful tips! I'm looking forward to Wednesday's post.

  7. Kristen T.: Querying is an exciting and stressful stage. Best of luck when you get there!

    Terri: I wouldn't worry about big agencies as much as if they fit your needs. I know agents will love your work!

    LazyWriter: Glad the tips are helpful!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  8. Good post! I also think finaling in big name contests will help with the agent hunt.
    Really good tips here. :-) Thank you!

  9. Good tips. This part is a challenge. When I first started querying, I didn't think about a lot of this. And I figured most agents are the same. But now I know that's not true--and that's why it's so important to do your research. Some days my list of agents doesn't seem long enough and others it seems way too long!

  10. Great tips for agents, Jill! So helpful especially for newer writers. I wish I could send them all over to your blog! You do such a great job explaining things in understandable terms!

  11. Jessica: I agree. It's a good idea to pick contests to enter based on who the final judges are.

    Cindy: Ain't that the truth!! Ha!

    Jody: Thanks! It's difficult to narrow down the subject of agents into one post!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  12. This was helpful to me. I'm really praying hard for guidance and hoping my dream agent will request a full and soon!

  13. T.Anne: I'm praying for you too. If yes--hurray! If no--keep submitting to your dream agent. Don't give up!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  14. Good advice, Jill, and thanks for mentioning the name of one of my books on the subject of how to stay out of an agent's or editor's 'no' pile, Don't Sabotage Your Submission -- something most new writers do by not following the guidelines an agent makes available.

    Royalties provide a relatively small part of an agent's income. The big advance is the main motivator, which only big publishers offer. Smaller publishers, like the one I'm with, Bella Rosa Books, pay good royalties but small or no advances (though I received a modest advance for Don't Sabotage Your Submission, but only because its predecessor, Don't Murder Your Mystery, sells very well); however, modest advances don't begin to compensate an agent for her or his work of wooing an editor and keeping up-to-date on what each is looking for.

    Several lesser-known tasks of an agent are more important than most new writers realize, such as vetting contracts (which publishers, understandably, phrase to benefit their own interests), monitoring royalties, reviewing royalty statements (and, when necessary, requesting an audit, something authors should not do themselves without harming their relationship with their publishers).

    As for agents editing manuscripts, the kind of editorial feedback that's really valuable is not the line editing (hire a line editor for that), but developmental: what's weak that needs to be made stronger, what can be made more appealing to the current market, and so on.

    As it's been said many times, don't accept the first contract that's offered -- but I can understand why aspiring writers seldom follow that advice. From my own perspective as a career book editor (semi-retired now to focus on doing workshops), I urge new writers to submit only work that's been thoroughly revised to eliminate the many clues that signal "average writing." Those are the writing habits we see in the vast majority of manuscripts that truly sabotage a submission.

    Keep up the good work you're doing, Jill

    Regards, Chris

  15. Chris: Welcome! I'm honored you stopped by my blog and appreciate all of the wonderful nuggets of wisdom you shared. It's really encouraging to read the words "average writing." So often, we beat ourselves up after a rejection, convinced we're the worst writer ever, when in reality, we just don't stand out enough to get published.

    Thanks again!

  16. Awesome info, Jill! The submission process is so overwhelming to me.

  17. Katie: You're welcome!

    Heather: I know. It is overwhelming! Luckily, most agencies have a website to fill us in on their submission process.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  18. Another great post full of helpful info, Jill. Thanks.

    I find attending conferences and meeting agents in person so helpful. I've chosen several to whom I'll be submitting based upon these meetings.

  19. Keli: I agree with you on meeting agents in person!


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