How to get an agent

Do you need a literary agent, and if so, how do you find one?

2018 update. Because many of the links have changed or vanished, I've removed them. You can google the highlighted terms in case the page is still up.

2011 update: I need to add a quick preface to this article, which was written a few years ago. With the rise of ebooks and self- and indie-publishing, many writers are asking WHY they need an agent. And some agents are now changing their business model, offering to bring self-published works to the market for an ongoing cut of the proceeds.

For example, I'm no longer represented by an agent, having decided to take control of my work and publish my own novels from now on. I'm employing the same cover artist my original publisher used, and a professional editor works with me on each book. The only difference is I make 70% of the cover price instead of 8%. (Okay, and my new novels won't appear in bookshops - but where ebooks are concerned, that's irrelevant.)

My background is small business so I have no trouble dealing with all aspects of publishing a novel. If you just want to write, and would sooner pull your fingernails than deal with paperwork, I'd recommend seeking an agent. But maybe be open to the idea of combining this with self-pub.

Now, back to the original article.

I'm going to put this bit right up front, because you wouldn't believe the number of people who find this page after searching the web for 'How much do literary agents charge?' and 'How much should I pay an agent up front?' If you get nothing else from this article, remember this: You don't pay agents. No reading fees, no agency fees, no signup fees. Nothing. The agent sells your book to a publisher and then earns a percentage of your royalties for that book. In other words, they get a cut of the money the publisher is paying you.

That's the other thing to remember: you don't pay publishers either. If they want your book, they will offer you a contract with money up front. This is the 'advance' you hear so much about. Usually it's in the range of thousand of dollars, although it can be a lot less for literary works.

What is a literary agent?
An agent will try to sell your manuscript to a publishing house, will handle contract negotiations and will stand as a buffer between you and the publisher. Without an agent, there can be a lot of friction between a writer and publisher - their primary goal is to make money, your primary goal is to get your book into print without having it butchered in the process. And you might want to make money as well.
An agent will oil the machinery: one party will moan and whinge to them, and they will magically translate this into a polite request for the other party. E.g. Author sees first draft of cover and tells her agent it sucks. The agent informs the publishing house that the author was doubtful when first shown the artwork. The publishing house informs the agent that the cover is a 'take it or leave it' situation. 'You know, it does grow on you,' says the agent to the author.

Why do you need an agent?
An agent will shop your manuscript around publishing houses, using their inside knowledge to place it with the right editor. For example, they know editor X at publisher Y doesn't buy fantasy trilogies. No point sending it to them - but you could have spent six months finding that out, with only a cryptic rejection letter to show for it. Maybe your agent knows that editor Z has a full list and isn't buying at all - just saved you another six months. When Editor W agrees to take a look, your manuscript will likely zip to the front of the queue, since Editor W trusts your agent's judgement. If they don't trust your agent's judgement, you may need a new agent.
So, to save yourself a lot of time sending a manuscript to publishers who cannot buy it, you just have to get an agent. Right?

Getting an Agent.
Find out who the agents are for writers in your genre and then scan the web for their home page. Are they accepting new clients? If so, submit the first three chapters, a brief (1 or 2 page) synopsis and a short cover letter asking them to represent you.

In the cover letter you state your previous publication credits, if any, and also what other work you have in the pipeline. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope for their reply. That's the general idea, but you should check their guidelines for more.

See my article on rejection for more on this topic.
The bad news is that agents are just as flooded with manuscripts as editors, and therefore they have to be just as picky. Don't be surprised if you have trouble at this stage. A lot of trouble. The good news is that there are more agents than publishing houses, and once you get an agent they can make a better approach with your manuscript than you can. If you burn up all the publishers with your manuscript, what are you going to do next?

Think of getting an agent as a step or two up the ladder of publication... an agent will only sign you up if they believe you have something they can sell. And they're in a better position to sell it than you are.

Notes here on how to write a query letter.

How much does an agent cost?
Up front... nothing. In fact, if an agent wants money up front you've probably fallen into the clutches of a scam artist. Whether it's reading fees, copying fees, placement fees or a special on doctoring your book, you don't want any of them.

What does a scam agent look like? Well, one particularly nasty trick goes like this: An agent offers to represent an author, not caring what the manuscript is like. Maybe the author sent them a query, or maybe the agent sent the author an email after seeing their Myspace profile or website. The author jumps in, happy to be signed up at last.

A few weeks go by, during which the agent sends the author regular updates on fictitious submissions to various publishers (never named, because the author's manuscript never goes anywhere, or else it's sent as an email attachment to everyone in the agent's contact list without any targeting.) Next, the agent says they've had feedback from a major publisher who may be interested in the novel, but only if the author edits their manuscript into shape. The publisher recommends the author employ a book doctor to edit the novel into shape, before resubmitting.

Now remember, at this stage the agent hasn't been in touch with any publishers... all they've done is sit on the manuscript and pretend they're submitting it. Telling the author a publisher is interested is a sure way to hook the author into the main part of the scam, which is to recommend a really good book doctor who will 'only' charge a thousand bucks or so to fix the book. The agent is on 'your' side against the evil demanding publisher, and although it's a lot of money "just imagine what life will be like if the publisher accepts the novel!"

(Remember - most agents and book doctors are legitimate, and I'm not suggesting that anyone calling themselves an agent or a book doctor is automatically under suspicion. I'm just trying to describe how one particular scam might work.)

Usually this 'book doctor' is the same agent with a different company name, perhaps registered in a different city or state, or else it's a business buddy with a commission system in place - or even the 'agent' themselves! The unsuspecting author eagerly pays up, which is precisely what the agent intended when they signed them on in the first place. The manuscript is given a hack and slash treatment, and then the fictitious submissions go on for a few more weeks before everything goes strangely quiet. Finally, when the author gets up the courage to ask what's happening, the agent responds that they've tried everyone and the novel just won't sell in the current market. They either release the author (how kind), recommend they write another book, or recommend another round of editing.

That's a typical scam, and a particularly cruel one which has burnt many hopefuls. If it's happened to you, you'll just have to dust yourself off and start again. See the paragraph below on avoiding scammers.

So how does a legitimate agent work? They take on authors whose work they believe they can sell to a publisher, and they work hard to make the best deal they can. Each time they sell a novel, the contract includes a clause which entitles them to a percentage (usually 15%) of everything the author earns from that deal. The important thing to note is this: they don't take on authors where the manuscript needs more work. Why not? Because that manuscript might never be ready, and they don't earn a dime until a publisher buys a manuscript. That's why you only submit polished, finished work to literary agents.

Avoiding scammers
Someone once said that all you need to be an agent is enough change for a phone call. There's no agent school, agent license or agent screening service. So, here's a good rule of thumb: good agents don't need more clients, so they don't have to advertise. If an agent is taking out large 'buy one get one free' type adverts in the back of writing magazines, you probably don't want to be one of their clients. Here's another hint: check their client list. If you've never heard of any of the authors mentioned then you should google a few of the listed names to see who they are and what they've sold, or else seek another agent. Yes, you'd expect any agent to have a number of little-known writers on their books, but they should have a couple of bigger names as well.

If you live in Australia you can use the list of Agents on the Australian Literary Agents Association website.

Please note, the advice on this page is worth what you paid for it. Don't make career-level decisions without backing up my advice with other reading.

Please remember that none of my articles are meant to discourage. In fact, they're all written for the me of ten years ago, the writer who was ready to take the next step but didn't know what that step was.

About the author: Simon Haynes is the author of over 25 novels. He also designed and created yWriter.

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