Posted on June 30, 2016
Here is my attempt to guide writers and/or illustrators into the wide world of publication. Or, at the very least, in the right direction.
Previous posts in this series:
- Step One: What to do if you want to be published.
- Backing Up a Step: What to consider before you query an agent.
- This one.
This time we will discuss how to choose the agents for you, what to do while you’re querying them, and what happens when you do.
The following content assumes that if you are here, your goal is to be published by indie, boutique, Big Five or other established trade publishers. If your goal is self-publication or small presses, then sit back and enjoy how much less querying and waiting you’ll have to do (let’s not think about the marketing).
Before we dive in, I want to emphasize advice previously given: only query an agent if your manuscript is finished. And not just finished, but polished to your best expectations. Yes, it will be edited. Yes, it will be edited again. But if you send out something you are less than proud of, why should anyone feel proud to represent it?
Picking an agent and getting them to notice you.
First of all, before you begin hunting for an agent (or, indeed, anything regarding who will handle your work) remember the following two words, in order: DUE DILIGENCE. You must not only research, but research well. I know it can be tempting to jump and take the first offer you receive, but you need to consider how much your work means to you before you assign it a home. There are unscrupulous people out there, and there are well-intentioned but unprepared people out there, as well. In both cases, having no deal is better than a bad one.
Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors are the first places to go for detailed information about agents and agencies that you should avoid, among other things. I will now attempt to summarize the basics that must always be in your head while you’re putting together your list:
- You do not pay your agent to represent you (unless you want to stick something in a birthday card…). Agents (and when I say agent, I mean literary agent) work on commission. Standard US domestic take is 15%. International sales go a bit higher, usually at least 20%. Artist reps usually take a higher percentage, sometimes 25%, but this post is not about artist reps.
- Therefore, if the agent/agency is charging an upfront reading fee or submission fee or an hourly fee or any other fee of any kind, back away. It’s not legit.
- You should be able to find some sort of internet paper trail as to how well the agency is doing, either on Publishers Marketplace (for deals; though keep in mind that not all deals are reported) or on Absolute Write. If in doubt, ask around. Check the Writer Beware lists of agents and agencies, or Absolute Write’s super long index of agents and publishers.
- It’s fine to go to a newer agency or to have a newer agent, as long as they have the connections necessary in the business. Check the backgrounds of the agents to see where they have worked before. If it was in publishing or at another agency, great. If not, be more wary. Hopefully they have this information on the agency website, but if not, run their name through the Google Stalking Machine and see what pops up. If it’s all crickets, save them for when the activity on their record picks up. If they’re reputable, they’ll probably make their first sale(s) within a year.
Of course, the above mentioned things won’t help you narrow down a list of legitimate agents (of which there are oh, so many many). But this might:
- Does the agent even represent what you’re going to pitch them? Don’t pick the most popular, highest seller unless they are relevant to your work. They will read your query only as long as it takes to reject it. Every agency should expressly state what its agents are interested in. If you’re unsure, do some rounds of hunting for interviews or check Twitter/other social media accounts the agent might have. You might also try browsing the Manuscript Wish List, or its accompanying hashtag, #MSWL.*
- The agent’s tastes in published books can help narrow things down, too. Check the internet for interviews or social media accounts and see if they’ve mentioned what they’re interested in outside of their own clients, or books they wish they represented. Because agents have career goals, too.
- Google Stalking may be advised to see if there is any detailed information out there about how the agent works. Are they especially editorial (that is, involved in edits and revisions of each project)? Are they new to handling your genre? Are they wizards at making high-dollar deals? Are they looking for clients to nurture for their entire career? Is their roster huge or small? On a related note, some agencies are going to be large, some might only have one agent. The size doesn’t necessarily relate to how well the chosen agent does his or her job. A good agent transcends everything.
- Again, check for recent deals, if available. See what they have coming up or what they’ve represented over the past few years. This will help avoid querying people who already have things too similar to yours, but it will also show you if their list inspires you/interests you/tickles your fancy. If you hate everything a prospective agent has represented, do you really want to work with them?
- You can query agents in other countries if you feel your work would have a better place in another market.
And how, might you add, does one actually get an agent to notice them?
- Follow the rules they state on their website or other relevant source (Twitter, a conference pitch, etc.).
- Check that the agency represents your genre.
- Polish your query so that it is at least typo-free and not over-long.
- Then polish that query again so that it’s shiny and snappy.
- And make sure your ms is ready to go out. Jumping the gun doesn’t speed anything up; if anything, it slows everything down.
According to random agent and editor anecdotes from interviews and conference workshops, the vast majority of the slush pile is completely frustrating nonsense consisting of people who brazenly break the rules (sent an unsolicited ms, didn’t write an actual query, mass-emailed a bunch of agents, etc.), pitch a genre the agent/agency doesn’t represent, or have an unreadable submission full of typos or wild stories or grammatical madness.
After these elements are removed, the rest of what gets you noticed is, well, pure subjectivity. Do you like every book in every bookstore? Write well, query well. Try hard. Wait. Don’t give up.
*Please note that not all attention received during Twitter pitches or listings on #MSWL are from legitimate agents or agencies. Sometimes vanity presses, new or unstable small presses, or fee-charging agencies find a home here. One key thing to note is how many pitches the agency/press in question is liking. If it’s a lot, and it’s across many genres, it may not be safe.**
**Why does this even matter? A book deal is a book deal is a book deal, right? You know I’m going to say WRONG. As I mentioned above, your creative output is important to you, so place it in good hands. There are scammers who will take more money than you ever receive. There are clueless people trying their best but without a direction or the connections to get your ms to the people who would read it. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, exhale so you don’t pass out, and take your time.
What to do with all of this newfound information.
Personally, and following various advice from blog entries over the years, I divided my list of agents into different categories, from the best match on down to maybe this is a match. I created an A list, a B list, a C list, and so on and so on until I felt I had enough names. You might also try an Excel spreadsheet, because those are endlessly entertaining.
Don’t limit your list to a dozen or so. Find as many matches as you can! While you can query in smaller batches, it’s good to have a lot of options. Some agencies do not allow you to query other agents under their roof after one has passed. Some do. Be sure to check what the policy is, as this may reduce your choices.
Query a few names off of each list so that you don’t blow through your best options right away. Especially if you get good editorial feedback or your query isn’t working. If you are lucky and get an offer, then you can query the rest of your favorite picks and tell them that you have an offer on the table. They’ll most likely respond quite quickly.
But don’t lie about having an offer just to speed things up! Agents like to ask who the offering agent is, and the industry is rather delightfully incestuous, so… You might also cause people to step aside when they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Be honest. Put your best work out there. Wait. And wait.
How to respond to responses: silence, rejection, and The Call.
I’m going to consolidate this stage into common situations. There is an endless supply of more detailed information about querying, so you shouldn’t rely solely on one blog, anyway.
- SILENCE/CNR: That is, closed, no response. The agent simply does not reply. Some agencies will explicitly state their policies for handling queries, and every agent has their own method. Do not nudge.
- REJECTION: And some agencies reply with a form or personalized rejection. This may take anywhere from hours to months to over a year, depending on how backed up the agent is and how she prioritizes the slush pile.
- PARTIAL OR FULL REQUEST: An agent requests x number of pages/chapters, or the entire ms. You then must wait a little longer to hear back. Nudge with a polite email only after six to eight weeks (unless they have a stated policy). A partial request might lead to a full request. A full request might lead to an offer, a rejection, or…
- REVISE & RESUBMIT: If you’re lucky (and I mean it; no agent is going to do this just for shits and giggles), an agent might request that you revise something about the ms and send it again. Take it seriously. Listen to their editorial feedback and see how you feel about it. If you get multiple R&Rs with similar feedback, that might be a sign to take a closer look at the problem areas. But if you disagree, you are not obligated to accept. My R&Rs helped me grow as a writer. I’m not even exaggerating to ascribe to this narrative.
- STEP-ASIDE: This is when an agent simply withdraws herself from consideration, usually if you have other offers on the table and she is not quite ready to throw her hat in the ring. Sometimes she may be too busy, or can’t read the ms in a timely manner, or perhaps just doesn’t have quite the level of enthusiasm she might assume the other offering agents have and doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time.
- OFFER OF REPRESENTATION/THE CALL: And this is when an agent offers to represent you and your little ms. She may email to ask for a time to call, and may even wait until the end of the call to deliver her news. Every agent has her own method, but calling is going to happen and it’s going to be overwhelming! There are more detailed blog posts out there about the call, both from author perspectives and agent ones, too. Including questions you can ask, should your brain be working.
After ‘The Call’…
After the call, you await your contract.
You should also be immeasurably grateful and proud of yourself for fighting to get to this point. It isn’t easy to find a literary agent who will represent you, even if you have the goods. What you have managed to do is something thousands of others are still fighting for.
And no, you don’t get to stop fighting after this point. The control becomes shared between you and another person, but the climb doesn’t end here.
At least now you have a partner.