How Do I Approach a Literary Agent?

With caution, confidence and consideration.

Caution: A good literary agent combined with a good book can make your career. A bad agent is worse than none at all. And if you annoy that good agent, she won’t want to help you. So be careful about how you approach an agent. Make sure she’s an agent with the ability and experience to sell your book. Make sure she is the right agent for your kind of book. And don’t piss her off with a book that is not ready, that is the wrong genre, or that you have no idea what kind of readers will want to read.

Confidence: If you go in saying it’s not very good and you’ll rewrite it if they want, they’re going to say no. So don’t try to get an agent until you know your novel or your nonfiction book proposal is as good as you can make it and then present it without apologies or excuses.

Consideration: Agents are people. Like you, they have lots of things going in their lives. They get hungry and tired and cranky. So be nice to them, don’t corral them in the bathroom at a conference, don’t call them every day for answers, and if you have the opportunity, offer them a cup of coffee. Best of all, send them the book that will make both of you successful.

Finding agents:

A literary agent’s job is to connect authors to publishers and handle the negotiations. They make sure you get paid and that your rights are protected. For this, they get 15 percent of what you make. If they don’t sell a book, they don’t make any money. So they need you as much you need them.

In these digital days, finding information about agents is easy. Do a Google search for literary agents and you’ll find all kinds of listings and advertisements. But anybody can call himself a literary agent. It’s better to go a reputable source. Most legitimate agents belong to the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR). Members agree to a list of rules and standards that they abide by. You can search on their website for agents by name or genre.You can also find agents by looking in the acknowledgements of books that you enjoy. Authors often thank their agents.

Several books list agents, including Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, Chuck Sambuchino’s 2014 Guide to Literary Agents, and 2014 Writer’s Market, put out by the Writer’s Digest folks. Most magazines for writers, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poets & Writers, include agents in their market listings.

All of these listings describe what kind of books the agents are looking for and how to approach them. Various agents want mysteries, fantasies, romance, books for children, nonfiction, and other types of writing. None of them want every type of writing. Once you find an agent who likes your kind of book, go beyond the listings to their websites and read everything there. Pay special attention to the titles of books they have already sold. Would your book fit into that group? If not, find a different agent. If it seems like a good fit, then go on to read how they want you to approach them.

Agents’ requirements vary. Some agents ask for just a one-page query while others request longer proposals and/or excerpts of varying lengths sent in varying ways. Some want it all in the body of an email while others want samples sent as email attachments and still others require authors to insert all their information into online forms. Whatever they ask for, send them that, nothing more, nothing less. If your query doesn’t fit on one page, work on it until it does. If you think they should see more than the few pages they request, too bad. Good agents have hundreds of authors approaching them. You want to get their attention with your great writing not with your refusal to obey the rules.

Meeting agents in person

Many writing conferences offer opportunities to meet agents for brief pitch sessions. This can be a nerve-wracking experience, but it can also give you a shortcut to a great agent. Generally authors sign up for five to ten minutes to tell the basics about their books and themselves. Agents give them instant feedback, which can range from “not my kind of book” to “Wow! I’m interested.” If they like the sound of your book, they probably will not accept it on the spot. Instead, they will ask you to send them a query, sample pages or the entire manuscript. As with agents you approach online (or in rare cases, by mail), you should schedule your pitches with agents who represent your kind of books and you need to give them what they’re looking for. You need to be one hundred percent ready to sell your book and confident it’s the best you can make it. And you need to follow all the rules for the pitch sessions. Don’t be late and when it’s time for you to give your chair to the next author, say goodbye. Dress and behave as if this were a job interview. Come in having done some research about the agent and ready to pitch with confidence. If they say no, be gracious, ask questions and thank them for their time. Don’t pitch your book to agents in the restroom or the bar or at meals–unless they ask what you’re working on.

It’s time to wrap up this post. Next week, we’ll talk about how to market your book without an agent. Meanwhile, may all your pitches be successful and your words flow like Oregon rain.

Now go write.





I Wrote My Novel; Now What Do I Do with It?

A dear friend heard that I had finished the manuscript for my novel and immediately wanted to know when she can buy a copy, as if it would be on the shelves next week. It’s a bit longer process, I told her. But I did email her a PDF.

Self-Publish or Not?

Once you’ve written a novel, or any book of prose, and revised it until you’re sure you can’t revise any more, it’s time to think about publishing. Many people self-publish their books these days. I have done that. I have also had books purchased and published by traditional publishers. The latter is better. They handle design, printing, and distribution, going far beyond what I’m able to do alone from my home office. The imprint of a traditional publisher gives your book credibility, gets it reviewed in important places,and gets you publicity and at least a few promotional events that you don’t have to arrange. Also, instead of having to pay to publish, they pay you. Even in these days when you can put out e-books or publish through programs like Amazon’s CreateSpace for almost nothing, that matters.

There’s another thing about self-publishing. Too many authors rush their books into print before they’re ready. I have read too many self-published books that need copyediting and proofreading. The writing might be good, but a little more time and the help of professional editor would have made them so much better. With traditional publishing, you get that.

So I advise everyone to try getting a publisher to buy their books. If that fails, if you have limited time, or if you have a small, specialized audience waiting for your book, then go ahead and self-publish. You will have total responsibility for your book but also total control. You can get it out quickly and into the hands of your eager audience. You will also spend a lot of time on marketing, money and other non-writing concerns.

Otherwise, let’s try the traditional method first. What does that mean? Querying agents and/or editors.

Do You Need an Agent?

Here’s the deal. Agents help you polish your pitch and your book. Then they offer it to the publishing houses they think most likely to publish it. They handle all the submissions and let you know what happens. If/when they get a yes, they negotiate your contract. They also make sure you get paid your advance and royalties and help you negotiate future sales of foreign rights, movie rights, etc. Plus they support and encourage you while you focus on the writing part instead of the business part. For these services, they collect 15 percent of the profits. A good agent is worth every penny.

Yes, but do you need one? The big publishing houses will not consider books that are not pitched by agents. Even smaller houses prefer agents for fiction and creative nonfiction. With straight nonfiction, you have a little more leeway, and no agent will represent poetry books because there’s not enough money in them. You can pitch your novel to smaller houses yourself, and you can also enter many contests that promise publication to the winners, but I recommend trying to get an agent.

How Do I Approach an Agent?

With agents and editors, the process is the same. Most want a query letter–aka your pitch–and sample pages from the manuscript. Click here for my previous discussion about writing your pitch.  We hear tales of synopses, longer descriptions that describe what happens in every chapter. These are a pain to write, and most agents don’t want to read them. They just want a one-page pitch and a few pages (anywhere from five to fifty) from the book to  see whether the story grabs them. If it does, they’ll request more pages or the whole manuscript.

In the old days, authors had to put together a printed package which they sent by mail. Thank God we can do it all online these days, but that means before we click “send,” we need to be absolutely sure that what we’re sending is the best we can make it.

We’ll talk next week about how to decide which agents to pitch and what to send them. We’ll also look at pitching in person at conferences and other events. Meanwhile, go work on your pitch and take another look at your manuscript.

Now go write.