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Finding, and Keeping, A Literary Agent

In behavior, business, culture, design, Media, Money, work on October 6, 2010 at 7:55 pm
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Some of you have asked advice on how to find an agent for your writing. Having been through seven of them over the years, I have some experience with this.

So, here are some of my thoughts, albeit most suited to writers of non-fiction, as I do not write fiction. Most agents represent a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, children’s and young adult material. Read their list carefully and don’t submit any genres they don’t handle.

How do I know when it’s time to get an agent?

Do you have a manuscript ready? Or a full-fledged book proposal? (If you don’t know how to write one, read this book.) If all you have is an idea, or several, you’ll need very strong writing credentials, a platform (i.e. thousands of people who know your name and will possibly be eager to buy your book), media savvy, and the willingness to undertake the writing of a book proposal.

Why do I have to write a book proposal?

How else will the agent know what you hope to accomplish? In a few cases, an agent you are introduced to through a trusted contact may sit down with you to hear about your project — and if they’re intrigued they’ll ask you to produce a proposal. If they want the project, they’ll work with you on it. They are not paid for this time, nor are you. It’s a lot of work! Do it cheerfully and diligently. Even if that book does not sell (and that happens), you’re learning how to write this crucial document and will do it better next time.

How much work will an agent do on a book proposal?

As much as s/he thinks is worth it. They may love you and your idea, but they only earn a living when they sell a book and close the deal. They can only invest so much time on each project and writer. Don’t take it personally. Find someone to help you polish and edit the proposal if necessary. It is not unusual for a proposal to take months as you send it back and forth to your agent until they are totally satisfied with it. It’s their name and reputation that intrigues and attracts editors, not yours.

What do agents do?

They help you prepare a proposal and decide which editors at which publishers are most likely to find it of interest. They submit it and hope. If someone shows serious interest, they will come with you to the meeting with the publisher — which is common now so they can check you out in person. If an offer is made (or several) they will negotiate with the publisher and editor to get the best offer they can.

Do I have to pay them to read my work?

No. If an agent wants to work with you they will take 15 percent of your earnings after the book is sold. They will also take a percentage of all ancillary sales, such as television, film and possibly speaking engagements.

How should I treat an agent?

With respect! They are not your BFF or your Mom or your writing coach or English professor. They know what a tough game it is to be a writer, but they’re not especially eager to hold your hand. They expect professional behavior even if this is your first book and it’s all totally new to you. They will help you understand this new world, but don’t abuse their time and goodwill. I tend to check in every few months to say “hi” and hear what they’re up to on other projects once I’m mid-book. But once your book is sold, you’re essentially on your own.

How do I find the right agent for my project?

Consult the Association of Author Representatives. A reputable, experienced agent is likely to be a member. This site also offers a fantastic wealth of information; and this list of FAQs.

The way many writers find an agent is through their friends and colleagues who will recommend someone to their agent. The way for a new writer with few or no such contacts is to read a number of books similar to the one you hope to write and read the acknowledgments; authors always thank their agents. Write to a few agents whose authors’ work you admire and tell them why you and your work are a potential fit with their list. Read their websites and see what sort of people they tend to take on — Academics? Politicians? Celebrities?

One of the best ways to find an agent who might be a fit is to attend writers’ conferences like this one, where they often speak. You can quickly get a feel for their personality and can probably slip them your card.

What if my agent is new to the business?

This can be an advantage. New agents are hungry for new clients while (much) more established ones have their pick.

What if turns out to be a poor fit?

It happens.  Initial enthusiasm, on both sides, can pale. They can take too long to reply to calls and emails or sending out your work. They need to communicate with you clearly. There are others out there. Don’t stick with someone if it’s really not working well for you.

What should I be looking for in an agent?

Someone whose personality will work well with yours. They may be skilled and experienced and have a Really Big Name, but if they’re too brusque or intimidating or hurried or busy, move on. Someone who really gets who you are and what you do best and are excited by your project. I want someone who’s been around the block a few times, who won’t waste my time encouraging things that won’t sell. I think you want to like them enough to work with them, but they’re not your pal. They’re a business partner. Feeling cosy with them, however personally comforting, is less important than feeling certain they have your best interests at heart.

What sort of books most excite them? Sell well for them? Ask to see their list of authors and recent projects.

If you read it with a thoughtful eye, you’ll notice patterns. I saw that one agent’s list was heavy on academics — he likes smart and informed think-y books/authors (who doesn’t?) — but I saw in that a warning. Professors have salaries and crave acclaim from a wider audience, and can afford a tiny advance. I have different goals and need an advance I can survive on. Another had a list studded with celebrities and one-book-wonders. I want an agent who wants to run with me for years.

Here’s how I found the agents I’ve met and either worked with or considered:

1) Can’t remember. A NYC agent. Deal fell through after I flew all the way to Australia to do the reporting. Ouch. Costly error, fun vacation.

2) An adult student in one of my NYU writing classes knew an agent who gave me three names. One became my first agent.

3) A friend in Toronto, a former newspaper colleague, sent me to someone highly regarded there. She demanded 15,000 words and then blew me off after reading them with one sentence. Dick.

4) I play softball with a bunch of fellow suburbanites. One, the pitcher, is an agent. He read over a few of my non-selling proposals and diagnosed why they were going nowhere.

5) A friend whom I have yet to meet face to face (we met through an on-line writers’ group) sent me to his agent. She’s terrific and we discussed one proposal but I back-burnered it. This book is too similar to one of hers (a NYT best seller) so she had to decline it.

6) A friend admired an essay of mine and sent me to her agent. Not a good fit. One email was enough to show me this.

7) I spoke on a panel in NYC about writing and a passionate young woman in the audience asked a few questions. She was then the assistant to my current agent and suggested I write a memoir. Now I have!

My current agent is Kathleen Anderson. She’s my age, bloody brilliant and even harder-headed than I, which I didn’t think possible. We’ve had shouting fights with one another and equally fierce hugs. She’s got a NYT best-selling author right now short-listed for the Booker Prize, Emma Donoghue, author of “Room.” Cool!

Like dating, finding an agent can be a little challenging. It  can be a fantastic fit or a disaster. Or neither. I’ve learned not to be in awe of them. They’re people. They work hard. They love writers and ideas. They advocate for talent. If you find a good one, treat them well!

  1. Ms. Kelly:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! As a writer who aspires to become a fledgling author, it’s filled with useful insight and links on how to get started. One question that always sort of nags at me on the topic of agents (though, this may be another post for another day) is: Do I really *need* an agent?

    • I know very few writers able to get their material read without one. I never get why you wouldn’t (?) want one.

      I only write non-fiction, but for fiction it’s essential. Yes, an agent claims 15% of your earnings but I would never want to head into a negotiation with a publisher without someone smart, tough and extremely experienced at my back. An agent knows what a lousy contract looks like (would we?) and will think of all the iterations of your material (video? TV series?) that need to be covered.

      There’s no polite way to say it….until or unless you are a Very Big Name, it’s the name and reputation of your agent that even makes an editor read a proposal.

      • I appreciate you taking the time to answer my question!

        The only thing that has made me hesitant about agents are all the horror stories I’ve heard from other writers on agents that took advantage of them because, like you pointed out, most of us don’t know the ins and outs of everything about the industry. I suppose it comes down to going through reputable sources like the AAR and not just taking some fly-by-night jackanape who’s all talk and no action. :)

      • I’ve been through six. Only one was a total *&^#@!( and she came HIGHLY recommended and had a great rep. So, go figure.

        Get to know other accomplished writers and ask them about their agents. That’s my best recommendation.
        Attend every writers’ conference possible and ask every writer who has been published how their experience went. It can differ widely. Even someone who is excellent for one person may be a terrible fit for you and vice versa.

  2. As i have stated before I am a writer Bloggers have commented on my blog that I should write a book and memoir comes to mind for me but it seems in the last ten years those as such have been given a bad name… what are your thoughts?

    • You’re painting with far too broad a brush.

      I would urge you to start reading Publishers Weekly, which is the industry bible and lists what is selling right now (and why) and what is not Educate yourself about the business is my best advice. Read GalleyCat on mediabistro.com. Read anything and everything that tracks current market behavior.

  3. Great blog: positive but with a healthy does of realism. It makes me (once again) conscious of how much of a journey I have to travel, which actually helps!

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