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So how DO I get an agent?

September 24th, 2008 7 comments

This question is coming at me from all directions this week. Fall, I guess, right?

First of all I’d like to address the question of why you need an agent at all.

Well, if you want to be a full-time professional novelist, you do. I know, people do it without. Fine – if you’re one of those people, I’m not talking to you.

But for those of us who DON’T have that kind of business savvy, this is what an agent does.

A good literary agent lives in New York (that’s CITY). An agent’s job is pretty much to go out to breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, and drinks with every good editor in the city, and know what those editors are looking for, so that when you hand your agent your new book or proposal, your agent will know exactly which editor is looking for what kind of a book – know each editor’s taste intimately, so that your agent can submit to exactly the right agent at each publishing company and put you and your book in the position of making the best possible deal available on the planet at that moment.

Really. That’s what your agent does.

When your agent submits your book, s/he will most likely submit it to 8-10 of the top publishers in New York simultaneously, and you need to have that book submitted to the editor MOST LIKELY TO BUY IT at each house, in the hopes of –

1 – creating an auction and/or pre-emp situation

2. – getting the best possible editor and the best possible deal out there.

You cannot do these things yourself. An agent can. This is the difference between writing for a living and writing in those spaces between the demands of the day job.

So that’s the WHY of an agent. What exactly is the HOW?

I know a lot of authors recommend starting with the lists in Writers’ Market, but the very thought makes me cringe. How are you supposed to know who’s a good agent from reading randomly through that enormous book? Instead, I highly recommend making your own targeted list of agents who represent books in your genre, who have made recent sales, and who other authors you admire are enthusiastic about. We are SO LUCKY to have Google to allow us to do this kind of research instantly, right from our own desks.

I also know that getting an agent is so hard these days that a lot of aspiring authors jump at the first offer of representation. That is a TERRIBLE thing to do. You only have one shot to get your book read and bought by the major publishers and you need the best representation you can find. An agent with “clout” can get you thousands more in advance money, just because of their relationships and who they are. It can easily be the difference between you writing as a hobby – and writing for a living. It’s worth taking the time to do extensive research, and approach the agents you most want to work with first, before you settle for the first thing that comes along.

Here are some great resources to consult when you start your agent investigation:

1. The Backspace forums

Backspace is an invaluable resource for all aspiring authors (and published authors, too!) There are public pages, but the real gold is the private forum – it’s a $25 or $30 one time fee to join but invaluable. You can get your questions answered directly by great agents and editors, and get public or private feedback on particular agents or your query letters by other Backspace members.

2. Here’s a great site with over 1500 agent listings and software to research agents and keep track of your queries: Querytracker

3. And another – LitMatch – contains hundreds of agent names–and can single out agents in specific genres such as “mystery” and “thriller”. It also lists each agent’s requirements for submission.

And another: AgentQuery.com

4. Subscribe to Publishers’ Lunch, a free newsletter that you can sign up for on the Publishers’ Weekly site, and start a notebook in which you list agents who have sold books in your genre that week and the editors and publishing houses they have sold to.

5. Continue to build your targeted list of agents by going to the library or a bookstore or your own bookshelves and selecting at least 20 popular books in your genre and turning to the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS page. Unless s/he’s a complete and total ungrateful idiot, the author will have thanked her/his agent in the first few lines.

You can also often find your favorite authors’ agents’ names on the authors’ websites, complete with contact info.

6. If you need help finding current, successful books in your genre, ask your local librarians and independent booksellers, who are your best friends.

7. Always check with Writer Beware to make sure that other agents you’re approaching are legit.

Here’s another agent verification site: Agentresearch.com

8. Go to writing conventions in your genre that agents will be attending, especially if you can sign up for pitch sessions. Meeting agents face to face in these situations is the best way to establish the connection that can lead to signing with an agency. The Shaw Guides provide a comprehensive list of conferences and conventions, nationwide, as does Jacqueline Deval’s excellent book PUBLICIZE YOUR BOOK – a comprehensive list of conventions in the back. If there’s a particular agent you have targeted, check to see if that agent is participating in pitch sessions at particular conferences It is absolutely worth it to go make the initial contact in person, in a structured setting like this. The personal contact will not only most likely get your submission read, it will give YOU a chance to see if you really want to work with that agent, which is equally important.

9. Go to conventions and hang out in the bar. I particularly recommend Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, the Backspace conference, Romance Writers of America National Conference, and Romantic Times Booklovers Convention. Be pleasant and charming, buy an agent a drink. Again, the personal contact will not only likely get your submission read, it will give you that chance to see if you really want to work with that agent.

HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER:

Folio Literary Management has an EXCELLENT blog on all aspects of agenting, publishing, and writing careers.

Check out this post on the perfect query letter:

And then go ahead and delve into the other posts!

San Francisco agent Nathan Bransford, with Curtis Brown, also has an excellent blog on these and other topics – check out his essential links on the right side of the blog.

I’d love to hear of other good sources people have found so I can keep adding to my lists, so please let me know what I’m missing!