choosing lit agent_article photo_authorsguild

Choosing a Literary Agent

by Kelly Luce

So, you’re finally making a go of that long dreamed-of writing career, and you’ve decided it’s time to secure some representation. The world of agents can be opaque and more than a little intimidating, especially for emerging writers. Questions abound. How do I find the right agent? What makes one agent better for me than another? Where do I even start?

We’re here to guide you through the steps that every writer should consider before embarking on that most pivotal of literary relationships.

To access the full article LOG IN HERE.


The full article INCLUDES:

Do I need an agent for my book?

Hiring an agent is a big career step, but securing representation should not be something you do simply to feel like you’ve made it. Signing with the wrong agent or signing too early, can complicate your life and career.

How to find a literary agent

The best strategies for compiling a list of potential agents.

How to write an agent query letter

Many agents get hundreds of queries a month. Here’s what to include and what to leave out.

Contract nitty-gritty: terms and what to expect

You’ve chosen the right agent, and now it’s time to sign a contract. Since you’ve put such a lot of thought into finding the right person to work with you, you’ll be able to talk through the document together. But, just to prepare yourself, you should know about some of the key concepts and terms of art.


This article is available to MEMBERS ONLY. If you are a member LOG IN HERE

If you are not a member, JOIN HERE

choosing lit agent_article photo_authorsguild

Choosing a Literary Agent

by Kelly Luce

So, you’re finally making a go of that long dreamed-of writing career, and you’ve decided it’s time to secure some representation. The world of agents can be opaque and more than a little intimidating, especially for emerging writers. Questions abound. How do I reach out? What makes one agent better than another? Where do I even start?

We’re here to guide you through the steps that every writer should consider before embarking on that most pivotal of literary relationships.

Step 1: What’s an agent for? Defining your needs.

Your relationship with your agent will be one of the more unique partnerships in your life. It’s a strange mix of business and personal: you’re both hoping to benefit financially, with the sale of a book (or multiple books), and you’re also trusting this person with one of your most intimate possessions—your creative work and ideas. An agent is an advocate, a negotiator, a counselor, a reader, an editor, and sometimes a friend. An agent is also a busy professional. It’s good to bear in mind that your agent’s time, like yours, is limited and valuable, and that the author-agent relationship is a mutual one requiring respect and cooperation.

When starting out, it’s important to remember that, while there are many personal aspects of the author-agent relationship, the relationship is primarily a business one. Hiring an agent is a big career step, but securing representation should not be something you do simply to feel like you’ve made it. Signing with the wrong agent, or signing too early, can complicate your life and career.

Step 2: Do I need an agent (yet)? The importance of timing.

Having an agent is a form of validation. It’s glamorous. It’s gratifying when someone in the industry thinks they can sell your work. Who wouldn’t want an agent sooner rather than later?

For fiction writers, though, there’s no reason to query agents, or sign with one, before your book manuscript is done. Finished, polished—as good as you can make it. While agents routinely offer editorial input that greatly enhances a project, it’s generally unhelpful to view an agent as primarily a developmental editor, especially upon your initial contact. You should strive to put your best foot forward when looking for an agent.

Nonfiction writers, on the other hand, should begin querying agents when they have a proposal, at least one sample chapter, and an outline of the rest of the book.

Occasionally, agents contact writers. If this happens—great! Keep their name on file. But don’t rush to sign. You’ll want to take time to explore your options and make sure you sign with an agent who is  the best fit for you. Look for an agent who has shown an interest in work like yours

Before going on the market, ask yourself:

▪  Do I have a polished book-length manuscript (or, for nonfiction writers, a proposal, sample chapter, and outline) ready to go?

▪  What am I looking for in an agent? What qualities are most important?

Step 3: What am I looking for? Researching agents and making your list.

Here are a number of strategies for compiling a list of potential agents:

▪  Scour acknowledgements sections, author websites, and literary agency websites to figure out who represents authors you admire and/or authors who have written books like yours.

▪  Writer’s Marketplace, Poets & Writers, and the Writer’s Digest online archives are full of vital information and, in the case of the latter, gossip.

▪  Social media, especially Twitter. Many agents use Twitter to talk about what kinds of books they’re looking for right now, what they’re seeing way too much of, and common mistakes they see in queries. Twitter is an invaluable up-to-the-second resource. And it’s free.

▪  Check out this recording of the panel “Agents and Agency: Building a Writing Career” sponsored by the Authors Guild and Electric Literature.

Once you’ve done your homework, create a tiered list of agents. Put 5–6 in each tier. Send queries to one tier at a time.

Step 4: But wait, how do I write a query letter?

You’ve made your tiered list. Now it’s time to reach out. Send queries to one tier at a time.

The most important thing to remember is to follow the agent’s guidelines. They’re all a little different. Is this annoying? Yes. Should you do it anyway? Yes. Many agents get hundreds of queries a month, and they create these systems to help them work through submissions efficiently. Some agents only want a query, some ask for a certain number of manuscript pages and a synopsis, still others ask you to attach the entire manuscript. And still others hate attachments with the passion of a thousand demon-suns and will mentally breathe fire at you before deleting your query.

Be professional, convey the necessary information in the simplest way possible--and that’s it. Don’t “strategize.” You are not trying to trick the agent. You are not selling them a used car.

What to include in your query letter:

▪  A 2–3 sentence introduction that includes the title of your book, a very brief bio, and any personal connections you may have to the agent (this includes being an admirer of authors they represent).

▪  A 1–2 sentence pitch or “log line” for your book.

▪  A description of what you’ve attached or pasted in the email, if anything, as per their guidelines.

What to leave out:

▪  The names of your pets. The fact that you have pets.

▪  Minor publications, awards you didn’t win (such as Pushcart nominations).

▪  The personal struggles you had to overcome to finish this book.

▪  Proof of your wit and cleverness.

Step 5: You’ve got mail! Or…not. Considering agent responses.

Some agents will respond within a week, some will take a month, some will not respond at all. It’s not personal; it’s math.

An agent, if they did not receive it in the query, may ask for a partial or full read of your manuscript. Occasionally they ask for an “exclusive,” which means they ask that you not query or sign with other agents while they’re reading your manuscript. Whether you grant this is up to you. Be honest and upfront, and try to negotiate a reasonable period of exclusivity (e.g., two weeks): you you don’t want to keep the manuscript out of circulation for too long, but recognize that most agents are perpetually overloaded with reading from both current and prospective clients.

Give people six to eight weeks to respond and get the ball rolling. After that, start sending to your second tier. And so on. Rinse and repeat.

Interested agents will often ask to call you. This is a chance for you both to get to know each other and see if there’s a fit.

Step 6: It’s time to meet. The interview.

When you finally meet with an agent, there are a few key questions you should ask, keeping in mind that a good interview is a conversation, not an interrogation:

▪  How long have you been an agent? Where are you based? (An agent based in New York City can be a big help, but in this era of electronic communication, many good and effective agents are based elsewhere.)

▪  Tell me about yourself and your approach as an agent.

▪  How many other clients do you represent, and approximately how many are active at any given time?

▪  What books that are like mine have you sold recently? What were the last three books you sold?

▪  What is your approach to pitching editors, and how many will you pitch at a time?

▪ For story and essay writers: Are you willing to submit shorter works to magazines on my behalf?

▪ Do our long-term goals match? What do you see for me in terms of a larger career?

▪ What subsidiary rights do you and your agency handle, and which are outsourced?

▪ Which areas of the manuscript do you find strongest and weakest? Is the manuscript sellable as-is or does it need work?

Step 7. How do I know if the interview went well? The post-game analysis.

These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself after the interview:

▪ How was the general rapport? did you feel comfortable talking to this person? Are they passionate about your book? Do their notes, feedback, and suggested changes to the manuscript resonate with you?

▪ How well did the agent listen? Did you hang up feeling heard?

▪ Can you contact other writers represented by the agent for their feedback?

Step 8. Now you have an offer. Choosing an agent.

You get the call (or the email). You have an offer! This agent loves your book. They love you. They want to be your forever home.

Maybe you get more than one offer.

By this point, you’ll have a hierarchy in your head. Your dream agent might offer, and you’ll ride off into the sunset. But they might not. Let your gut reactions help you decide. Can you see yourself working with this person? Can you trust them?

Step 9. Contract nitty-gritty. Terms and what to expect.

You’ve chosen the right agent, and now it’s time to sign a contract. Since you’ve put such a lot of thought into finding the right person to work with you, you’ll be able to talk through the document together. But, just to prepare yourself, you should know about some of the key concepts and terms of art. For example:

▪ The Work: your contract usually refers to one specific book, but may refer to multiple pieces of writing. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what your agent has the exclusive rights to sell.

▪ Agent’s percentage: typically, agents take 15% of U.S. sales, and 20% of foreign sales (from which your U.S. agent pays any foreign co-agent involved in the deal, usually at a 50/50 split).

▪  Best efforts: a clause in some author-agent agreements that basically promises that the agent will do the reasonable best they can to sell your book. This is the agent’s primary job, and though it may be obvious, get this clause if you can. It can help to have this clause should the relationship sour.

▪  Subsidiary rights: these include but are not limited to audio, film and television, first and second serial, and foreign rights. It’s up to you whether you’d like to let your agent (or their agency) handle all, some, or none of these. In general, audio, foreign, and first and second serial rights are part of the contract you’ll sign.

▪  Termination clause: Despite best intentions, it may be necessary for you and your agent to dissolve your relationship. These clauses usually include a window of time in which the agent needs to sell your book; if they fail, you can terminate the contract. Same goes for “best efforts”—if an agent is not doing their best to sell all of the rights they have access to, or cannot do so for whatever reason, this will give you an out.

Step 10. And a few final thoughts.

Red flags

In the interest of covering all the bases, there are some basic things to look out for when considering agents. Run the other direction from:

▪  “Vanity” agents who charge fees to give feedback or upon signing.

▪  Anyone who hasn’t read your book closely.

▪  Anyone who takes more than the standard 15% cut (20% for foreign rights).

▪  Someone pressuring you to make specific changes you’re uncomfortable with.

▪  An agent who doesn’t return calls or emails (aside from the initial query) within a reasonable time.

Flying solo: selling a book without an agent

It is possible to sell a book without an agent—but generally only to a small press. University presses and independent (not to be confused with self-publishers, which are sometimes called “indies”) presses--like Two Dollar Radio, Coffee House Press, and Small Beer Press--often have open submission periods or contests for un-agented manuscripts. Sometimes their editors reach out to writers they’ve gotten to know through literary magazines. This was the case for my first book, a story collection, published by A Strange Object—a book that my first agent, with whom I eventually parted ways, never tried to market, preferring to wait until my novel was finished. (Learn more on how to submit a book without an agent.)

So remember, educate yourself and work hard to find the right agent for you. And with that, you’re ready to take an exciting step in your writing career.

***

Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, which won Foreword Review’s 2013 Editor’s Choice Prize for Fiction. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in cognitive science, Luce moved to Japan, where she lived and worked for three years. She’s a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and a 2016–17 fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. Her debut novel, Pull Me Under, will be published in November 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She hails from Illinois and lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains.

Contact the Authors Guild to Learn More

Contact Us

Join the Authors Guild to learn more

Become a Member

Log in to your member account. If you are a member and do not have an online account, get in touch with the Authors Guild via our contact form.