Disclaimer: I do not have an agent, but I am looking for one, and I have accumulated a lot of information in the process which I am willing to share so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel from scratch.
Do you even need an agent?
If you have written a book which you want traditionally published, your chances of achieving your goal go up with submitting through an agent. The reason why is so many people write and so many books are bad. Publishers need an avenue of filtering out the worthless stuff so that they don’t waste their time looking at it.
They depend on gatekeepers. Here are the most common kinds:
- Readers. Many publishers have readers who look through the “slush pile,” the ever-growing stack of manuscripts submitted “over the transom,” or without invitation. The readers are often unpaid English majors. I met one who told me she did it because she wanted to see for herself what the criteria were that qualified submissions to land on an editor’s desk. Editors want to see well-written, captivating fiction with action that starts on the first page and doesn’t let up till the end, and which takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster. They want nonfiction written by celebrities or by experts with experience and credentials who can articulate their points in a compelling fashion. Readers are tasked with looking at the first few of pages of a manuscript and deciding in a couple of minutes whether it merits a closer look. 95% of the manuscripts in the slush pile never get seen by an editor. Their authors may or may not ever get any response at all, not even a rejection slip.
- Editors at conferences. Many publishing houses regularly send editors to writers’ conferences to meet with serious new talent and see what authors are working on. Conferences are an excellent place to network, and especially to learn what publishers are looking for—and which ones might be open to your project. If you connect with an interested editor—one who invites you to submit your manuscript—be sure to follow up promptly. Mark your mailing envelope “requested at the XYZ conference” to remind the editor he/she was interested, and in your cover letter, include a detail that will spark the editor’s recollection (ie., “At the conference, you mentioned my story reminded you of your grandmother’s immigration experience”).
- Agents. Agents are on the lookout for manuscripts that they not only like, but that they can sell. They collect 15% of what you earn, but 15% of zero is zero. If your project has good potential for success, an agent will be your greatest advocate. But if none of their contacts at the publishing companies are looking for another book like yours, they will pass.
So the short answer is unless you have the time, money, and temperament to travel around the country to conferences where you can sit down one on one with editors and pitch your book, then, yes, you need an agent. Or maybe you should self-publish.
Where can you find a good agent?
There are lots of ways to find agents. Here are some of the resources I’ve discovered:
- QueryTracker. QueryTracker features search engines for literary agents and publishers. You can choose specific criteria, such as genre, country, and gender to filter down to the most appropriate agents for your project and preferences. The database contains links to each agency’s website, where you can peruse each agent’s specialties and credentials and procedures for querying. You then decide which agents you want to query, and eliminate the others from your list. As you submit, you enter the date and query method and then update when you receive a response. Then, when coming back to your list, you can see at a glance where your query is still under consideration. The bad news: most agents apologize that they are unable to respond to all queries, and after a certain amount of time with no response (typically 12 weeks), you may assume they are not interested. You can start using QueryTracker for free. I soon signed up for the premium membership, which enables you to track queries for multiple projects.
- Writers Digest. Subscribe to the magazine, or visit the website. Writer’s Digest often offers articles on new (hungry) agents, and also agents searching for particular genres. Use the search engine on the website and enter “agents seeking.”
- Guide to Literary Agents. This annual guide is the quintessential resource, with articles and indexes and listings of agents and conferences.
- Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is a contest for completed manuscripts. The prize is a mentor, who is either a published author, an editor, or an agent, who will work with you to make your manuscript into something an agent will want to snap up. The contest is limited to middle grades, young adult, new adult, or adult fiction. If you’re working on a project right now, get it finished! The submission window is in July, the selection of the accepted mentees is announced in August, and the submissions are open to agent scrutiny in November. Follow the Pitch Wars blog for more information.
- Writers and Illustrators. If you write or illustrate for children, Kathy Temean’s blog features frequent interviews with agents (as well as writers and illustrators).
- THIS JUST IN! ENTER THE SUN VS. SNOW CONTEST ON JANUARY 23 TO GET YOUR MG, YA, NA, OR ADULT MANUSCRIPT IN FRONT OF AGENTS! DETAILS.
Some other articles to help you in your agent quest:
- How to Get a Literary Agent (When You’re a Newbie)
- 3 Reasons Your Manuscript Gets Rejected by Agents
- 10 Steps to Getting a Literary Agent
- How to Find a (Real!) Literary Agent
- How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book
- 11 Steps to Finding the Agent Who’ll Love Your Book
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I’ve had my own struggles with weight and diet and donuts, so I can sympathize a little with that woman. However, it was still amazing to me that she couldn’t understand that surgery wasn’t “the be-all and the end-all” (to quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth), but that new eating habits were also part of the picture. She couldn’t quite reconcile herself to the fact that she would not be able to return, post-surgery, to a diet of fast food, ice cream, and pizza. If she had grasped that reality, she might have been able to reason, “Since my eating has to change post-surgery, why is it unfair to be asked to change pre-surgery?”
Her struggle seems to me to be somewhat analogous to those of us who write for publication—especially when we seek to be represented by an agent. Bear with me.
Just a couple days before that episode of My 600-lb Life, I spoke to and met with writers at a writers’ conference. The subject of “platform” came up, of course, as it always does. And it elicited groans and gripes, as it always does, among the many people there who had a book idea to pitch and the hope that an agent or editor would see its promise and sign them to a contract. But a book contract or agency agreement isn’t “the be-all and the end-all” of the publishing process.
All of those writers vowed that, post-contract, they would market themselves and their books via social media, blogs, website, speaking engagements, podcasts, interviews, and more. But when a panel of agents and editors suggested that a healthy platform comprised of such things can—and, almost always, must—come pre-contract, they expressed chagrin. Chagrin, I tell you!
But why? Either way, you’re going to do those things, right? Whether you sign a contract today or two years from now, you’re going to be developing a following, right? I know you can’t schedule book signings until you have a book, but nearly everything else you plan to do after your book is released, you can do before your book is released—right? So why wait? Get started—now—engaging with people about your message and passion and genre, and you (and your agent and publisher) will be so glad you did when your book is finally released to universal acclaim.
A month or so ago I sat down to tackle a gargantuan number of proposals that had been awaiting review. I hadn’t had time for so long to just sit and read, so I was actually looking forward to it. Yes, I should have just waited for my first-pass readers to dig in, but hey, I felt like reading.
The good news: there were a few that captured me, whose words transported me, whose topics were right on the mark. The bad news: on the whole, what I found were submissions that weren’t even close. Many of which should never have been sent out. To anyone. Some just shouldn’t have been sent to me. Some were on topics that were totally inappropriate for the market in which I work (no, I really don’t have any desire to represent your novel on the sexcapades of a young woman running amok in Thailand). Some were for categories I don’t represent (no, you do NOT want me to represent your children’s book or screenplay. I know nothing about those markets. Zilch. Zippo.) Others were peppered with “real” language. Translation: obscenities. (What the–?? Ahem…). Still others sported rampant craft errors or misspellings (gotta say it, “dear ageant” just doesn’t inspire my belief in your study of the craft). After several hours of reading, I was discouraged and my delete key was exhausted.
So I’ve learned my lesson. Let the first-pass readers do their job, which is to cull through the proposals and send on to me only those that meet my established criteria. But it did get me wondering…
Am I the only agent who receives proposals like this? Proposals where writers don’t even take the time to learn what you represent before hitting “send”? I did an informal survey, and guess what? I’m not alone. (I’m not sure if I’m relieved or even more depressed.) Which means, thanks to our first-pass readers, many of the proposals coming our way just…go on by. Without ever reaching our in-boxes. And while that’s good news for me, because I’m not taking time away from my current clients to read things that have no chance of being accepted, it’s bad news for the writers who sent their proposals—and perhaps their hopes–flying.
So let’s make a deal. We, the agents, will give your proposals thoughtful, serious consideration. And you, the writers, will only send the kinds of proposals we request. To help you with that, let me cue you in on the guidelines I’ve given my first-pass readers. And while other agents have their own do’s and don’t’s, I’m guessing several of these things will get your proposal sidelined elsewhere.
- No Queries. I can’t make a decision based on a query. I have to see the writing. And I have to see the information in the full proposal as well, so just sample chapters aren’t enough. (Now, this one differs for different agents, so check each agency’s guidelines to see if they do want queries. But for me, no. Send me a full proposal right out the gate.)
- No proposals where the writer hasn’t done his homework. This applies to a number of aspects:
- Is the subject or genre wrong for me as an agent? How do you know what an agent wants? Well, many of us list exactly that on our agency websites, under our guidelines. In addition, a number of agents, me included, have written blogs about what we do and don’t want. Each of us at the Steve Laube Agency has done so, and our blogs are linked on our Guidelines page on the website. (I’ve included my link at the end of this blog.) But for expediency’s sake, let me reiterate that I, personally, do not represent: Children’s or middle-grade books of any kind, poetry, screenplays, children’s books, personal stories or biographies (which are vastly different from memoirs, which I do want to represent), any book not written from a Christian world view or that lacks a spiritual thread or impact…oh, and did I mention children’s books? (Sorry, but I’ve made it clear over and over that I don’t work with children’s books and every month my assistant tells me I received several proposals for, yeppers, children’s books.).
- Is the craft where it needs to be? Do not, under any circumstances, send an agent a first draft. Or a second draft. Send your best writing. One agent received a proposal with the following comment from the writer: “I know my writing isn’t strong enough to be published, but I was hoping that you’d see the potential in what I’m sending you.” Let me just put that idea to rest right now. No. I won’t see it. Nor will most agents. And I mean that literally. Because a proposal without strong writing won’t make it past the first readers. Same thing for proposals pasted into an email. We make it clear your proposal needs to be in a Word file, attached to your email.
- Are there careless errors? Okay, so spelling my name wrong or using which and that incorrectly isn’t going to make the publishing world collapse. But seriously, when push comes to shove, if I like another proposal as much as yours, and I like that writer’s potential as much as yours, and you spelled my name wrong (I mean, it’s BALL, folks! Not Bale, Bald, Balle, Boll, Bull—no comments from the cheap seats–or any of the countless options I’ve seen over the years), I’m going with the person who cared enough to find out how I spell my name. As a fellow agent put it: “I won’t disregard an excellent proposal if I spy an honest mistake, but overall carelessness and sloppiness suggest that the writer doesn’t pay close attention to detail. I’ll move on to the next excellent, clean proposal instead. And you can trust me that there will be one.”
- Does the proposal follow our website guidelines (link to that is also below)? I need all that information to make an informed decision because I’m not just considering your book or your craft, I’m considering you and your long-term potential and how we can best work together.
- No proposals where I’m one in a long list of recipients. Yes, it takes more time, but really. Send a separate email to each agent. I’ve been included in emails sent out to 20 or 30 agents, all of whom are in the to: field. Generally, those emails won’t receive any responses. But once in awhile someone will reply by hitting “reply all,” which means we all get to read the exchange. Um…no thanks. Another agent commented, “If I see my name in the email next to the bcc: it shows the author is shot-gunning the proposal and doesn’t care who gets it. I am simply a name on a mailing list.” Finally, do not, at least with our agency, send your proposal to all three of us. Pick one.
- No debut authors unless the proposal says the manuscript is finished. Strong sample chapters are good, but equally important is a writer’s ability to not only hook a reader, but keep him through the book and provide an ending that will have said reader looking for said writer’s next book.
- No proposals that tell me to go to this website or that link to review the author’s writing. With all the craziness online nowadays, I don’t follow links from folks I don’t know. Nor do I want my assistant to do so.
- No proposals that make amateur or outlandish claims. Another agent had this to share: “Saying something like ‘There are 300 million people who make up the potential market for this book’ tells me you have no idea who your real audience is.” Likewise, you writing in your proposal that I’ll make a million dollars if I represent your book tells me your expectations aren’t exactly anchored in reality (unless, of course, your first name is Stephen and your last name is King).
So there you have it. Do with it what you will. But I hope it does help you or someone you know to put together a more effective, more powerful proposal.
Location of our guidelines: http://www.stevelaube.com/guidelines/
Blog regarding what I do and don’t want to represent: http://www.stevelaube.com/still-wanted-writing-that-sings/