25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents

(Note: this post relates mostly to fiction authors seeking literary agents, though certainly has some bleed-over regarding those with screenplays or non-fiction proposals or what-not.)

1. No, You Don’t Need An Agent

Let’s just get that out of the way right now. You do not require an agent to survive or be successful in this business. If you are without an agent you will not be shot in the streets by roving gangs of publisher-thugs. It is a myth that you cannot get published or produced without an agent to get you there. You may want an agent. (I have one, and am happy I do.) But you do not, strictly speaking, require one.

2. Do Some Due Diligence

Heh. Doo-doo. Ahem. What I mean is, do your goddamn homework. Agents get a rap for being elitists or gatekeepers or whatever, but you have to have some sympathy for what they do: they basically open their digital doors to whatever anybody wants to send them. An agent says, “I represent literary fiction,” and just the same they get flooded with sci-fi and screenplays and kid’s books and long-lost Tesla blueprints and insane schizoid scrawls written in crayon and possum vomit. The agent’s job half the time is to pick through the mud-glop slurry to try to find the few potential pearls hidden deep in the mire. If every writer did research and learned to target the right agents for their manuscripts, the whole thing would probably run a lot more cleanly. So: do your research. Why willingly advertise yourself as a total dickbrain?

3. Put The “Social” In “Social” Media

Many agents are on social media. (And one might wonder why you’d want an agent who isn’t on social media.) Follow them. Find out what they’re looking for. Discover whether or not they’re closed to submissions. See if they have any pet peeves (like, say, you snail-mailing a query filled with glitter and a “mysterious white powder”). You can even — gasp — ask them questions.

4. (But Please Don’t Stalk Them)

The rules of our polite society still apply. Don’t be crazy. Don’t be an asshole. Act like a professional. Do not hide in an agent’s shrubs or sneak onto their fire escape. C’mon. Don’t be weird.

5. If They Say Jump, You Ask, “Can I Do A Karate Kick To Show You My Moves?”

Individual agents ask for individual things. This one wants the first chapter. That one wants the first five pages. A third doesn’t want any part of your manuscript until requested. A fourth asks that you send him a query while the moon’s in Sagittarius and then only via snail mail and using a query letter scented with the musk glands of a pubescent ermine. (Though why you’d want an agent who still only accepts queries via the Pony Express is between you and your Penmonkey Jesus.) If you’re going to query a specific agent, perform the particular tasks that agent requires. Your mother thinks you’re a rare and beautiful bird. An agent just thinks you’re another cuckoo.

6. Repeat After Me: “Money In, Not Money Out”

You do not pay an agent. If an agent asks for money to look at your submission or anything like that, you can be sure he’s either a) a scam artist or b) really bad at his job. You want neither of these things. Your relationship to an agent is the same as it is to a publisher: money in, not money out. They help you get paid, and an agent takes a cut of that. Easy-peasy stung-by-beesy.

7. My Query Formula

I split my query into three portions: the Hook, the Pitch, the Bio. All bookended by the usual pleasantries and greetings and gratitude. The Hook is a single-sentence logline that is meant to grab the agent by the short-and-curlies. The Pitch is a subsequent paragraph exploding out the Hook (synopsizing in a single paragraph as opposed to a single sentence). The Bio is a very short closing paragraph about you. You want to keep the whole thing contained on a single page, which means around 350-400 words max. You want to write with confidence, but not ego. You do not want to presume to tell the agent how to do the agent’s job. Simple. Direct. Clear. Confident. And again, blah blah blah, don’t be a dick, don’t be crazy, this is a professional document, etcetera and whatever. Oh: QueryShark. And AgentQuery. Love both.

8. Agents Are Trained To Smell Your Flopsweat

Another note about “confidence:” agents have powerful sniffers and can smell the stink of your desperation from three blocks away. I’ve read too many queries that have a wishy-washy vibe, that come spackled with fear and uncertainty and bring this sense of laying prostrate before the pedestal and hoping to be allowed to make with the slobbery ring-kisses. If you think your work is good enough to query, then write the query with that kind of authority. If you don’t think that it’s good enough to query? Then it probably isn’t, so don’t waste their time. Or, more importantly, your own.

9. Agents Have Seen Everything, But They Haven’t Seen You

Agents have seen it all. They are the first line of defense in the war against Bad Books and Shitty Storytelling. It’s a wonder that some of them don’t just snap and try to take out half of New York City with a dirty bomb made of radioactive stink-fist query letters and cat turd manuscripts. That’s a scary thought: they’ve seen everything already. But the one thing they haven’t seen is you. Just as I exhort authors to put themselves on the page of their stories, I say the same regarding your communication with potential agents. Described more directly: you have a voice, so use it.

10. The Polite Reminder

You will at times send out a query and hear nothing. Many agents will suggest a response time on their agency websites or social media pages, and most are reasonable (though every once in a while you read a whopper: “You will receive a response to your query sometime after the year when we first settle on Mars and start flying to work with jetpacks”). If you pass this window of time and have not heard anything, a very short and polite and totally not-crazy reminder is entirely appropriate. If you don’t hear anything after that, well — maybe time to write that agent off and concentrate your fire on another star destroyer.

11. You Manuscript Is Not Half-a-Dick

Do not try to query an incomplete and unedited manuscript. Don’t. Don’t. Seriously. Behold my steely gaze and my all caps blog-making: DON’T. You wouldn’t try to sell somebody a half-eaten cupcake. You wouldn’t wave around a half-a-dick. If you’re fortunate enough that the agent requests a full manuscript, you best be ready to deliver on that delightful demand. Oh, and make sure it’s formatted correctly, okay? I don’t know that an agent will toss your shit in a trash-can just because the manuscript font is Times New Roman instead of Courier (I think mine was in TNR, actually), but they will ditch it if the formatting makes reading it feel like you’re burning your eyes with lit cigarettes.

12. Agents Are Readers

It’s easy to imagine agents as iron-hearted gatekeepers guarding the gates of Publishing Eden with their swords of fire: marketing angels serving the God of the Almighty Dollar. Most of the agents I know and have met are readers first. They do this because they love this, not because it pays them in private jets and jacuzzis filled with 40-year-Macallan Scotch. They like to read. They love books. Which is awesome.

13. That Said, This Is A Business

Agents are called upon to make business decisions, too. That’s the sad fact of the penmonkey existence: your wordsmithy may be top-notch, your storytelling may be the bee’s pajamas, but if doesn’t seem like it’ll survive in the marketplace, then that’s just how the dung-ball rolls. They make these decisions based on what one assumes is past experience, current trends and a dollop of gut instinct. Just the same, it doesn’t mean they’re right — it’s not like they run your manuscript through a Publi-Bot 9009 and he BEEP BOOP BEEP computes the chances of your manuscript being a success or failure. Rejections from agents that suggest the story and writing are solid but they’re not sure it’ll sell is a sign to do one of three things: keep querying, try out some smaller publishers, or self-publish.

14. Your Heartbreak Is Their Heartbreak

Agents understand rejection. They have to — they go through it same as you do. They rep authors and the books of those authors and they write pitch letters same as you write query letters and they send those letters out to editors and they go through rejection same as you — they may be one step removed (as in, an agent did not write the book) but they’ve invested time and patience and blood and sweat into it, too. A book they rep gets rejected is sad for them same as it’s sad for you — and not just as lost money.

15. Hot Author-On-Author Action

Author referrals matter. They are not the end-all be-all of everything, but I know of many authors who ended up with agents when another author recommended them. That said, don’t cozy up to authors on the sole hope they’ll refer you to an agent — that’s a little sleazy. You gotta at least buy them drinks and dinner first. Me, I demand nothing less than a Tijuana panther show. What? Donkey shows are so passé!

16. A Deal In Hand Is Better Than A Bird In Hand Because, Y’know, Bird Poop

This is one of those paradoxical conundrums like, “Every job requires experience but a job is the only way to get experience.” The story goes that it’s easier to get an agent if you already have a deal, but of course a lot of publishers don’t offer deals to unagented authors. (Further twisting the nipple are the stories that pop up: “I had a deal in hand, went to agents, and they still turned me down.”) If you can get a deal pre-agent, then it’s a good time to get an agent — but, just the same, don’t believe anybody who tells you that it’s a necessary component. I, among many authors, did not have a deal in hand and yet still have an agent.

17. The Bones Of Literary Agents And Dodo Birds

Are literary agents going to go extinct in the New Publishing Media Regime? Fuck if I know. What am I, an oracle? Sure, I sometimes huff printer ink and decipher the secret hidden meanings in coffee grounds and mouse scat, but that doesn’t mean I have a good answer here. My guess is that agents aren’t going anywhere, just as the whole of the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere. It may slim down. It may cull those who are not forward-thinking. It may force them to adopt new roles. But I do not believe literary agents are on the endangered list. Now pass the printer ink. DADDY NEEDS TO GET GOOFY.

18. Some Agents Are Total Dickbags

Rant time. Some agents get the reputation as cold and callous rainmaking gatekeepers because they act like it. Not every agent is the shining embodiment of good-hearted book-reading do-it-cause-we-love-it folk. Some agents won’t write you back. Some will snark off about authors on social media (agents, seriously, please don’t do this — just as you wouldn’t want an author to do this to you, you shouldn’t do this to an author). Some will string you along. When I went out to agents with BLACKBIRDS, I was a little amazed that while agents demand professional behavior, several chose not to be professional in return — and we’re talking agents who belong to big agencies, not like, some sleazy bookmonger from Topeka. Some strung me along. Some requested full manuscripts while at the same time forgetting I ever existed. Some responded six, even eight months after I already had an agent. I’d say somewhere between 10-20% of my total experience with agents was negative. The occasional agent is an unprofessional prick.

19. (But That’s Just The Way People Are)

One bad agent doesn’t make all agents bad. I’ve seen reprehensible actions by publishers. I’ve seen asshole authors and woefully unprofessional self-publishers. Don’t let bad examples be representative of the whole.

20. Pick Proper

Just gonna put this out there: a bad agent will do more harm to your career than no agent at all. You should find the right match. Find an agent with whom you get along. Consult your intestinal flora.

21. A Good Agent Cultivates The Author

A good agent cares about the author, not just about the author as a delivery system for a single book (or, perhaps, a single book that comes inconveniently paired with the author). The right agent has your career in mind. The right agent buys you liquor and puppies. Okay, maybe not so much with the liquor and puppies. But if any agents are reading this, I’m just saying: let’s all get on board the liquor-and-puppies train.

22. A Good Agent Defends The Writer Against The System

I don’t mean to get all Rage-Against-The-Machiney on you, but the traditional publishing system can, at times, be a bit predatory. This is by no means universal but once in a while you hear a real horror story about an author who ends up signing a contract that basically guarantees that if his book makes it into print he has name his first son after the publisher and if the doesn’t become a NYT bestseller the author has to come and wash his editor’s car. An agent defends the author against such predation. The agent helps the author not just get a good deal but the best deal.  The agent makes sure the author doesn’t get fucked.

23. A Good Agent Is Savvy Toward The Future

Agents who look down on new media? BZZT. Agents who look down on self-publishing? BZZT. Agents who are afraid of digital? BZZT. Authors need to be much more versatile and media-savvy in this day and age to survive, and agents have to do the same. Don’t sign on with a backwards-looking agent. You want an agent who knows how to duck and roll, not stand there and get punched.

24. Sometimes, You Need To Break Up

If your agent isn’t working for you or you’re not simpatico with the agent, maybe it’s time for an old-fashioned break-up. It happens. It has to be hard to do (I’ve never done it and have no reason to do so), but why stay in a business relationship that isn’t serving either of your needs? Just don’t send a drunken text at 3:30 in the morning. Have some class. Go there in person and throw a potted plant through their window! (Okay, maybe don’t do that either. What do I know? I’m drunk right now!)

25. One Word: Symbiosis

The relationship between writer and agent is a two-way street. While it’s true that the agent works for you and you don’t work for the agent, this is still a relationship based on mutual gain — neither is the other’s bitch, but both should listen to and respect the other, even if it is the author who has final say (as it is the author’s life and career). I’m not suggesting that the author is crocodile and the agent is little bird who picks the croc’s teeth, but I am suggesting that each feeds off the relationship in positive ways. If you find that the relationship isn’t symbiotic, then maybe it’s time to take another look at #24, dontcha think?


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79 comments

  • Yesh, I would agree there with Elisabeth. Your excellent cup of crazy it enough to make my teeth hurt. I’ll have another pleash.

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