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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82 responses to “25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents”

  1. My question has always been … if agents are so good, how come a thousand of them didn’t see the potential gem in any of Amanda Hocking’s manuscripts before she self-published them and sold a million books?

    Are they pawns for the Big Six, shackled to rules and trends, so they can’t see the creativity for the bottom line? Sometimes I think so. Sigh.

    • @Nancy —

      It doesn’t work like that, and I don’t understand that line of thinking.

      First, it assumes that agents are somehow creatures of perfection. That they score 10 out of 10 on every manuscript and every one they choose is a hit and no decision is ever wrong.

      Second, it completely ignores the fact that agents and publishers are responsible for a far greater legacy of hits, bestsellers and classics than unagented or self-published authors. That’s not a knock against self-pubbers (of which I am one), but only a suggestion that one should not have a myopic view of the *entire catalog of published books.* Self-publishers who get down on agents and publishers seem to forget that the books they loved growing up and into their adult years came out of the traditional system.

      Third, agents are independent of the Big Six. While I’m sure some have allegiances and are just limb extensions by proxy, most aren’t — and most can’t be.

      I’m not suggesting agents are perfect or that authors require them, but I also think it’s bullshit that they get punched in the face for a few theoretical mis-steps but somehow don’t get *credit* for bringing decades of great authors to our attention.

      A lot of agents — mine included — really champion their authors. They deserve the kudos and the credit for that.

      — c.

    • Usually I would agree with you but have you actually read any of these books? She only made money on them because she put out so many of them and they were only 99 cents a pop. I’m still blown away that people put up with such poor writing. Also, now that her books are being properly priced to pay for having a publisher, her sales have plummeted.

    • Nancy, what you said here sounds really…it sounds childish. I’m sorry to say. Amanda Hocking didn’t send off queries to a “thousand” agents. Her work sold a million copies, but it’s not like she sold Stephanie Meyer’s numbers, in the hundreds of millions. I don’t really care for agents anymore in general, but they’re not machines, they’re just dudes and dudettes. They made a little booboo this time. Not really a biggie. Also, you sound frustrated and tired with this whole thing. Maybe it’s time to find something else to do with your spare time? I mean, if it’s not working and you’re tired, there are so many other things out there to do that will give you rewards and satisfaction, you know?

  2. I know you’re mainly a fiction (and now writing advice) author, but clarification that this focuses on fiction agents might be worthwhile. From stories I’ve heard and guidelines I’ve read, #11 applies mainly to fiction (and some memoirs)–of course, that probably covers a majority of your readers. But many non-fiction books are sold on the strength of a solid proposal and a few sample chapters. Some of the further-on writing may already be completed, but I know of a lot of authors who sold non-fiction ideas. I also know a writer who has an agent for her memoir-in-progress.

    (This, of course, goes back to your #5.)

    I’m glad you clarified #1, and started with it. Increasingly true. I think perhaps a lot of the hackles raised are due to the mentioned myriad publishers who refuse to consider un-agented manuscripts. It’s true one doesn’t necessarily need an agent, but on the other hand, working in the corporate publishing realm is difficult without one. Even many small presses not tied to conglomerations have closed their doors to un-agented manuscripts. It’s a little sad. (And not even to mention the now-myriad agents who are offering publishing services to “self-publish” clients, or starting their own presses.)

    • But Nancy, no offense to you but, it sounds like you don’t really know the answer to this yourself. It’s your job to figure out what people want to read and provide them with that material, i would think. I don’t know.

  3. Great and timely post. Research is the key, but I’d warn against paying money for agent-meetups. Many writer’s conferences host pitch sessions with real NYC agents. They’re not a waste of time, but the same process goes. You may have a winning pitch, but if they believe the book isn’t salable, then expect a form rejection to follow.

    Pitch sessions aren’t a total waste, but what you pay for the sessions, you can send dozens of agent queries. The chance of surviving pancreatic cancer and scoring a deal is about the same. Also, the conference organizers will squeal about a writer got a book deal after a session. A WRITER. I later found out that was in 1998. Save your money, buy stamps.

    Also, avoid any scheme that claims, “Get Paid to Write.” Derp. That goes without saying. “Get paid to do plumbing.” Writer’s Digest

  4. Chuck, I love you, but you forgot one very important item. Let us call it, Number 26:

    Any damn fool can call himself an agent and many damn fools do. There is no governing body, no licensure, no educational requirements, no qualifications necessary at all for any person to hang out an agent shingle and invite submissions. Some agents are IP attorneys, but most are not. Some agencies have lawyers on staff or on retainer, but many don’t. The non-attorneys are not qualified to negotiate publishing contracts. When legal matters go south, it is the writer’s name on the contract, not the agent’s. Many writers have ended up in deep shit and suddenly find out the agent is unwilling or unable to advocate because to do so could put the agent’s other clients or pocketbook at risk. All writers should have their contracts vetted by a legal expert before signing.

    • @Jaye:

      That’s true, yes — but that’s true of just about anything. Anybody can call himself a writer, a plumber, an astronaut, etc.

      One assumes that before you do anything with anybody in any career, you’d do research (which I note in the list) and not sign on with some hobo calling himself a “literary agent.”

      Legal representation is good, but most authors will get that eventually. A lawyer can definitely negotiate a contract, but a good agent can do so without being a lawyer.

      Finally, there actually is a body of literary agents: the Association of Author Representatives. http://aaronline.org/ — it is not required to be a member, but authors would be wise to choose agents who belong as opposed to agents who do not.

      — c.

  5. The books I grew up with came out of the traditional system, yes, but the system has changed out of all recognition since then. Small publishers have been subsumed by the big guys, promising authors are no longer nurtured, the bottom line is all.

    I spent a year trying to get an agent, and that was enough. I’ve cooled on agents. I don’t much like the way big publishers behave, either.

  6. I love this list. Yes, it applies mostly to fiction, but it should be handed out at writing groups and classes and all sorts of places. Of course I say that all the time about Chuck’s things, and often that draws in weirdos (still not letting that embarrassment go).

    A word about the agent-whirlpool — It’s a lot like that job/experience vortex (you need experience to get a job to get experience)….an agent will only make you as “legitimate” as you make yourself.

    Sure, they open doors and can do spiffy introductions, but you, the author can do a lot for that relationship by swallowing pride and ego (I say this after getting trampled last night, John is now a humbled John), and legitimacy is all yours to bring to the table.

    It depends on what waters you want to swim in. Some oceans have a lot of asshole fish with spines, so you may need a barracuda next to you….(maybe I should have used a prison yard metaphor) but for the most part, it’s your ocean and you can swim in by virtue of having word-fins and the courage to go with/against the current to your heart’s content.

  7. Dick brain, Half-a-dick and twisting the nipple. This is about the best article I have read on what to expect, not expect, when finding or working with an agent. To say the least, your refreshing, articulate, article sprinkled with gems that include a reference to Topeka was great. Thank you. Please continue to entertain and inform. I will gladly follow along.
    Soon to be published author by any means:
    I Hate Charities and Other things Mom’s don’t say.

  8. Had an agent and went through a bunch of crap with her. (story here: http://jamiewyman.blogspot.com/2011/06/what-have-we-learned-from-this.html) But I know that the goals I’ve set for myself as an author go through legacy publishing. I also know that I *don’t* know enough–nor do I have the time–to navigate that business by myself. So, I know that I want a co-pilot. Back in the agent querying game for a whole new project and this time I’ve learned from past mistakes. This time is going much better than the last, too.

    In the end it’s not about authors vs agents vs egos vs blah blah blah: It’s all about what your goals are and what will help you reach them.

  9. Ah, yes, anyone can call themselves anything they like. (Supreme Goddess and Butter Sculptress is what my business cards say) But practice? Plumbers and electricians are licensed. Real estate agents and brokers are licensed AND regulated. As are doctors, lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers and almost anyone else who is dealing with YOUR money and YOUR legal issues.

    The AAR is essentially a club for agents. It is NOT a governing body and it has no teeth. One doesn’t have to belong to the organization in order to be an agent. An agent can get kicked out of AAR and still keep agenting. If a writer has a problem with an agent and complains to the AAR, the only useful help the AAR can provide is to recommend the writer hire an attorney.

    I do, however, recommend that every writer looking for an agent read the AAR’s Canon of Ethics. It tells you how an agent should act and conduct business. The smart writer will make a check list based on that canon and ask questions about how an agent does their business before they sign an agency agreement.

      • I don’t want to derail the topic with discussions of plumbers and astronauts. The point is, anybody can call themselves anything.

        In terms of a literary agent, authors should do their research. Just as anybody should do research before hiring anybody to do anything of value.

        — c.

  10. “That’s true, yes — but that’s true of just about anything. Anybody can call himself a writer, a plumber, an astronaut, etc.”

    Is that true? I thought one need some sort of license or certification to become a plumber. My father’s an industrial electrician (he keeps oil refineries/power plants running, and maintains engines the size of a large house), but if he wanted to be a residential electrician, he’d have to get a separate license. I know because my mother often pressed him to, but he resisted–in this instance, it’s sort of the difference between being a freelance writer and writing for a company. My father’s sort of the latter. Residential electricians are kind of the former.

    And an astronaut . . . well, I’m not sure about that one. My first thought is the guy who puts on the space suit and ends up repairing a space station or walking on the moon, and there are rigorous tests for that. There are many positions related to space exploration that wouldn’t be about ending up in space, but they seem like they’d be populated by people like scientists and engineers, with advanced degrees, qualifications, and again, certifications.

    I think that’s all actually my main reservation with regard to agents. It seems like agents play their biggest role in negotiating contracts–legally binding business contracts. If I’m dealing with legally binding business contracts, I want to work with someone trained in both business and law, and acknowledged as trained in such, preferably by either an institution or governing body.

    The AAR comes close, I think, but it seems relatively new (founded in 1991, after merging the Society of Author Representatives [1926] and the Independent Literary Agents Association [1977]). What worries me there is I think one could easily argue the trend that basically built the corporate publishing industry and current retail bookselling model began in the 1970s, when Riggio bought Barnes & Noble. Which makes me wonder when, exactly, publishers outsourced their slush to agents and closed their doors to unagented manuscripts.

  11. The point is, Chuck, if I call a plumber because the old man ate burritos again, I can ask to see the plumber’s license (issued by a regulatory agency that required the plumber actually be qualified before said license is issued) before he enters my home. Ask an agent to see their license, and they’ll hand you a business card.

    It is very much writer beware and writer be smart.

  12. @Nancy, a couple of points on the Amanda Hocking books. She goes into a bit of how/what/when she queried here: http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/2010/08/epic-tale-of-how-it-all-happened.html

    It’s hard to get an exact timeline from her account, and she doesn’t give us the text of her query letters. It’s entirely possible her queries didn’t grab the agents she sent them to, or her sample pages weren’t polished enough. Her first book was a vampire novel, written when she “saw 700 vampire novels” on the shelves. When the market’s already that saturated, it’s incredibly hard to stand out. Did her query or sample show that she was doing something that hadn’t been done a thousand times before? We don’t know.

    She got good feedback from agents on her second book, but again, something wasn’t quite grabbing them, and she states that several of them pointed out an issue with her main character that she later fixed.

    Her third, she only sent out to five agents. Again, we don’t have the queries or samples to look at, so it’s hard to say why they didn’t take it, but five isn’t very many, in the scheme of things (she doesn’t mention how many agents she queried the first two times. I’d assume more than five, but that’s still vague — was it ten? fifty? a hundred?)

    Also, like with the first book, she wrote a dystopian novel when an agent said dystopians were hot, which again means a lot of market competition.

    To the question of why agents didn’t see the “potential gem” in her manuscripts: there can be a huge gap between “potential gem” and “ready to be published.” Agents are looking for ready-to-be-published. It’s our job as authors to get our work to that point before querying. I think, too, it’s easy to forget that an agent’s job isn’t just looking for new clients. The majority of their days are spent working with and for their already-established clients, polishing up and selling their manuscripts.

    A lot of it comes down to personal taste, and whether the agent feels passionate about what they’re reading: would you want someone representing you who only feels “meh” about your stuff? It’s not a matter of trend-chasing or being shackled to rules, it’s I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT. If an agent can’t say that, they’re probably not the right fit for you.

    In regards to checking out an agent’s credentials before querying them, the Bewares & Background Checks forum at Absolute Write is an excellent resource: http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=22

  13. Writer beware of what? So, if we call that fear, what is it a fear of? That your work will get stolen? That some human will not help your work reach its fullest potential? That you’ll be losing money?

    I don’t understand — if you write, and revise and get good help (constructive help, not just a name-brand), where does the fear come in?

  14. So, Jaye…who are you mad at? Agents? Writers? The System? It’s pretty evident to any writer who is working to build a career in publishing that part of your work (outside of the writing, revising and repeating of such) is doing your homework. It’s part of your *job* as a working writer to self-advocate AND part of *that* is researching the hell out of everything. Even if there was a licensing/governing body, do you think that would keep out the people who fuck over writers?

    So again…who are you mad at?

  15. As someone who went through your #24, I can say that it’s REALLY HARD to make the decision to walk away, but it was totally worth it. I now I have a magnificent agent who honestly is a better fit, not just for my work, but for my personality as well. It’s amazing.

    I know there are a lot of bitter monkeys out there when it comes to agents, but I have to say that even when things were going south with my first agent, I still didn’t regret signing with her. I learned a lot and we parted on good terms. She just wasn’t the right agent for my work. Sometimes that happens, and it sucks. But it wasn’t something I could have avoided up front, so I don’t regret the time I spent on her client list.

    Nor do I question my need for an agent.

    If you are killer at contracts, know the market of your genre intimately, and/or are okay with limiting your submissions list to only those houses/imprints that will accept unrepresented work–you don’t need an agent.

    I, however, need one desperately.

    My biggest advice: Don’t Settle.

    Do your research and only go out to people who have an amazing track record in the genre you write. If they don’t report to PM, then ask them for a list of their sales in the last year before signing, and check out that list. If you can’t attract a killer, top-tier agent with your current project, write another book. In fact, the moment you send your first query, you should be writing your next big thing.

    The market is insanely hard to break into right now. I’ve seen crazy talented novelists with amazing manuscripts and rockstar agents come away with failed submissions. Just because your current manuscript is the best thing you’ve ever written doesn’t mean it’s the best thing you’ll ever write. If it fails to attract the caliber of agent you want, that doesn’t mean you’ll never get an agent, nor does it mean the entire system is broken.

    Incidentally, of all the art industries, publishing is by far the easier path. If you think it’s hard to get your book in front of a wide audience, try visual arts or dance. Art-based industries are notorious for being hard on newcomers. You can work your ass off to become the best, or you can shake your fist at “the system.” Your choice.

  16. I disagree. My soul rails against the mismatched logic put forth in this… Oh no, wait, I get it… You mean the publishing industry is populated by humans and humans are imperfect and that in order to deal with the imperfection one must first accept the imperfection and then act respectfully… and never, ever, give up.

  17. Whoa, fellas. I didn’t come over to pick a fight. I’m not mad at anybody. Literary agents have a role. They have contacts and experience and advice and shoulders to cry on and ideas to share. What publishers have are legal departments who write contracts and enforce them. All I’m saying is, unless an agent is also an IP attorney or the agency has an attorney on staff to vet contracts and offer sound legal advice, the agent has no business negotiating contracts (advances, yes, royalty rates, options, licenses, yes, but for the meaty stuff that is capable of EATING writers, no). If they do and there is trouble (which there has been, strangely enough) the writer will see his agent (upon whose advice he depended) backing away with hands in the air, saying, “Uh uh, not my problem. You signed.”). If agents were licensed and regulated, the writer might have recourse on grounds of incompetency and the agent could face the consequence of losing their ability to do business.

    Since they aren’t licensed and there is no regulatory agency keeping an eye on them, it falls entirely on the writer’s shoulders to make sure he is doing business with someone who is competent and ethical. That’s where writer beware comes in. Or perhaps, I should have recast that into the positive and said, “Writer be aware.”

    p.s. And have you SEEN some of the agency contracts floating around these days? If those don’t blow your mind…

  18. “A lot of it comes down to personal taste, and whether the agent feels passionate about what they’re reading… it’s I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT.”

    I don’t think this is so, Lauren, any more than lawyers work passionately to defend their clients because they believe in their innocence. An agent is looking for a book that one of the publishers she has a connection with will buy. That’s all.

  19. #7 is spot on. It’s how I landed my agent. The three part query works well. Hook, Pitch, Bio. Not sure how those should look? Then read some winning queries. They are all over the internet. Remember, you are a writer. If you can’t write a great, I say GREAT, query then the agent will think you can’t write at all. At. All.

  20. Lexi, notice I said “a lot of it comes down to,” not all of it. My point was that one agent might pounce on a manuscript that another has rejected. It doesn’t mean the rejecting agent has bad taste, or conversely that the rejected book is no good. It simply means that the project didn’t work for that particular person.

    I would also expect that my agent feels she can sell my book to a publisher — that’s kind of a given — but it’s not the full extent of the author/agent relationship. Some writers have gone to an agent, contract offer in-hand, and still been rejected because that agent didn’t feel that he or she was the right fit for that author. Were it only ever about making a buck, that wouldn’t happen.

    I think that’s where Chuck’s point #21 comes in — one of the best things my agent said, on that call when she offered my co-author and I representation, was “I represent the author, not just the book.” So if that project didn’t sell, she was confident that future ones would.

    It’s first and foremost a business relationship, absolutely, but part of an agent’s job in presenting the book to editors is to be excited about the material. It doesn’t make sense for them to represent books they don’t enjoy reading in the first place.

  21. I am posting these words above my writing desk.


    Thanks for the 20-minute giggle. I apparently need to get some fresh air.

    I’ve heard comments to my queries as you mention in # 13. Come summer if I don’t find a match for this mss. I’m going to self-pub.


  22. I too have fallen victim to the string-along agent a time or two. Sucks. SUCKS. But, then I tacked their picture to my wall, threw cat turds at it, and moved on. All in all, I am exceedingly grateful that there is a race of people out there who post their contact info and publicly dare me to do my worst (or best, really). And that after blankety-blank queries (I’m more shy about this number than my age and weight combined), they are still willing to read my dew-eyed pitches and occassionally -on average 1 in 6, but who’s counting?- ask to see more. I pray for them. I burn offerings at the altar of the literary gods for them. And someday, I hope to nab one of them for my very own. And he/she better come preloaded with liquor and puppies.

  23. I think that’s a sensible post Chuck. I used to be a publisher, and on the whole most proper agents – ie, those who managed to earn a living out of it for some time – tended to impress. You’d see them at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the agents hall, and they’d be good: genuinely backing their authors, trying to get deals for them, thinking about their authors’ careers. On the whole, they tend to be big fans of writers, although they try and cover that up by being cool. They want writers to succeed. The bad ones – and there are a lot of bad ones too – are either indiscriminate about what they accept, or they are too stupid to know what is commercial and will sell, or are too out of touch with what publishers will buy. My advice to authors is to quiz the agent politely but professionally on their record in placing titles over the previous three years. On the whole, as a profession, I think they play alongside the good guys. But even the good agents have two drawbacks: the first is very important now, and it’s that most good agents are still stubbornly refusing to address the economics of the new publishing. They won’t listen to the realities of how the discounting high street has stripped away value from printed books, and they also won’t listen to publishers when they try and explain they amount of time and effort they have to put into publishing an e-book. This is a big problem, but really reflects the deeper seismic changes happening everywhere in publishing now. The second drawback is this: how many agents does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: just one, because all the other agents have rushed off to go find a lightbulb just like that new shiny one that went on.

  24. I’m a literary agent and member of the AAR, as well as the SCBWI, but it’s true, we’re not regulated by those bodies. To earn membership to the AAR, we have to achieve a number of legitimate sales, so in fact, many agents had to not be members for a time. The trick is, as some of the commenters above have already said, to do your research. When I first started my agency, I wasn’t a member of AAR — but I had ten years of experience at a major NY literary agency, and a further two years of experience working at publishers, information which I was happy to provide and could verify.

    While anyone can hang a shingle out and call themselves an agent, a good agent has the experience to back up their love of books.

    And while I don’t have a legal degree (mine is in English and History), I have a fantastic contracts manager who does, who spent years working within those very publishing houses we now negotiate with every day on every line of our authors’ contracts.

    And in all though, Chuck, a great and thoughtful post!

  25. My plan is to make a list of the agents of the authors whose work I admire and who have gotten deals I find amicable. no one talks numbers of course, but you know what I mean. Also helps to find authors that readers say your writing resembles, if any, and research who their agents are. You have to go beyond genre to taste and tone.
    Of course, those agents may not be accepting queries or be a very hard sell, but in my experience you aim high. I already have a short list for when my novel is query-ready.

    Chuck, great list and thank you for the Query letter primer.

    Writers complain that “I’m not good at writing synopses/hooks/etc wah wah wah.” Well, you’d better get good at it. These flash challenges, 100 word challenges and so on that Chuck posts here are excellent practice. If you can tell a story in three lines, you can make it one sentence, with some work. PITCH.

    100 word story… Synopsis.
    Don’t be vague- use proper names, professions, etc- but don’t go off on tangents. And don’t be cute, they get more email than you can imagine.
    Figure out what it is and be direct about it. First readers can help, they have perspective on the story that we don’t.

    Practice- write pitches. I’ve got one at Twist of Noir called “The Uncleared.” People loved that story, I got more comments than almost any other. It’s a hook for a novel that I will write someday. I have other novel sized ideas that I stripped down to 5000 word stories like “White People Problems” which will be published this year. That will be a book someday too. When the time comes, I’ve already distilled the story down and the synopsis will be easy.

    I like to think of the perfect agent knowing the perfect editor for every story. I’d recommend getting an IP lawyer as well, when contract time comes. Not your agent’s lawyer. Someone who represents you alone.

  26. “If you can’t attract a killer, top-tier agent with your current project, write another book.”

    Not necessarily.

    A top tier killer agent might not be the right agent for you or your book. Friends of mine have Super Top Agents. My agent isn’t with AAR, doesn’t report to PM, in fact isn’t even a full time agent.

    Some of my writing friends have had their super top tier agent for years, and have yet to sell a novel

    My agent (one my writer friends had never heard of) sold mine in less than 8 weeks to a top house, in a deal MUCH better than I could hope for. Then he negotiated the offer/contract so it was even better.

    It’s not about whether they are ‘top tier’. It’s “are they right for you”? Do they have the contacts to sell your kind of book (My agent is the only one who comes up if you google “lit agent “sub genre” and he has fantastic contacts for that particular kind of book)? Will they be your champion?

    Yes, do your research (I knew one of my agent’s other clients slightly so fired off an email asking how he thought he’d been treated/results etc, and dug around a little.) But if it’s the RIGHT agent, then it is, whether they are top tier, or not.

  27. I’ve decided to go into business for myself. I’m an agent.
    I’m actually a *secret* agent, though, so don’t tell anyone.

    Great list as always. I love how you make it all come to life, in easy to understand, twisted metaphors.

  28. What do you think about the agents who have set up in-house self publishing arms? On the one hand, I can understand the desire to expand their businesses and offer useful services to their clients; on the other hand it seems like there would be a clear conflict of interest there.

  29. Nancy Lauzon (commented above) says it all. One could add JK Rowling, Kathryn Stockett and a few more to the list. How come, after the JK phenomenon, it did not seem as if agents were heard loudly scratching their heads and saying, “Gosh! We missed that one. Let’s give more writers a chance.”

    • @Fiona:

      Because JK Rowling was a phenomenon, not the norm. Because a book series that could make someone be the wealthiest woman in all of England is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

      I’m not saying agents shouldn’t take more chances. They probably should. So should writers, and publishers, and readers.

      But you cannot expect that just because one person wins a huge lottery that everybody now has to run out and buy a ticket.

      — c.

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