The Why & How of Working with a Literary Agent: Part Two

Most authors of commercial hardcover, trade paper, or single title mass market paperback fiction will want to pursue agent representation before submitting a manuscript to editors at publishing houses. The key word is "before" because
more agents will turn you down flat if they discovered you've already tainted the waters by getting the manuscript rejected at every publishing house in New York. (If you have done this, you will probably be better off starting a new book. There are rare exceptions, but you usually get only one shot to make a sale per house. And you are much less likely to get a “serious” read if you submit directly to the publisher's slush pile – the term for unsolicited manuscripts -- instead of going through an agent. Editors look at so many inappropriate, truly horrible slush submissions, they have a tough time getting out of
find-the-flaws-and-reject-this-crap-quickly-to-reduce-the-piles mode. At least they know the agented submissions have been pre-screened and are the type of stuff they publish.)

Once you've decided you will need an agent, you need to submit
material to the right one. You can try using a resource such as the
most up-to-date edition of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents or
to learn about agents representing the type of book you're writing. There are many other terrific online resources, such as Preditors & Editors, which list agencies by name and report naughty agent antics, such as charging reading fees or referring prospective clients to high-priced book doctors who "happen" to be their spouses. Agents who belong to AAR, the association of Authors' Representatives, aren't allowed to remain members if they're found to do such things, so I highly
recommend that you stick with AAR agents. One resource I highly recommend is the subscription-based Publisher's Marketplace, which allows you to see who represents many of the authors writing in your field and lets you track particular agents' deals (because it involves agents self-reporting, not all of them keep this updated. But enough are good about it that I feel it's worth the $20 a month - at least to sign up for a month's subscription and research your fool head off. You can opt out at any time.)

If you're a member of a professional writers' organization such a Romance Writers of America, you can access online lists of agents who meet certain minimal requirements. These are agents with a track record of selling manuscripts in your chosen genre.

Speaking of which, it's very important to find an agent who's experienced in placing what you hope to sell. When you promise an agent 15% of your earnings (and 20% on foreign sales), you’re paying for this person’s industry contacts. If he/she has none, you might as well be out there schlepping your work on your own. Don't succumb to the temptation to query anyone just starting out in your genre because it takes time for these folks to learn the market and forge relationships with acquiring editors.

And for heaven’s sake, if you’re offered representation, don’t sign or agree to it with anyone, reputable or not, without contacting and talking to some of this person’s current and former clients and asking about the pros and cons of the agent’s working style. Also, make sure you carefully look at either the agency agreement (if there is one; many reputable agents work on a handshake) or, if there’s no contract, ask to see the agency clause that’s added to the publishing contracts this person negotiated. Otherwise, you’re flying blind, and the results probably won’t be pretty.

Later this week: How to find and contact an interested agent’s clients for a reference, and what to look for in the agency clause/agreement.


Joni Rodgers said…
Lord, that "show me the money" face is the icon for agenting, isn't it?

For all the caveats and complaints about agents, we have to give the devils their due. My agent does for me what I cannot do for myself because I frankly lack the fortitude to do it. The best agents combine a true love of books with churchbell caliber balls.
I totally agree -- a good agent more than earns her 15%, and working without one would be like high-flying without a net. I've been fortunate to work with some extremely honorable professionals, which is one reason it infuriates me to see fly-by-nighters preying on the dreams of novices. Some of them are cons artists, and others are well-meaning but incompetent and do more harm than good. But it's up to the writing community to let people know what they should look for. Otherwise, emerging authors would never stand a chance.