the hunt for the elusive agent in the wild

Brought to my attention by matociquala, I’ve now perused TNH’s response to Neil’s inquiry about agents a little more closely. If you want to read it yourself, it’s here. I’m not really going to respond to it directly… but I will say it’s pretty darn good advice. And that list o’ links is invaluable for a writer hunting an agent.

That said… as mcurry commented on this postI disagree with the need to show up at the agent’s doorstep with an offer. It is quite likely having an offer in hand from a reputable publishing house will increase your chances. And there are certainly agents who will definitely take the so-called easy commission. I did it. Once. And then I vowed to never do it again. I made myself a solemn promise that I would always read the work prior to offering representation. In that particular case, my reasons were selfish. The author and I did not get on well, and I really was not a fan of their book, and it made the whole thing rather more work than it should have been. For both of us. I can’t speak for authors everywhere, but I imagine they would prefer an agent who was also enthusiastic about what they were writing — not just about how much money they could pull down. For my part, this certainly comes in handy when/if a client hits a plateau in their career, or even worse, a backslide. I can’t speak for agents everywhere, but I like to have something else to sustain me when the commissions aren’t pouring in.

Here’s my advice for getting a good agent:

#1 Write a good book which also happens to be saleable. (Corollary: Not all good books are saleable. Unfortunate, but true. Further corollary: Write a bad book which happens to be saleable – not recommended, but it’s been known to work. Or… sell your soul for literary fame and fortune if it’s what will make you happy.)

#2 Do the research. Teresa mentions the AAR as one of her first links. It’s a loosely aligned group of agents who commiserate (yes, I chose that word deliberately) on the state of the industry, and try to do good works for author-kind. And they also have the much-touted Canon of Ethics, which was established in an attempt to provide guidelines for respectable agent behavior (like not charging reading fees). Because anyone can become a literary agent. They can print up the cards and stationery and go to it. But there’s no guarantee they’ll have any idea how to go about it in a way that benefits their clients in the long run. Most agents I know join an already established agency in the assistant position and work their way up – sort of an apprenticeship tactic. That’s what I did. (Or they’re an editor who’s hopped the fence.) So — do the research. Go hunting on websites (like those mentioned in Teresa’s post). Look in Jeff Herman’s guide or the Writer’s Digest guide. See if you can find out who represents your favorite authors or authors who write similar types of work to your own (many authors have links on their websites to their agent’s website and/or list them in the acknowledgements pages of their books). Attend conferences and listen and ask questions. Make a short list of agent targets and then take due diligence in the crafting of your query and/or pitch.

#3 Be prepared. Getting published is hard. Sometimes even harder than writing. No, really. I have a great respect for those people who have the stick-to-it-ness to finish a manuscript. That’s a huge investment, and many authors turn back before making it that far. But – beware ye who choose to continue the quest. Not to rain on the parade, but rejection is the norm. One of the publisher guides we’re listed in asks about our rejection rate: most agents in that guide list a 99% as we do – few have anything better than a 90%. In many cases, I’ve heard the old axiom – you can’t get a publisher to look at your book without an agent, and you can’t get an agent without having been published (one of the other popular versions of this saying being you can’t get a job without experience, you can’t get experience without a job). It may often appear to be true. But it is not entirely true. There are few publishers these days who officially accept unagented work – this can severely limit your options as an unagented writer, but if you seem to be having no luck in the agent arena, may be a way to go. As for the agents, it *is* tough (but not impossible) to get one without having that deal-in-hand or having been previously published. It’s also possible to be published and have an agent decline to represent you. I just looked at my client list and I can confirm that I took on at least one brand new writer last year – no short story sales, even. I also have turned down published authors this week.

#4 A bad agent is worse than no agent at all. Much repeated in many sources. If/when you get to a point where an agent has called you and offered representation, take a deep breath and make sure it’s really what you want. Any agent will not do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most reputable agents will have no problem with answering ones like these. Most agents will not tell you particulars of deals they have made — those details are proprietary information belonging to the clients they represent. I only add this one as a personal aside, because I once had an author demand (and I mean, demand!) to know this before I had even read their material. More vague items (like, which publishers an agent has done deals with) are fair game, imo.

#5 If at first you don’t succeed, try again. I have clients on my list who have previously been rejected by me. In fact, the first sale I ever made was for one of those. And it’s still happening today. (On the other hand, don’t invest in so-called rubber manuscripts – the kind that just bounce back with tweaks within weeks. Reconsider steps 1-4 in each case.)

A further note on rejection – remember it’s not about you, it’s about your book. A lot of writers seem to take rejection very personally, and it’s easy to do since they’ve poured so much of themselves into writing the book they’re putting out there. But, the truth of it is, that, in almost every case, the agent doesn’t know who you are. They’re making a judgement based on what’s on the paper. And just that. To the author, it’s one submission out of a few, and to the agent, it’s one out of the 100 that arrived that week. In any case, keep in mind there are many reasons your material may not fit what an agent is looking for, including the one where they are completely oblivious to your future potential. Here are some of the more common ones:

*Not written well enough. It may be okay or fine. But, these days, most agents want more than that. And further to this, there are a large number of submissions which are not spell-checked or proofread sufficiently. Or, disappointingly, where the writing doesn’t even make the “okay” grade. This includes manuscripts that cannot follow basic (and readable) formatting. I’m not wed to any one font, or anything – I just want to read it and not have it hurt my eyes.

*Not the right kind of book for the agent. This goes back to the research. We get a fair number of queries for non-fiction material, but it says on our website that we are an agency for novelists, and that we specialize in fiction. This indicates to us that we were not chosen wisely for this submission, and that we’re probably not even on a short list.

*The work isn’t different enough or is *too* different. Agents need something to sell. Even if a writer has reached the stage where they have a pleasant enough mastery of language, the work might be too derivative. And editors are always talking about wanting something “fresh.” Conversely, the work may be so far into left field that it would also be quite difficult to sell. Both of these obstacles can be overcome by discovering the mysterious quality of “voice.”

*Just don’t like it. Remember that agents are, at the heart and soul of it, readers — who happen to be well-informed (one hopes) about what sells and doesn’t sell. But – just as you might not be a fan of certain popular fantasy series, that agent may find others dull or uninteresting. It’s hard to enthusiastically pitch something like that. In that case, the short list probably will yield someone who *is* into your kind of fiction. Otherwise, it was likely one of the other reasons. This last one is tough. And not fair. But you have to like it, or even better, love it, to be the right agent for it.

Caveat – just *one* agent’s point of view, and we are all far too individualistic (I think we have to be) for everything to hold true in every case. But, taken generally, I’d like to think my statements above are fairly accurate.

59 responses to “the hunt for the elusive agent in the wild

  1. I’m not sure if this is a dumb question or not, but what does an agent want to see from a published writer? Same protocols apply? Query letter with proposals?

    • I don’t believe in dumb questions. *g* On our website, our submission guidelines say query letter with synopsis and first five pages and ubiquitous SASE. But your mileage will vary from agent to agent. So, back to the research books. Some agents want partials or whole manuscripts. Some want just the query. That’s the generic answer – for everyone’s benefit.
      I’d venture a guess many (if not all) would bend their own rules for a much-published author with a strong backlist. Though I had a NYT best-selling author send me just a query letter like everyone else, too. It’d be nice to say that all authors are on a level playing field, but agents have to put bread on the table too, and it’s just not so. That’s going to give the previously published types an edge. Me, personally? I’m definitely open to hearing from established authors via query (which could include a new proposal certainly), email, or even the phone.
      My caveat to this is that there are certain publication credits that don’t hold much water — for instance, if you have a very long list of publications in medical journals, but are writing a fantasy novel, those articles are a good deal less relevant.

      • Unless your name is Robin Cook… *grin*

        • Right – unless the medical background is relevant, of course. In my example, I wasn’t thinking of Robin Cook as a fantasy novelist. *g* I was thinking of a certain query recently received which cited many articles in various obscure medical resources but was pitching a fairly traditional unicorn fantasy.

      • Thanks. The advice you find can range all over the lot. from email query to completed manuscript. Looks like there’s room to maneuver, and each case is individual.
        A fantasy-with-hard-medical-detail–it could sell…

  2. Jenn, may I link to this? I know a few livejournal unpublished writers who may not read yours, and this is some damned good advice.

  3. Well said, Jennifer. I agree with everything here. In fact, I’m going to link to this advice from my own LJ, as I have a previous post about agents there today (Teresa Hayden’s advice).

    • Thanks! And – hey – I thought I recognized you from somewhere. You’re in one of the DARKSIDE anthologies, aren’t you? In any case, glad you appreciated my contribution to this wide-ranging discussion.

      • Yep, I’m in the latest DS antho, A Walk on the Darkside. A story called “Shoes” with agent-mate Tim Lebbon. Took me a while to sell something to Pelan, so that one felt good. Also got one in From the Borderlands, and another upcoming in Nancys Kilpatrick and Holder’s Outsiders: An Anthology of Misfits. Other’n that, I’m Editor-in-Chief of this dark fiction webzine, which recently published three of your clients: Laura Anne Gilman, Elizabeth Bear, and Jay Lake.

        • Ah… Chizine – that may have been the other bell ringing distantly. And with taste like that, it was probably inevitable that you should end up in a DARKSIDE book. After all, Laura Anne launched that series and I agented it, so there’s probably some like minds at work there.

        • “Took me a while to sell something to Pelan, so that one felt good.”
          I made my first fiction sale last year to Pelan, for the fifth volume of Darkside. True, it won’t be out for a year and a half or so, but he called me a few months ago and told me he was trying to decide between my story and Brian Hodge’s as the volume’s closer. I had the dream “first sale,” pretty much. (Hell, if mine doesn’t end up as the last story, being told “I’m trying to decide between you and Brian Hodge…” was glorious enough.)
          Now, if I could just get you bastiges at Chizine to accept something.
          Thanks for the article, BTW, Jennifer. I found it through Brett’s journal and promptly put you on my friends list. Nice to meet you.

  4. So, in your opinion, for those of us writers who only produce unsaleable manuscripts like myself, do you think Print-On-Demand to be a reasonable alternative?

    • Hmm…. well, first of all, I feel compelled to say that “unsaleable” is a subjective judgement, and I don’t know what the history of your marketing attempts happens to be (e.g. how many agents or publishers you approached, or even if one of them was me). Also, what is unsaleable today may be saleable in the future (that happens too). That aside, I, personally, remain a little leery of POD. Of course, there are those who have their success stories in that arena, and there are companies who happen to have the best interests of the author at heart, but I think those are the exception rather than the norm. Ultimately, I really think it depends on what you’re looking for in terms of being published. Great financial reward? A spot on the NYT list? The respect of your peer writers? A respectable credit to move you towards so-called traditional publishing? Wide distribution? POD is not necessarily going to be of assistance there. At least, not yet. If, on the other hand, you would simply like the satisfaction of seeing your efforts in book form that can be made available for purchase, even if not to great numbers, it might be a viable path. I don’t mean to sound harsh, there, but I think the reality is that POD is a long way from reaching its potential.

      • In all honesty the reason for my leaning towards POD involves a combination of bad prior experiences trying to sell a book to a deep-seated belief that the gay spec fic I write is not liked by the mainstream or gay presses.
        I POD’d a collection of short fiction already and enjoyed the experience (even got a great review in Asimovs). These days it seems like toture to take the risk and send a novel out again.
        I don’t expect to make money writing. I just would like to have my work read by the few people that I think like gay spec fic.

        • Hey, have you seen the submission guidelines at Loose Id? Dunno if your stuff fits, but I do know they are looking for gay spec fic….

          • Interesting site. All e-books. Seems like the gay titles are written by women too, like Torquere Press. So does that mean the primary target is female readers?
            I still wonder about e-books vs. POD.

            • They’re seriously talking about expanding to a larger male audience, AFAIK.
              Ebooks pay better, except in the most extraordinary cases. A lot easier to reach a readership, to maintain contacts with them through promotional chat and other e-forums, and, hey, 40% royalties….

            • To be short and succinct (since it starting to become late at night and I have manuscript to read and a contract to review in the morning), I have to admit that I tend to view e-publishing and POD in about the same light when it comes to publication credits. However, I also have to say that it doesn’t, in the end, matter how many credits or what level they happen to be – my decision is ultimately in the reading.

              • Agreed.
                Still, these days, I have a terrible schism with submitting novels anymore – my self-esteem cannot take the pain that rejection brings so I lean more and more towards POD. Even with my short story successes I cannot believe I can make it as a novelist.
                Thanks for replying btw.

        • have you tried submitting to small press fantasy publishers, like Small Beer, Meisha Merlin, Wildside, etc?

          • I never tried the small press fantasies as I think I’m too gay for them (just like I seem to be too fantastical for the gay presses).

            • Well, you’ll never know until you try. (Sorry to be cliched, but I’m serious.)

              • Well, I suppose it also depends on time. On average it takes me around 9 to 12 months to get a response from a small publisher. There might only be 4-5 ones interested in the book. That would take me 4 years. I could self-publish and have the book out and available by the end of 2005.

        • Speaking of a reputable POD publisher, have you considered Wildside Press and its various imprints?
          Though, it may be worth noting that Wildside is no longer strictly POD, and has been expanding into offset, particularly starting last fall.

        • All you said about your novel is that it’s “gay spec fic” and I’m already interested. πŸ˜‰
          Have you considered e-publishing? It’s still a new thing, and, like POD, won’t get you much respect or money, but there are advantages: distribution, some publicity, and things like cover design and editing are taken care of by the publisher. There are some scam publishers out there, but there are also some legit companies (I freelance copyedit for one).

          • Oops, I didn’t see that someone else also mentioned e-books. I think it’s worth looking into, anyway.

          • Oh? What e-publisher?
            I’ve had some reprint sales to Torquere CD-Rom anthologies; that’s as far as I’ve gone. I never earned a dime from royalties, so I think they sell few copies.
            The one thing with e-books is that I would miss having a printed copy to hold and cherish and see on the shelf.
            Still… it’s an interesting concept. Are most of the readers women? Seems like most gay e-books are very slash-y.

            • Double Dragon Publishing. I know offhand that Embiid is also legit (both are recommended on Preditors & Editors, if you want outside confirmation).
              Physical books are indeed nice. I know some e-publishers have POD as well, but I don’t know about the quality of those books or what the process is.
              Honestly, I’m not sure what the audience would be for gay/lesbian e-books; I’ve never read one. I’m just always on the lookout for interesting ideas in spec fic, and I like character-driven stories. *grin*

        • Wow, how weird. I’d have thought there would be much more of an audience for gay spec fic than that. I know a ton of people who like it.

          • Well, I can only base my informationf rom what I am told by booksellers, publishers and others remotely involved with the industry.
            Some gay presses won’t touch spec fic unless it’s vampire related. The gay media does not really understand fandom and so avoid it, which means that writers of gay spec fic have trouble getting any sort of publicity compared ot queer mystery authors.
            Also, many writers of gay spec fic are actually women and some gay male readers have cannot relate to how these authors have presented the characters (i.e., they ring false).

      • Caution on not believing in dumb questions. LAG could probably tell you I’m most capable of producing a few ;). On the flip-side to your ‘How to get an Agent’, what are some of the general agent-peeves that may or may not have been covered in the ‘how-to get pub’d/agented/thrown-under-a-bus’. My favorite tales of the publishing realm have always been the Nightmare Client stories; I’d like to think I’ll never be that way.

        • …sorry one last thing: A Guide to Getting Lucky

          ( not a pretty link, apologies)

        • You know… I’m tempted to make coy comments like – “If you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you” – or – “I know it when I see it.” Sure there are a few things that push my buttons, but they’ll be different from agent to agent so I’m not sure how relevant they are in the long run. I’m also not sure that I’ve ever had a Nightmare Client, though there are a couple that just haven’t worked out.

          • I had posted this yesterday Ms Jackson, during the odd state of flux LJ was experiencing; it didn’t make the cut so hopefully it won’t post again. I found this eBlog while surfing for something else but it related itself nicely to the topic of Nightmare clients. The ‘gentleman’ who runs this blog is apparently a Hollywood agent who multitasks with movie scripts as well as novel MSs. Enjoy, my sides still ache from it:
            Queries I Love

  5. Do you mind if I link to your advice on my Publisher’s Marketplace blog???

  6. ‘s words of subtle wisdom:
    That said… as mcurry commented on this post — I disagree with the need to show up at the agent’s doorstep with an offer. It is quite likely having an offer in hand from a reputable publishing house will increase your chances. And there are certainly agents who will definitely take the so-called easy commission. I did it. Once. And then I vowed to never do it again. I made myself a solemn promise that I would always read the work prior to offering representation. In that particular case, my reasons were selfish. The author and I did not get on well, and I really was not a fan of their book, and it made the whole thing rather more work than it should have been. For both of us. I can’t speak for authors everywhere, but I imagine they would prefer an agent who was also enthusiastic about what they were writing — not just about how much money they could pull down. For my part, this certainly comes in handy when/if a client hits a plateau in their career, or even worse, a backslide. I can’t speak for agents everywhere, but I like to have something else to sustain me when the commissions aren’t pouring in.

    Thanks for saying this. It seems to be the one best piece of agent advice I’ve seen yet.
    The more I think about it, the more it seems that unless the agent genuinely likes the author’s work in the first place (as opposed to taking on the unfamiliar author just because of an existing publisher offer), the agent-author relationship will not be as firmly cemented or long-term.
    Serious food for thought.

  7. Heya! My name’s Anna and I’m Yet Another Aspiring Writer. πŸ™‚ Having followed links over here from ‘s journal, I thought I’d peek in. And I wanted to thank you for sharing your advice on agents; I’m still working on learning a lot of this stuff. πŸ™‚

  8. Some great information here. Glad Yoniga tipped me off to this link. You make a lot of sense.

  9. Very helpful and insightful. Thank you.

  10. Here’s another round of thanks from a Writer’s Weekend blog reader. Ms. Jackson, your blog’s my find of the week.
    Upthread, rachelmanija suggested to mroctober that Meisha Merlin might be a good press to investigate. When I talked to the Meisha Merlin folks at NorEasCon in September, they said their list was so full they anticipated being unable to read any unsolicited manuscripts for the next two years. Assuming their prediction plays out, you can spare yourself (or at least postpone) one not-about-you-or-your-manuscript rejection formletter. Best of luck, wherever you look, mroctober!

  11. Wonderful information. Thank you so much for posting it.
    I’m going to add you to my friend’s list, if that’s okay.

  12. Just thanks; currently looking for an agent (and I find the effort an absolute grind). Every bit of advice is appreciated.

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