Find an Agent Part Two of
Literary Agents Everything You Need to Know (well almost)
Most aspiring authors begin their careers with little or no understanding of how to go about finding an agent to represent their work. They quickly learn that most major publishing houses only accept submissions through literary agents. So, with great anticipation, they begin sending query letters to agents and usually get a cool reception, or even hit an impenetrable brick wall.
To understand how authors can improve their odds of attracting an agent, and to learn the outlook for rookies trying to crack into the brutally competitive publishing industry, we surveyed more than 60 literary agents. Their backgrounds range from large, well-known agencies to smaller “boutique” agencies.
Among the questions we asked were these: Where do agents find clients? What is the most critical mistake writers make when approaching agents? What is the most common reason you decline to represent a writer? And, do you see the publishing industry becoming more or less favorable for new (unpublished) authors?
We think our survey results and agent comments offer some good insights for all types of writers.
Where do agents find clients?
39% Referral from one of their other clients
33% Direct contact by the writer
9% Referral from editors and publishers
8% Referral from other authors not their clients
5% Referrals from other agents
3% Attendance at writers conferences
It is no surprise that referrals from the agents’ current clients were the top method cited. Publishing is a relationship-based industry, and contacts are extremely important. A recommendation from someone whose opinion an agent trusts is always valued and receives prompt attention. Several top-selling authors’ careers were launched when another bestselling author took them under their wing and introduced them to agents or publishers.
What might be surprising is that as many as a third of the agents said direct contact from the writer was the most common way they found new clients. So, most definitely, there’s hope for all the authors sweating blood over the last draft of that perfect query.
What is the most critical mistake writers make when
approaching literary agents for representation?
Most of the answers were clustered in the following four areas:
Poor writing or poorly prepared contact letter
It’s curious that agents report getting so many weak query letters, since a number of books deal with the subject, including Making the Perfect Pitch by agent Katharine Sands, and many writers conferences cover the topic in depth. Once you see some examples of successful queries, it isn’t really that complicated to compose your own—particularly compared to the task of writing a long novel.
Here are some representative comments from the agents:
“Declining to divulge the contents of their manuscripts in their queries—they just don’t get that it’s the writing, not the ideas.”
“Writing a clumsy, uninformative, grandiose, marketing-heavy, casual or just poorly composed query letter.”
“Not being professional, succinct or specific, and for inexperienced novelists they most often have what I call the ‘first 50-page ho-hum.’ The story really begins somewhere between pages 56 and 100. This is a downfall which crosses my path more often than it should.”
“They don’t know the components and priorities for writing a good pitch letter, especially about listing their professional credits up front.”
Inappropriate subject or genre for that agent
The second most popular response to our question about critical mistakes indicates many writers don’t do their homework when selecting agents to contact. Sending a wonderful query about your amazing revolutionary cookbook to an editor who specializes in placing mystery fiction is simply a waste of everyone’s time. Reference books such as Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents clearly point out what individual agents are looking for. (Some of the agents’ preferences and prejudices can seem odd. In one guide, for example, an agent warned, “Don’t send me any right-wing Tom Clancy stuff.” Did this agent really mean to say he’d turn down the chance to earn 15 percent of the mega-royalties Clancy has earned? This poor fellow should be seeking career advice, not dispensing it.)
Author hype, ego, arrogance
Agents report that creative people often have big egos. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Part of the problem stems from the authors’ awareness of how many other writers they are competing with for the agent’s attention. The temptation to use hyperbole to differentiate oneself can be overwhelming.
A significant number of the agents warned against overselling and arrogance—”Trying to act more like a sales person, and not like a writer,” as one agent put it. “Hyping the agent. A straightforward recitation is much more effective.”
Yet, others said the worst mistake was “Not writing an engaging query,” or “Writing dreary query letters describing the plot of the book.” Now we’re starting to get confused. Do the agents want an exciting query or that “straightforward recitation”? Most likely they want both.
Uneducated about the publishing process
The author who is truly talented and dedicated to the craft of writing has a clear advantage right from the start, since the overwhelming response from agents was that the quality of many submissions they receive is poor. But the author who can articulate the market for his or her book is also way ahead. The author needs to think of himself as a small businessperson entering a new industry, not as a “literary artist.” Prospective authors must be able to address the question: Who is going to buy my book and why? Writers should not assume that an agent or an editor will automatically recognize the target audience for a book, or how large that audience might be.
Authors who can show they’ll be helpful and energetic in selling the book once it is published are particularly sought after in today’s market.
Some representative comments from the agents:
“They fail to think about who the audience is for their book, and how best to reach that audience in real (as opposed to airy-fairy) ways. Lack of original thinking . . . lack of professionalism in that they have no real clue how the industry works or what an editor or agent does for a living.”
“Less a mistake in approach, more a mistake in knowing what makes a publishable book. Most writers really don’t know.”
The process of finding a publisher or an agent is similar. Research, research, and more research. Develop a list of 10 to 20 agencies/publishers who are a good fit with your book. Don’t bother contacting an agent who doesn’t represent fiction for your novel. If a publisher only publishes romances don’t send your mystery.
Many agents insist that you query them on an exclusive basis, meaning you contact them one and a time and wait for that one agent to decline before approaching another agent. That can waste a tremendous amount of time; the agent can take months to get back to you. Even the quickest agents take at least 30 days.
Publishing houses don’t seem to mind that more than one is considering the same manuscript, and interestingly agents contact a group of publishers at a time.
Dee Power and Brian Hill are the authors of The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors, and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them, Attracting Capital From Angels, Inside Secrets To Venture Capital and the novel, Over Time. You can reach her through her website, http://www.BrianHillAndDeePower.com
Next: Resources For Finding An Agents