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On Getting Literary Agent Representation

A Is for Agent—
A Primer for Writers Seeking Representation

Copyright 2000; 2010; 2012 by Patricia Anderson
Also published in Wordworks (Spring 2000)


Your book. You can see it now—the shiny jacket, your picture on the back, and signature on the flyleaf—not to mention all the favourable reviews it will be bound to attract.

At present it's an unpublished manuscript, but you've edited and proofread the final draft and feel confident it's ready to submit. The trouble is, acquiring editors are unlikely to read, let alone accept, manuscripts submitted "over the transom." No doubt about it, to escape the indignity of the "slush pile," receive fair payment, and achieve due recognition, you need an agent.

Or do you?

The idea that literary representation is the best or only way to get published is a common misconception among new authors. Many also make crucial mistakes in their initial approach to agents, with rejection the inevitable result. Others end up locked into unfavourable contracts and ineffectual representation.

Successful writers, on the other hand, understand what a competent agent can, and cannot, do for their careers. They consult reliable sources of information, submit their work appropriately, and maintain professionalism at all stages of the author-agent relationship. My experience as an agented author and consultant to other writers has shown that by following a few basic guidelines you avoid unnecessary frustration and increase your chances of publication—whether on your own or represented by the right agent.

A Is for Agent—Do You Really Need One?

"You need an agent to get a book published, but you also need to have a book published to get an agent." Fortunately for new writers, the first part of publishing's purported catch-22 is largely untrue. While some authors make their first sale with the help of an agent, many others succeed on their own.

Before you start approaching agents, consider whether or not your particular book will substantially benefit from their services. For example, serious nonfiction aimed at university or commercial scholarly presses does not generally require representation. Similarly, books with a strong regional focus or appeal to an identifiable niche market—collectors, hobbyists, owners of small business, and so on—are routinely published without agent intervention. Many children's book presses also accept manuscripts from unrepresented authors, as do some publishers of genre fiction.

If, however, your book has potentially wide national or international interest, you may be well advised to seek representation. Should your efforts fail, you can always approach publishers directly at a later date.

Before you commit yourself to a long and possibly disappointing search for an agent, be sure that representation is in fact suited to your individual needs. An agent can be an invaluable asset for the full-time professional, an optional luxury for the occasional writer. Your personality is also a factor. Some people want complete control over their careers, while others are happy to be free of the business side of writing.

Whatever your situation, there are both advantages and drawbacks to literary representation. On the one hand, effective agents have market knowledge, contacts, and the ability to secure bigger advances than many writers could obtain for themselves. They can also give you more time to write because they submit your work, negotiate contracts, and manage subsequent royalty accounting. On the down side, you pay a 15-20 percent commission on your earnings, however small they might be, and most agents also charge for office expenses incurred on your behalf—typically postage, photocopying, and long distance calls. You may also lose some control over where and when your work is submitted and be unable to establish as close a relationship with your editor as you might have done without a third party involved.

If you decide that on balance you would be better off with an agent, your next step is to target some likely possibilities. Unless you already have suitable contacts, perhaps through other writers, you will have to consult the agent listings in directories such as Book Trade in Canada and Writer's Market. Click here for other resources.

The agent you really need is among those who require only their commission and reimbursement for routine office expenses. Avoid those who charge editing fees or have kickback arrangements with book doctors and insist that your work be passed on to them for revision at your expense. Agents who ask for a moderate onetime reading fee, say $100-$300, are not necessarily disreputable, but be aware that the Canon of Ethics of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR) stipulates that member agents "may not charge clients for reading and evaluating literary works."

It's a matter of common sense to select an agent who is not only ethical but also prepared to handle the kind of material you write. If you work in more than one fictional genre or write both novels and nonfiction, target those who represent a range of fiction and nonfiction. When a listing specifies adult fiction only, for instance, don't delude yourself that the agent will make an exception for your nonfiction book for preteens. As obvious as it sounds, aspiring authors commonly make this kind of mistake.

As you prepare to contact your selected agents, be realistic and remember that the second part of publishing's catch-22 is not completely unfounded. Without a publication track record, finding competent representation is a challenge. But with a quality project and professional approach, it remains possible.

B Is for Businesslike

"I can't understand why they keep hanging up on me," a writer with a newly completed first novel told me. "It's such a great book and they won't even let me tell them about it."

Of course not. Good agents are professionals running businesses. They expect their clients and potential clients to meet the same businesslike standard. In other words, make your first approach in writing. You are a writer, after all, and this is your chance to demonstrate the quality of your work.

If you are trying to get a novel published, it is a must that it be completed before you approach anyone. Agents—and the editors with whom they deal—need to see that your story hangs together from beginning to end. With nonfiction, a partial manuscript and detailed outline are sufficient, but a completed project can give you an advantage. Agents and editors find it reassuring that an otherwise unproven writer at least has a finished manuscript on offer.

Do not, however, make the mistake of sending the whole thing unsolicited. It will usually be returned unread, if it is returned at all. In most cases, the listings in directories state each agent's submission requirements—usually, a query letter or query with proposal. If an agent does not specify requirements, send a query letter and one-page synopsis. Whatever form your submission takes, it should include a stamped self-addressed envelope for a reply.

While sending a query or book proposal by conventional mail might sound dated, this is not necessarily the case. Many agents now accept, or purportedly even welcome, queries and submissions by email. At the same time, however, they often ignore these emails or send out automated form rejections. In my experience with clients, submissions are more likely to receive serious attention when they are mailed in the old-fashioned way. I suggest that authors seeking literary representation make judicious use of both snail mail and email. Either way, be sure to follow each agent's submission guidelines to the letter.

However you send it, a full proposal typically includes a covering letter, author bio, brief synopsis, detailed outline (nonfiction), marketing information, and introduction and one sample chapter for nonfiction or three sample chapters for fiction. An effective query letter states the book's length and genre, summarizes its subject matter, says how it differs from other similar books, describes your qualifications, and identifies the likely readership.

Simultaneous querying of several agents has gained acceptance in recent years, providing the writer discloses the fact. But many agents, my own included, reject such queries on principle. "Why waste time on someone who may go elsewhere?" she says.

I find her point of view convincing and favour the conservative, one-by-one approach. But if timing is a crucial factor in selling your manuscript, then multiple submission may be worth a try. Though ethically you must state that you are approaching other agents, you can downplay the fact by personalizing each query. Always address the agent by name and say why you believe he or she would be the best person to represent your work. (You might, for instance, point out that your work is in the same category as particular titles the agent has recently sold.)

Meanwhile, why not send your proposal to a few acquiring editors? If you can interest just one, you will enhance your appeal to agents. Most will appreciate your enterprise, and many will be pleased to step in at this point and represent you.

Before you approach anyone, of course, you will have written—and rewritten—your submission for reader appeal, edited it for sense and clarity, and proofread it for grammar and spelling. Agents are swamped with queries and only the most polished will receive any favourable attention. One Canadian agent reports an average of 100 requests for representation a week. My agent in New York receives 200-300. Those sprinkled with typos and other errors are among the first to be tossed aside.

However flawless the grammar and spelling, your query will fare no better if it shows such obvious signs of amateurism as gratuitous humour (this is a business communication, remember), endorsements from your friends (unless they happen to be established authors or critics), and ultimatums about expected advances (do not talk money until a book contract is offered). Avoid these mistakes and strive instead for professionalism and a businesslike approach. Along with a compelling project, these are your greatest assets.

C Is for Contract

When you receive that much anticipated call from an agent, you may be offered a simple "handshake agreement." The agent will explain the terms of representation and, if you agree verbally, that will be that. I have been represented on this basis and have never regretted it.

In recent years, though, written contracts have become the norm. The best of these are fairly straightforward statements of works to be represented and excluded, accounting and communication procedures, the agent's commission, and additional charges to cover office expenses. Some contracts have a specified duration—anywhere from one to five years—while others have no time limitation. Either option is acceptable as long as there is an escape clause that allows the author or agent to terminate the agreement by giving 30-60 days' notice in writing.

Do not sign contracts that lack a reasonable escape clause. Equally, walk away from those that require you to pay for the agent's visits to publishers and lunches with editors. Above all, do not agree to pay monthly retainer fees or exorbitant editing costs. Such clauses in a contract indicate that the agent's principal income is from reading and editing, not sales.

Once the contract is agreed, the subsequent relationship between author and agent is built on the integrity and professionalism of both. The agent must make all reasonable effort to sell your work, communicate with you regularly, and manage your account honestly and efficiently. But as in all successful relationships, the endeavour must be mutual. You, too, have a professional standard to uphold.

The following guidelines will not only help you win your agent's respect but also work to the advantage of your career:

Extending yourself beyond the basic requirements of your contractual agreement will make you a favoured client. In turn, your agent will be all the more motivated to sell your work and, as your career develops, to promote your stature as a published author.

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