A Writer’s Guide to Literary Agents


To engage a literary agent, or not to engage one?  This is the question.  Whether it is crucial for the writer’s business to have representation will depend on the writer.  Some writers are perfectly comfortable representing themselves.  Others prefer to hire an entertainment lawyer to negotiate contracts.  Then there are the writers who want that buffer between them and everyone else in the publishing process.  A good, knowledgeable and professional agent will be worth the commission.  As I’ve backed off my search for representation this summer and started to query publishers myself, I’ve looked back at the last four years and this last burst of constant marketing for Perceval.  What can I now say about the literary agent search?

First, if you decide to pursue representation, I’d suggest taking a moment to ask yourself: why?  It’s important to have a clear understanding of the reasons you want representation before plunging into the labor intensive search for the right agent.  The way I approached this was to ask myself what I wanted an agent to do for me and my writing.  I realized that I considered my job to be writing, not selling.  So the first thing I wanted the agent to do for me was to sell my writing to publishers.  I’d take care of the writing part.  The deal-sealer for me: most publishers do not accept unagented submissions.  What I learned: Writers have to sell to agents in order to attract them and gain representation.  Do not believe any agent who says otherwise.  They want to be sold to!  The time spent researching, developing query materials, and marketing to agents might be better spent marketing to publishers.  It’s certainly time spent not writing.  And if you address your query letter (and only a letter) to a specific editor at a publisher, it will be welcome. 

Second, an abundance of information and resources exist to help you find an agent.  Plan on taking the time to research them: read about agents, look them up online, and research what their preferences are.  Pay attention to what they want to see in a query.  Read about the differences between a boutique agency and a large full-service agency and which will serve your needs best.  Pay attention to the books the agent has sold.  Watch for signs of scammers — charging reading fees, unprofessional websites or communication, etc.  I used The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Poets and Writers  and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents to begin developing a list of agents which I then checked with online resources such as The Association of Author Representatives (www.aar.org), Backspace.org, AgentQuery.com, Publishersmarketplace.com., and agent websites among others.  The more I searched online, the more sources I stumbled onto, which was great, really.  What I learned: Agents aren’t always clear in what they want to see.  Sometimes (often, actually) their lists are quite general and vague.  I’ve read that they don’t want to limit themselves or authors, but be careful.  Agents are still very specific in what they want to represent, and much of their decision will be subjective based on their taste, likes, dislikes, etc.  It’s interesting to read blogs written by literary agents and they are out there.  Also, agents often write in their guidelines for authors to not worry about “selling” their books to them or categorizing them.  That’s the agent’s job.  Well, yeah, but they will take what you say to them and use that.  So, do worry about selling your book to them and categorizing it.

Next time in A Writer’s Guide to Literary Agents, Part 2: Defining your novel, developing the query letter, and sending out the queries.  What do you do if an agent wants more material or calls you?

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3 responses to “A Writer’s Guide to Literary Agents

  1. All very good advice. It’s almost a requirement to get an agent anymore because most of the publishing houses refuse to even look at anything that doesn’t come from an agent they are familiar with.

  2. In general, publishing houses refuse to look at unagented, unsolicited material. However, the way to get around that is to address the query to a specific editor, by name — essentially become your own agent. And it’s important to send only a letter — a very, very good one — unless the publisher specifies that they accept sample chapters too, or unsolicited queries.

  3. Fantastic! Let’s see part 2!

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