Secret (Literary) Agent Man

The Traditional Path To Being Agented

When you’re trying to sell your first novel, you’re stuck in a terrible Catch-22: many publishers won’t look at your work unless it’s represented by an agent, but it’s very hard to get a legitimate agent without a published novel under your belt or a publishing offer in hand.

Joe Haldeman once told me that the single best way to get a decent agent is through a combination of shopping your own novel around and networking with other writers. The best way of getting noticed in the slush pile is to have a track record of short story sales — even a few credits look a whole lot better than none. Novel writing is very different from short story writing; some folks do the one well and the other poorly. However, having short fiction credits shows that you have marketable skill writing fiction. Heck, in some instances the editor might actually recognize your name. Whatever you can do to get your manuscript out of the slush pile and into an editor’s hands is a very good thing.

If you’re starting to get short work published, joining professional writers’ organizations like the National Writer’s Union, SFWA or HWA can be a huge help; these organizations will help you develop professional relationships with established authors who’ve already been around the block a time or two when it comes to agents and who can recommend someone when you’ve finally got a bite from a publisher. They’ll also help steer you clear of known scam artists.

In some instances, these professional organizations offer you other opportunities to get in touch with publishers. For instance, the Horror Writers’ Association has set up pitch meetings with book editors at this year’s World Horror Convention. While pitch meetings can be a terror some writers don’t want to deal with, they can yield very good results for those who present themselves and their work well in person.

When you get an offer back from a publisher, that’s the time to call up your author acquaintances and see if they know of decent agents who’ll be willing to look over the contract. The 10%-15% agent commission is well worth having someone knowledgeable check the contract to make sure you’re getting what you should and, possibly more important, aren’t selling away important rights.

Evaluating An Agent

Sometimes, though, you don’t have contacts, and you’re not a story writer. What then? How do you separate the hordes of scam artists and bogus amateurs posing as legitimate literary agents from the real ones?

You should look elsewhere if an agent:

  • Runs advertisements in writing magazines seeking clients or runs a promotional website to drum up business.
  • Charges a reading or other up-front fee.
  • Won’t reveal who his or her clients are.
  • Can’t demonstrate that he or she has sold anything to a legitimate commercial publisher.
  • Charges marketing, contract, representation, handling, processing, retainer, or circulation fees — all this should be covered by their commission.
  • Is eager to offer you editing services for a fee (see below).
  • Refers you to a book doctor if he or she rejects a manuscript.
  • Owns or works with a vanity press.

There are other factors to consider, of course. Getting data on agents can be hard, which is why it helps to network with experienced authors. A good agent should make most of his or her money off commissions paid after your work finds a home — if they don’t sell your work, they don’t get paid. An agent who charges reading fees etc. doesn’t have much of an incentive to get your work out there and sold.

Agents as Editors

A lot of scam artists posing as agents work as “book doctors” or covertly run vanity publishing companies; they pretend to be an agent so as to procure business for their press or marketing/editing sidelines. However, a few agents legitimately work as freelance editors for commercial publishers.

How can you tell the one from the other? Check for legitimate credits as an editor and an agent — the person should be happy to provide them. A legitimate editor/agent should always agent on commission and should never solicit editing business from clients. Professionals know where the lines are drawn, and they keep their businesses separate.

Legitimate Agents Who Just Don’t Work Out

An agent who does well for one writer might not do well for another. Sometimes, there’s a personality conflict. Or an agent might mishandle a book in a genre that he or she is not familiar with. An agent might work very hard for his or her top-selling writers and almost totally ignore the others. An author I know experienced the latter situation; his manuscripts languished for the three years he was with a particular agent, but after he severed the relationship, he sold six novels on his own.

The key thing is that a good agent will keep the lines of communication open and will provide evidence that he or she is doing what he or she is expected to do. Agents are usually murderously busy, yes, and it doesn’t do to be a pest when asking for updates. But you should see progress, and you should feel that an agent is listening to your concerns and taking them seriously.

A good agent is worth his or her weight in gold. In addition to invaluable aid on contract negotiations, he or she will save you a lot of headaches in dealing with troublesome publishers and will generally run interference so that you don’t get into a fight with people and generate ill will.

But always remember, with the exception of getting your work seen by editors at houses that don’t take unagented manuscripts, there’s really nothing an agent can do that you can’t manage on your own with some study and work.

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