by Steven Capps
To start, this post is really intended for those who’ve completed a book and are wanting to traditionally publish. With that said, I’m not going to address anything in the revision stage since I’m assuming the manuscript is as good as you can possible make it. Seriously, jumping the gun by submitting before your manuscript is ready is only going to get it rejected and waste time for both you and the agent. In addition, self-published authors don’t really need an agent so they probably won’t get much use out of this post either.
LITERARY AGENTS ARE CRITICAL
If you are still reading, I assume you are at least interested in getting an agent even if you haven’t made a final decision. Some major authors do not believe agents are neccassary and several authors with small presses don’t have one either. They argue against the 15% commission agents take and believe that authors are better off keeping all of the revenue for themselves.
Agents do more than serve as a messenger to publishers. They mentor writers, negotiate contracts, secure foreign rights, and are often the only way to get a new author in front of the Big 5. Before we get into the process of obtaining an agent, it’s prudent to discuss what they do.
Roles of a Literary Agent
Agents have two primary roles. A good agent will help you sell your work and negotiate contracts on your behalf. Some believe that authors can do this on their own, and while I’m sure a few can, most do not have the contacts or experience unless they’ve already been working in the industry.
AGENTS SELL MANUSCRIPTS
Anyone can print up some business cards, start a website, and call themselves an agent. A good agent develops the ability to sell manuscripts by having personal contacts at various publishers. This is one reason why publishing is so concentrated in New York. If Random House hires a new acquisitions editor, you can guarantee that agents will be taking them out to dinner and getting a feel for the books they like. This isn’t to say agents outside of New York are bad and there are certainly poor agents in the Big Apple, but the proximity of being in New York gives those agents an advantage.
Agents use this network to create a list of possible publishers and what they are looking for. An unagented writer might submit a noir steampunk mystery to every publisher representing fantasy. An agent will know the exact editor who is looking for that specific type of novel.
AGENTS NEGOTIATE BETTER DEALS
Negotiating is almost, if not more, important as making the sale. A publisher might like a new writers work and offer them a contract with a $3000.00. If an agent brokered this deal, they would earn a total of $450.00. An agent would make a counter offer of a $10,000.00 advance as well as restrict the rights that the publisher is buying. This deal would net the agent a $1500.00 commission and the author $8500.00. Even though the author had to pay 15% to their agent, they made more than double than they would have received on their own.
(Side Note: In Science Fiction and Fantasy professional level novel publishers are required to offer, at minimum, a $3000.00 advance in order to be a SFWA qualified pro-market. Check out their page for a list of over 40 pro publishers.)
Let’s move on to an agent’s role in rights negotation. A publisher will often want to purchase large portions of rights for the least amount of cost. They may want, “Indefinite Exclusive World English in all formats,” which is about the worst deal possible. Agents are trained to spot things like this; authors are not. This experience is vital.
In an agents counter offer, they might propose “Exclusive North American English.” This allows the author to publish and earn an advance with a New York publisher and then go to the U.K. and sell the same book again. The author would earn two advances, and if they did not have an agent they might have signed their rights away before they realized what they were doing. Foreign deals are a huge potential revenue stream, but without an agent, it becomes a hard well to tap.
SOFT SKILLS OF A LITERARY AGENT
Finally, agents understand what other books are getting for their advances and what is standard in a contract. They can negoatiate based off of knowledge rather than simply haggling for a better deal. Though these roles are the job description of being an agent, many used to be editors within the industry and wanted a career switch. This gives them skills to help improve a manuscript before it gets to a publisher. A good agent is just as valuable as a good writer and can make the difference between a book finding its way into Barnes and Noble or languishing in obscurity.
An Agent’s Perspective on Writers
Before we delve into the methods of finding an agent, let’s consider an agent from their perspective. I believe this gives a better idea of what to approach them and increase your chances of success.
Their job is to find promising writers that can succeed commercially. While great writing is the best way to get in the door, their ultimate decision stems from whether or not they believe the manuscript will sell. This is not evil, just business, so be prepared for requests that might turn your book more mainstream. Agents do this to help mold manuscripts to make them more viable. If no publishers pick it up it doesn’t matter how well written it is. No one makes any money.
Though a solid manuscript is most important, it isn’t the only consideration. New authors rarely make large advances. Typically, they run between $3000-$10,000 which is a pretty small payday for the agent when compared to more established authors though requires the same amount, if not more, work. Because of this agents look for career writers. The idea is that they sow their labor now to reap additional benifits later.
Finally, agents work with people they like. If you don’t take criticism well or are polarizing on social media, they may choose to reject you simply because they don’t like you. An author/agent relationship is similar to dating, and you might be an awesome writer but just don’t click.
To summarize fiction agents typically want:
- A manuscript that can be sold to a publisher with little additional effort
- A career writer (or someone who wants to be) in order to get repeat business
- Someone they enjoy working with
Approaching an Agent: Query Letters
This most traditional avenue is to send agents a query letter describing your book and experience with a small sample of the work in question. If interested, the agent will request more or the complete manuscript and will decide to reject or accept afterword. Each agent is different and want different things ranging from a synopsis, chapters, or only a query, so it is important to read their submission guidelines.
It is important to send a polished manuscript because the quality of your writing is the deciding factor. This does not mean that you should hire an editor to work through it. Traditional publishers will provide this for you, and agents actively discourage the practice.
During WorldCon 2016, Joshua Bilmes, the agent for Brandon Sanderson and Charliene Harris, said he will automatically reject any submission if the cover letter states the manuscript has already been professionally edited. He believes that this artificially inflates the quality of the writing and makes it impossible to determine what parts show the author’s skill versus the editors.
It will become painfully obvious that writer isn’t up to par if the publisher has a revision request or wants a sequel and the writer’s drafts don’t make the cut unless Joshua puts in additional effort to edit the work before they submit it. Since he is already taking a risk on a new author, he cannot take the loss if the author isn’t actually ready for the big leagues.
AGENTS AT CONVENTIONS
In my experience, conventions have given me the most luck. When using a convention to get an agent, there are two major ways to approach it, pitch sessions and drinking at the bar.
A pitch session is a formal time to sit down with an agent and discuss your book. These are good because you have the opportunity to talk face to face and makes it more loose than a query letter. The goal is to catch the agents interest in the five to ten minutes you have to speak in which they will either request material or decline. The best way to catch interest is to focus on the conflict of the story or main character. Conflict catches interest and they do not need to know every detail to know if they would be interested.
Bar cons are the informal part of a convention after the events have ended for the day. Many industry professionals meet up in the primary hotel’s bar to drink and socialize. This lets you meet people on a personal rather than professional level. Bar cons have given me the opportunity to talk to some awesome people in the industry and have given me a few contacts at places like Tor, Jabberwocky, and a few others. By making friends with an author at the bar con, I ended up getting invited to some suite parties which are closed to the public aside from people invited and is the equivalent of striking gold in terms of networking.
ATTENTION THROUGH CONTESTS
The last and least used method of securing an agent is to use a contest to catapult you into stardom. Not all contests are equal and many are scams so be wary, but if you win a contest like Writers of the Future, Writers Digest Short Story competition, or something equally notable, they often put you in direct contact with publishers and agents during their workshop for the winners. If you have a novel ready, you can leverage this into a contract.
Guest post contributed by Steven Capps. Steven is a writer with an insatiable hunger for the fantasy and science fiction genre. His writing has been featured in publications such as Fiction, The Bird & Dog, Survival Prepper, Survival Sullivan, Markit Bulgaria, and The Cass County Star Gazette. His blog’s goal is to create a place to talk about improving writers’ craft as well as learn about the industry.