Sunday, June 04, 2006

Literary Agent Redux

You’ve written a book, and you want to find a literary agent to represent you and your work. How do you find this person, and how do you make sure you don’t get scammed?

(Do you need an agent? That depends. If you’re going to self-publish, no. If you’re aiming for the small, independent publishing houses—not necessarily. But if you’ve got your sights set on the big guns—Random House, say, or Simon and Schuster—then you probably do. Check out this article, or the resources listed below, for more info).

The first step is to make a list of agents who are looking for manuscripts like yours. There’s lots of ways to do this, and I recommend a combination of approaches (hey, it worked for me). First, look for published books that are similar to yours in genre or theme. Often, the author will include his or her agent in the acknowledgements. (If not, a Web search can often turn up the agent who represented the novel; or, as a last resort, you can call the publisher and ask who the agent of record is for that book). Once you’ve discovered the agent's name, you can then search the resources mentioned below to see what other books he or she has represented, to see if the agent might be a good fit for you.

A couple of nice bonuses to this approach is that 1) You’ll get a good feel for what’s already out there on the shelves. Agents appreciate writers who are knowledgeable about what’s happening in their genre. And 2) If an author thanks his or her agent with particular enthusiasm, that’s practically a personal recommendation!

At the same time, do some digging to turn up more agent names. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents is an great place to start. A new edition comes out every year; since agent information can change rapidly, be sure you’re using the current one. Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents is another good reference, also updated annually. On the Internet, two very helpful resources are Agent Research and Evaluation and AgentQuery.

When searching these references, remember you’re not going to contact every agent listed; that’s a waste of your time and theirs. Instead, you’re looking for those agents who represent books like yours. Using these strategies, you should be able to generate a list of twenty to fifty literary agents, and possibly more, depending on your genre.

How do you avoid scams? Pretty easily, actually, if you remember two principles.

First: Only query reputable agents. Reputable agents make their money by selling manuscripts to publishers. This means they'll have an established track record, which you'll be able to find. Most are also members of the Association of Author’s Representatives, and so are bound to the AAR Canon of Ethics. (Note that membership in AAR is not mandatory, and some very excellent agents are not members. Still, they voluntarily abide by the same ethical code). If you use the agent-hunting strategies described above, chances are good that your list will only include reputable agents.

Second: In the agent-author relationship, money flows toward the author, NOT the other way around. In other words, before the manuscript has been sold to a publisher, you never, ever pay an agent. For anything. Ever. As I emphasized above, agents earn their money by selling manuscripts. Once this sale is made, then the agent takes his or her commission (15% is standard) out of the advance paid to the author by the publisher. At this point, the agent may also ask to be reimbursed for any ordinary office expenses (postage, copying, etc) incurred in the sale. These expenses should be clearly explained to the author beforehand, and/or spelled out in the agent-author contract.

In contrast to the above, a scam agent usually has no verifiable record of sales to publishers. He or she will not be a member of AAR. Most importantly, a scam agent will ask for some kind of upfront payment from the author. This payment may be disguised as “reading fees”, “editing fees”, or reimbursement for office expenses (remember, any such reimbursement should only be made after the manuscript is sold). These people make their money from the authors they’ve scammed, NOT from selling manuscripts to publishers.

If you harbor any doubt about the agents on your list, do yourself a massive favor and check them out before you send them your manuscript. (Two excellent resources to help you: Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware). As I noted in last week's post, many authors spend little or no time researching agents. Before they know it, they’ve signed with a scam artist—and only come to realize it when, some months down the road, the manuscripts they've labored over for years remain unsold, and their bank accounts are smaller by hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars.

Be smarter than that. Next to writing a fabulous book, finding a good agent can be the most important step you take toward publication. You owe it to yourself—and to your writing career—to do it right.

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