Finding That Right Literary Agent: Five Things to Consider

I’ve written quite a bit on the site already about the many pitfalls in being a writer in today’s world.

The fact is literary agents (and managers) are, in many ways, the gatekeepers for the publishing houses, with many of the bigger publishing houses declaring that they only will look at material that is represented.  And, honestly, agents want to sell your book, because that is how they make their money; and the more successful deal, the better for them as well. Who wouldn’t want that in their book’s court?

With today’s over congestion of writers—newbies, recent writing graduates, struggling older writers,etc.—your work needs all of the help it can get to be noticed, and an agent can be that for you. Here are five things to consider when looking for a literary agent for your masterpiece.

Location. Location. Location.

The thing is you want your work to be a priority for both your agent and the publisher that they show it too, and for me that screams location. If you want an agent to represent a book, find an agent in New York City; if you want an agent to sell a screenplay or something for TV, try Los Angeles.

Yes, I know there are literary agents all over this country, but, for the life of me, I don’t know how they do it. When your agent’s location is in Indiana (for example), how do they take a meeting, stop by a publisher’s office, meet them out of the office for coffee, drinks, lunch? It seems to me when an agent is outside a hub for writing it is safe to assume that there are only relationships built out of e-mail, phone, and mail, and the occasional flight in. Does that make your work a priority when the publisher knows your agent isn’t in the city? Could your work be pushed aside for one represented by a local agent that they know they might bump into?

This is not to say I wouldn’t consider an agent outside the main region, but they would have to give me a good argument for their location and share examples of recent successes.

You want to charge me how much?

Having an agent agree to represent your book is exciting. It’s thrilling! It feels like all your hard work is being justified. Your work is good, see! So it’s very easy for a new writer to say yes and sign all of the contracts that they receive without taking the time to review the fine print.

The thing is that established agents and managers do NOT charge their clients. They get a percentage of the sales. So if you have an agent saying they will charge you so much a quarter or monthly, you should consider that a red flag. You might be seeing nothing but smoke and mirrors, no matter how pretty their words are.

Agents that charge their clients… well, they pretty much exist off of those charges. They don’t bring in the big sales, or maybe any sales. Typically, they do the same thing you are doing right now—sending out query letters—and they will probably give you an update from time to time saying they sent out so many letters. They will explain that they charge because of long distance calls, stamps, etc. Yes, it sounds good in theory, but remember that agents that don’t charge for their services have the same expenses.

I would be surprised if even publishers take letters or e-mails from agents like that seriously. I’m guessing (and only guessing) that they have filters in their e-mail or their mail sorters know to look for those representatives. It’s a questionable practice. Do the research and avoid going down this road. Your pocketbook (and ego) will thank you.

The Power of the Web

Just a few years ago I was giving the advice to a college classroom of going to a bookstore, grabbing a copy of The Writer’s Market, and start making a tracking form for your mailing to agents.

The internet has changed that in a major way and that advice has joined the dodo in oblivion.

Most major agencies have Web sites now and their work is more transparent to the benefit of all. You want to know what successes an agency has had, look at their site. You want to know what they are looking for right now or are currently representing? Check out the Web site. It is all there.

A great Web site for finding an agent right now is agentquery.com. You can search for agents and agencies by genre, with most searches including Web site links and e-mail addresses… That sigh you just released is because a part of your brain has realized how much less work it has to do now.

Also, a lot of agents are also on twitter, so if you visit a site and like an agent’s history, you can start following them. It’s an insight into their personality, their current work focus, and their experience. Seriously, you would be surprised by some of the things agents say in Twitter without meaning too.

So check out agentquery.com, do the research on their Web sites, visit Facebook, Twitter… You know how news stories talk about employers looking at applicants on the Web? This is no different.  Google away!

Writing Conferences

There is a story I love to tell about agents (and I’m sure I have done this in other editorials) about the agent in LA that invited me to her office to discuss a screenplay and she had inflatable furniture (Yes, I said inflatable), and she was obviously struggling (Oh, I did write about this in detail here).  Here is the thing- if I didn’t visit her office, I would never have known that there were warning signs.

Agents can talk a good game on the phone or e-mail. It is their job too!

And it’s also your job to talk a good game on phone and e-mail! It’s a mutual thing.

So how do you have that in-person meeting without moving to New York or Los Angeles? One simple answer- writing conferences. They happen all over the country and agents will usually attend or send representatives from their office. These agents will be more established AND they will be there looking for new talent. They want to meet you… now go meet them.

One of my favorite stories about writing conferences comes from when I was at USC. I was talking with a fellow writer who attended a lot of conferences. His reasoning? He is better in person than in a letter… I, of course, had to bite my tongue from pointing out that he is supposed to be a writer.

Talk to Other Writers

One thing I have learned is that writers love to talk about writing and their experiences (Like I do on this blog, for example). The fact is in your community there might be writers with contacts and/or experiences that might help you on your search.

If you have not attended college writing courses, consider doing so (always good for the resume). The classrooms are filled with struggling writers like you and professors typically have contacts and experiences to draw from. If you have the degree already, how about joining a writing table? With a little research they can be found in every region; maybe connected to a museum or a bookstore.

Sometimes a contact name you can drop or a reference is what you need to get in the door. It’s all about the final goal of finding a publisher for your pet project, do not turn away any opportunities, you never know what they will lead to.

The path to publication may begin with convincing that local author to read your novel.

Frankly, the path to literary success is different for everyone, if at all. Upfront you need to decide what is best for your work and your future.  The answer to those points no one can give but you. But agents do play a very important role in our publishing world, and I do not see that changing anytime soon, nor should it.

Good luck!

A Jane Austen DaydreamIf you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen DaydreamMaximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here.  Thanks for reading!…

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26 responses

  1. Very useful.

    I’m still far from a finished manuscript the situation of my country may be a little different from the one of United States, but I will treasure your advices for when my quest for an agent will begin.

    Again, thanks!

  2. Good stuff! I can’t stress enough to new authors that legitimate agents do not charge the authors they represent, and legitimate publishing houses don’t charge authors to publish their book. I feel like a broken record sometimes. Thanks for the thorough post.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked the post!

      I actually was inspired to write this by a young author who went with an agent that charged and was in the Midwest. I tried and tried to convince her it was a mistake. Later she self published.

  3. This was great information, especially for the new (and possibly fearful or apprehensive) author. I actually feel more empowered. Thanks again!

  4. Pingback: The Trials of Self-Publishing: Why I Consider It a Last Resort « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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  6. Pingback: What I Learned From Having a Literary Agent « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  7. My first writing conference in October really convinced me of the meeting people in person rule.

    My dream agent was as nice as I’d hoped, and my pitch went off great (still waiting to hear something on the full).

    One agent on a panel who’d previously been on my list was crossed off when I saw that she had problems smiling, gave off a really superior attitude, and wrinkled her mouth just like my mother (whom I don’t get along with).

    You have to consider you’ll be working with this person for quite a while. If they make you uncomfortable, cross them off your list!

  8. some invaluable information there. Thanks for sharing it. One point, however, it isn’t utterly necessary to have a degree to be a writer. It is quite possible to make it in this world using hard work and determination. Great piece, looking forward to the next one. :0)

    • True, but I think anything that adds to your resume, shows what you know what you are talking about, helps. It is a very congested market out there; your resume has to help you be heard. You can’t assume the fiction will speak for itself, sadly.

      Thanks for writing!

  9. Pingback: Looking For a Literary Agent… | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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