ABCs of Publishing - About Agents

By: Lisa Hood

How to Get a Literary Agent

While there’s no Golden Rule to “Being Published”; it appears the only way to get your foot in the door is to have a respected literary agent hold it open.

Most of the large NY publishing houses don’t accept unagented queries, and those that do will assign assistant editors to muck through the slush pile. A good literary agent has spent years in the publishing business, building relationships with editors, studying the market, knowing what editors are looking for and which publishers specialize in specific markets or genres. They will be your guide and your advocate to the publishing world.

How to Get a Literary Agent

The trick is finding a good literary agent.
By now you have probably heard many horror stories about disreputable agents. 

  • Be wary of any agent that charges an upfront fee, regardless of what they call it, or an agent that requires an author to use editing or marketing services as a condition of representation.
  • Agents who make their money up front, as reading fees or marketing fees, or who receive a kickback from referrals, are not motivated to sell books. The anonymity of the Internet provides an ideal environment for these creative con artists but it also lets us warn others.

Methods employed by dishonest literary agents:

  • Reading Fees
    This practice, once seen with some reputable agents, has been abused to the point it is now prohibited Association of Authors' Representatives for members. 
  • Evaluation or Critique Fee
    If you feel that you need a critique, why not hire the services of a reputable editor? 
  • Submission or Handling Fee
    Good agents make money selling books, not selling contracts for representation.
  • Submission Expenses - Reputable agents don't routinely bill their clients out-of-pocket. These expenses may include a large number of manuscript copies, color printing, photos, etc. 
  • Sliding scale of Fees
    Good agents do as much work as is needed to sell a book, all for the same 15% commission.
  • Selling 'adjunct' services
    Websites design, book cover design, illustrations, etc. etc. It's a conflict of interest for an agent to offer paid services. 

Dishonest agents are as imaginative and creative as the writers they swindle.

How to Get a Good Literary Agent

1) Your odds of finding a reputable agent will be greatly increased if they are a member of AAR or similar organization. To become a member of AAR, an agent must meet certain criteria, years in business, number of clients, no upfront fees, etc.

Unfortunately, there are no licensing requirements, regulatory agency or competency standards for literary agents. One organization that self regulates literary agents is the Association of Authors' Representatives or AAR.

2) Find Good Agents at Your Local Bookstore
You can locate a good agent at your favorite bookstore

  • Check out all the book sections, to determine where your book would likely be shelved in that store. From that section, pick up a book similar to yours in content and presentation, one that you believe appeals to the same reader your book will appeal to.
  • Turn to the 'Acknowledgments' page, located either in the front of the book or the back. The author will often thank his or her literary agent. Put that agent’s name on your list of possible agents.”

3) Attend Writers Conferences.
Editors are usually in attendance and you can ask for their recommendation of a good agent. (This is also useful when you submit your query letter: “Mr. Editor suggested I contact you regarding my book…”)

How To contact A Literary Agent?
Write a short introductory letter which should be informational, no more than one page in length, to the point and professional.

  • Tell the agent if your work is fictional, non fictional,
  • include a sentence or two summarizing the book and
  • A brief summary of your credentials.

Do not make claims that your book will be the next best seller, or comparisons to other works. Include a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) if you would like a reply. 

Can You Submit Your Work to
Multiple Literary Agents?

It is acceptable to submit your work to more than one literary agent at a time, however, you should let them know your work has been sent to other agents.

Many agents will not accept queries by phone, fax or email, so you should use snail mail for all submissions. Upon request, you can submit additional information, such as writing sample and story synopsis.

Once you have retained the services of an agent, you can expect them to provide guidance regarding the quality and marketability of your work. According to AAR, your agent may:

  • Offer editorial guidance.
  • Establish contacts for you with firms and persons who are acquiring rights to literary and/or dramatic material.
  • Advise you about current trends conditions, practices, and contractual terms.
  • Market your literary material and rights therein. Negotiate and review licensing agreements.
  • Review royalty statements.
  • Monitor licensees' marketing of your work. 

Agent representation is valuable when it comes to submitting works to publishers. Publishers depend on agents as a first screen to marketable work. Inept agents who submit marginal work to a plethora of publishers will develop a poor reputation and likely be ignored. Agents must exercise discretion, and the best agents will be highly selective when taking on new clients.

Final Points to Note on
How to Get a Literary Agent

  • The agent you want will love the genre you work in and know the publishers and editors who publish it, and will love the work you do. Make sure the work you send out is your best, that it is professionally formatted, free of errors, and entirely yours.
  • Research the type of work an agent represents.
    Read their descriptions of what they're looking for and believe them. An agent who doesn't like science fiction won't like your science fiction, and won't appreciate having his time wasted by yet another beginner who has proved by querying him that he is a beginner, and worse yet, can't follow instructions.”

Good literary agents do much more than find homes for manuscripts. If he or she did nothing more for you than remove bad clauses from contractsBusiness Management Articles, the agent would be worth his ten or fifteen percent.


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