Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Finding a Good Literary Agent

by Stephanie Morrill

Today I'm continuing our series on how to get published. So far we've covered:

And once you've done these things, I would advise you to start looking for a literary agent.

Why look for an agent? Why not an editor?

A couple reasons - the biggest being that most publishing houses won't look at a manuscript of yours unless you have representation or you met an editor at a conference and they requested to see more from you. And even at a conference, some editors still won't pay much attention to you if you don't have an agent.

5 years ago I went to a conference ready to pitch the book that became Me, Just Different. With the price of my conference registration, I had an appointment with the editor of my choice, and I had picked one from a prestigious house that I really admired. I went in for my appointment, told the editor what kind of books I wrote, and her response was, "Do you have an agent?" When I said no, her eyes glazed over, and I don't think she heard another word I said.

The response isn't always that extreme, but editors do rely on literary agents to weed out the good writers for them. Which makes sense because literary agents only make money when their clients do, they only take on writers/projects that they think will sell.

Also, when you're navigating the windy, curvy, confusing road of book contracts and business decisions, an agent is someone who's on your side.

Photo courtesy of Ben Morrill Photography
They understand how the business works, so they can speak the publishers lingo, but they can also fight for you and push for what you deserve.

How does someone become an agent?

The path varies. Many of them used to be editors or worked at publishing houses in some capacity. Others started as assistants to literary agents and eventually started taking on their own clients. Some agents only last a year or two because it's difficult to make a living out of it. 

One of the interesting things about the profession is there's no certification or class or credentials or anything that you need. If I wanted, as of this moment I could start billing myself as Stephanie Morrill, literary agent.

So ... if there's no standard, couldn't anyone be my agent?

Sure - anyone. Your grandma, your dog walker, your little sister. But it doesn't mean they can sell your projects or get your manuscript in front of an editor. And if they can't sell your projects, there's not much of a benefit.

This is a business that's about relationships and networking, which is why not all agents are a good fit for you. They might be amazing agents and sell more contemporary romance novels than anyone else out there ... but it doesn't mean they would know what to do with your science fiction project.

Amanda Luedeke is a young agent with MacGregor Literary, and she wrote a fascinating blog post on how she's grown her platform as an agent. Until I read that, I honestly hadn't given much thought to the nuts and bolts of agents developing their own brand and prestige.

How do I know if an agent is good?

This is one reason belonging to writing organizations (like RWA or SCWBI) can be a real benefit. It means you have access to fellow writers and you can find out things like which agents and publishing houses are scams and who's getting deals done. (Though you have to be smart when you ask questions because some of those organizations have agents as members and they can see what you ask.)

Authors often mention their agents in the acknowledgements section of their books, so that can be a good place to check. If an agent represents writers you love and/or writers in your genre, they're worth investigating.

You should weigh how long they've been an agent with who their clients are. If they've been an agent for 20 years, but none of their clients are familiar to you ... that's not a great sign. 

Preditors and Editors is a good resource for verifying an agent's legitimacy. And I used to subscribe to the free version of Publisher's Lunch, which sends out a daily newsletter with some industry stories and a few reported book deals. It always names the editor, publishing house, and agent so it can help you get an idea of who's selling what. 

Is any agent better than no agent?

Absolutely not. I know it's easy to feel rather desperate when it comes to the agent situation. I know because I've been there. After years of rejections, when an industry professional - any industry professional - is interested, it's tempting to sign that contract regardless of misgivings you may have. I became desperate to feel like I was making progress and moving forward in my career, and that can definitely affected my decision making skills.

Carolyn See, in her book Making a Literary Life compares writers whining about "How do you find an agent?" to girls in a bar whining about, "How do I find a boyfriend?" And just like it's worth it to hold out for the right person, not just marry the first one who comes along, it's worth it to hold out for the right agent.

What makes the agent right for you?
  • Your agent has a reputation in the industry - and when they're out there representing you, your reputation is tethered to theirs. If your agent is viewed as incompetent or unprofessional or as a loose cannon, that's bad for you. Make sure their reputation is one you want your name tied to.
  • They should love your writing and embrace your writing goals. They'll be the ones selling your work to editors, and their passion will make a difference.
  • You should like talking to them. They don't have to be someone you'd want to hang out with 24/7, but you should enjoy interacting with them.
  • They should have contacts that are helpful and ideas about where your book and voice fit into the market. If they love you and your writing, but don't know what to do with you ... that's not a great situation for anybody.
  • Consider (and ask about) their work style. Do they prefer phone or email? How involved do they like to be in developing projects? How will they help you reach your career goals? My agent told me from the very beginning that she could be tough to get a hold of sometimes, and that if I needed her I might need to call a few times. I'm really glad she told me that because it's true - and it means I don't feel bad about asking a few times when I need an answer to something. Communicating about that early on can save frustration for everyone down the road.
We've talked about agents a few times on Go Teen Writers. Here are some additional posts you might find helpful:


  1. Do you have to find an agent in your area? Or can you find one across the country? Like, does it matter where they are?

    1. Oh...good question!

    2. That's a great question! No, it doesn't matter where they are. Some say that New York agents have an advantage over non-NY agents, but plenty of successful agents live outside of New York City.

    3. What about agents in other countries?
      I live in New Zealand, where there aren't a great number of agents or publishing houses (or a great market for books either).
      Would finding an agent from, say, the US or UK be possible? What would you recommend?

    4. Kate, yeah, you'll probably have better luck with a US or UK agent. (I honestly have no idea how many UK agents there are, but there are tons of great Brit authors, so I'm assuming there are plenty of agents over there too.) Since practically everything is done over email and since Skype is a common way for US agents to talk even with their US clients, I wouldn't think your location would be an insurmountable hurdle for a US or UK agent.

  2. Thank you! SO helpful (as usual...) :)

  3. Every step of the journey is a mountain to climb, isn't it?!

  4. I got really excited when I saw the title of this post! Getting a literary agent is something I'm drawing closer to -- but I have no idea how to start. Especially since I'd love to go *home territory* and get an agent in Australia. But I imagine the steps are pretty much the same. I'll have to look into trusted Aus literary agencies so I don't "marry" the wrong one. ;)

  5. Thanks for this post! I'm nowhere near this point but this will be useful when I do get here and it makes finding an agent a little less scary.

    Unrelated question: Are there going to be any more writing prompt contests before the 100 for 100 is over?

  6. I really liked this post. I've wondered how you "know" whether an agent is a good fit, and bullets are so helpful. :)

    Thanks, Stephanie!