Finding a Literary Agent

If your last name isn't Spielberg, Collins, or Jakes, and Oprah has not yet selected your book as her recommended monthly read, you might want to consider finding a literary agent to improve your chances of getting your work in print. Finding the right agent, convincing that agent to represent you, and working diligently with that agent to get your name on a publishing contract is the most difficult process you'll ever attempt. The process can be as difficult as searching for the love of your life.

By Terrie Solomon

What Does a Literary Agent Do?    to top

Although each literary agency conducts its business a bit differently, all good literary agents universally provide a core of services to the authors they represent and potential publishers. The following list outlines the common services competent literary agents routinely provide:

  • Assess your writing ability compared with published authors.
  • Offer suggestions to help you create the perfect manuscript or proposal.
  • Circulate your work among the "right" publishers who specialize in publishing books on your area of expertise.
  • Negotiate contracts and agreements between the author and the publisher.
  • Negotiate subsidiary rights (and oftentimes other rights like foreign rights, special sales, book club sales, and electronic rights).
  • Mentor you during the evolution of your work.
  • Suggest marketing activity to increase sales of your work (author signings, speaking engagements, media interviews).
  • Audit the income from sales of your work.
  • Forward an accurate advance or royalty payment to you, minus the agent's commission.
  • Work with you to create your next manuscript or proposal.


Beware of Agents in "Sheeps' Clothing"    to top

Because literary agents aren't licensed and their activities aren't sanctioned by any dominant professional organization, anyone who wants to call himself an agent does so freely. As you assess potential agents to represent you, seek someone with a proven book-sales activity and a sparkling reputation. "Real" literary agents never charge authors for reviewing their work. They don't edit or revise your material, and they don't suggest you hire someone they recommend to fine-tune your work.

On the other hand, "real" literary agents will critique your work and offer suggestions for improvement, based on their long-term experience of reviewing thousands of manuscripts and proposals. "Real" literary agents receive compensation only after the author's works are sold, and their payments are in the form of percentages taken from the author's advance and royalty sales. If you contact someone who calls himself a literary agent but charges "up-front" fees for reviewing or refining your work, remove that person from your list of potential agents and continue to contact other "real" literary agents.

Agent Awareness
Be highly selective and cautious about evaluating the reputations of your prospective agent selections.


Evaluating Printed Agent Resources    to top

Literary agent lists are easy to find. Some lists contain both non-fee and fee-charging agents; other lists feature non-fee agents. Some great sources on literary agents are available in book (directory) form, and others appear on the World Wide Web. An often-used and inexpensive authoring resource called The Writer's Market 2000, edited by Kirsten Holm and Donya Dickerson ($27.99), F & W Publications, 1507 Dana Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45207, has a section featuring agents, but is predominantly a book listing of publishers by category—both book and periodicals publishers.

What makes The Writer's Market editions more appealing than some of its competition is that you can also buy a CD version, which offers some searching capabilities. Being able to set a search for an agent or publisher by specialization can be a big time-saver. Note, however, that The Writer's Market's listings—both book and CD—become outdated quickly, based on its form as printed reference. Still, this book is a good starting place, but be sure to verify editors' names and addresses before you send any material. (Personnel often change rapidly in the publishing profession.) To continue being a good publishing source, The Writer's Market bears the date in which the edition was published as part of its working title, and F & W Publications publishes a totally new edition on a yearly basis.

Without a doubt, those in the know about literary agents will highly recommend Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents 2000–2001 by Jeff Herman ($27.95), Prima Publishing, P.O. Box 1260, Rocklin, CA 95677, www.primapublishing.com.This huge text, containing nearly 1000 pages, represents the most comprehensive agent-specific information collection currently available. And author Jeff certainly knows, the literary agents' business. Founder of The Jeff Herman Literary Agency, LLC (www.jeffherman.com), Jeff represents over 100 authors and has sold nearly 400 titles. You can easily find Jeff's book at most any bookstore, including Amazon.com, or you can visit your local library's reference section to gain access to this book.

One highly informative but comparatively expensive book is The Literary Market Place ($129.95, R.R. Bowker, 121 Chanlon Road, New Providence, NJ 07974, 888-269-5372, www.bowker.com), with new editions annually. Known in the publishing industry as The LMP, this authoritative and well-respected information source is available in book form as well as on the Internet at www.bookwire.com. If you use the online version, you gain the advantage of accessing a resource that is continually updated, and the site features complex searches. The disadvantage to using the on-line version is that only basic listings with names and addresses are available for free to anyone who accesses this Web site. For a subscription fee of $389, you can access a tremendous amount of additional important information, including:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Specific contact name
  • Phone and FAX numbers
  • Detailed description of services
  • Year founded
  • Professional membership affiliations
  • Roster of key personnel at this listing

With a stringent process for qualifying businesses and individuals listed, The LMP—in either form—has been the publishing professional's primary resource for more than fifty years.

Another valuable book containing solid literary agent information is Literary Agents by Michael Larsen (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Professional, Reference and Trade Group, 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158-0012; $15.95).

A couple of magazines are also valuable resources. Writer's Digest, published monthly by F & W Publications, and Publishers Weekly (245 W. 17th Street, New York, NY 10011, yearly subscription $189). You can easily find these periodicals anywhere a wide range of magazines is sold, and any public library will most likely have issues you can use.


Evaluating Agent Information on the Web    to top

You can also find lots of great information about literary agents on the Internet. One advantage electronic sources have is the ability to frequently update the information. With Web-based literary agent information, you have a better chance of getting the latest information, but be sure to check the Web site's last date of revision to judge the timeliness of that site's information. Helpful on-line agent sources include:

In your search for an agent, take advantage of the numerous author-focused Web sites, many of which feature author-oriented bulletin board or chat rooms. Sometimes the advice given by other authors is far more insightful than any other source you can find.


References and Recommendations    to top

A literary agent's best performance indicator is the number of successful titles they have successfully sold. Any successful agent will happily provide you with the names of their best-selling titles, as well as authors' names as a reference. Even with a variety of tools to help you find the right agent, personal recommendations still carry lots of weight. Don't be afraid to ask other authors' to share their personal experiences; and be sure to contact any references the agent provides.

In addition to having a strong track record of book sales, literary agents can become members of the Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. (P.O. Box 237201, Ansonia Station, NY, 10003, 212-252-3695). The AAR has fairly demanding criteria for membership, and the association and its members maintain and operate by an impressive canon of ethics. Before you decide on which agents you'd like to contact, you should write, call, or visit the AAR's Web site (www.publishersweekly.com/aar/membership.html) to see whether your selected agents belong to this professional organization.


Preparation and Making the Connection    to top

Here is a list of items you need to thoroughly research before you contact any potential agents:

  • Analyze all books currently being sold that will compete directly with your work.
  • Familiarize yourself with best-selling authors whose books will compete with your work.
  • Target agents (and publishers, too) who specialize in the subject matter in which you specialize.
  • Visit all potential agent and publisher Web sites.
  • Review potential publishers' catalogs.

When you have selected four or five carefully targeted agents you'd like to represent you, introduce yourself and your work in the standard and expected form of the query letter. When an appropriate amount of time passes, and you haven't had any responses to your query letters, try to contact the agent by phone. Initiate conversation by asking whether the agent has received your query letter. If the agent has reviewed your query letter and isn't interested, use the remainder of the phone call to find out what book proposals and manuscripts the agent is interested in representing.

If your query letter appeals to an agent, be ready to send to the interested agent your completed manuscript, if your project is fiction, if the agent requests. If your project is nonfiction, be prepared to ship a flawless, well-developed proposal to the agent. Don't send anything to any agent without the agent requesting it, but prepare yourself in advance of sending query letters to agents by ensuring that you are anticipating and ready to send either your completed manuscript or proposal to any prospective agent as soon as the agent requests it.


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