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How to Find the Right
Literary Agent for Your Book
(and still keep your pride, dreams
& busy schedule intact)
by Debra Koontz Traverso
"I have a great idea for a book. How can
I find a publisher for it?"
Without doubt, I'm asked this question at least four
times per week, as I conduct book signings, give talks,
and carry out my role as a writing coach and consultant,
and co-president at www.WriteDirections.com.
My short answer is, "You don't." My
long answer, which I rarely have time to deliver,
constitutes the rest of this article.
What you do instead of looking for a publisher, is secure
a literary agent to find a publisher for you. Except for
children's literature (which is often sold by authors
directly to publishing houses), literary agents sell
about 92 percent of all books sold, according to Editor
and Publisher magazine.
The question then becomes:
is a literary agent and how do you find one?
Literary agents are a book author's business
representative. They are to writers and editors what
real-estate agents are to house sellers and buyers. Like
most real-estate agents, literary agents work for the
seller in this case, the writer. Also, like
real-estate agents, literary agents only get paid when
they sell. Literary agents typically receive about 15
percent on your book's advance (money you receive
initially generally upon signing a contract to
complete the book) and royalties (money you make from the
sell of your book, minus the advance).
As publishing houses experienced downsizing in the last
few years, the role of the literary agent took on greater
significance. Editors were forced to let go of editorial
assistants, cut budgets, and streamline book
acquisitions. As a result, they had to turn somewhere to
help them find books. Most editors now rely on trusted
agents to recommend the most promising book ideas and to
work with authors to polish manuscripts and book
proposals. This way, when editors receive a book proposal
from an agent, they know that it has already gone through
intense consideration, review, and polishing.
Objectivity should tell you that you are not the most
credible representative for your book, whereas an agent
could and should be. Agents know what
publishers are buying and which books are selling;
therefore, they can often speed up the sell of a book.
Bottom line: Placing your work in the hands of a quality
and appropriate agent is worth whatever time and effort
So the next question, then, becomes:
is a quality and appropriate agent?
First, let's talk about quality. A quality agent is one
who knows the publishing industry; preferably has even
worked in it as an editor at one time. A quality agent
has a track record of selling success, including a few
books you can easily find at Amazon.com or on the shelves
of your local bookstore.
Besides believing in aggressive negotiations and large
royalty advances, your ideal agent will believe in you
and will be enthusiastic about your work. A quality agent
will not charge reading fees (absolutely do not pay an
agent to read your work), but don't be afraid of agreeing
to pay minor fees for photocopying and mailing expenses
as long as they're minimal and you have a contract
reflecting this. Some agents might charge small fees for
a first-time author since their opportunities for
commissions on sales are so much more limited.
Ideally, a quality agent will be a member of the
Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR). The AAR
expects its members to follow a canon of ethics
one of which is that its members will make their money
selling writers' works, not from fees they collect from
hopeful and aspiring authors. You can visit the AAR web
site at http://www.publishersweekly.com/aar/.
Second, you need to find an "appropriate"
agent. As a beginner, high on your list will be an agent
who is willing to work with a first-time author.
Remember: nobody was born published; therefore you
yes, undiscovered, unsolicited, unpublished you do
have a chance to secure an agent and to get published; it
all starts with an agent who is willing to work with new
and potential authors.
The appropriate author for you will specialize in the
type of book you are hoping to sell. You wouldn't expect
a real estate agent who specializes in commercial real
estate to sell your home, so why would you expect a
literary agent who doesn't handle mystery or romance to
represent your romantic mystery novel?
Hopeful writers often tell me that they have a friend of
a friend who has published and that this author is
willing to arrange an introduction with an agent. My
reaction is always, "Great! Go for it. But don't
stop there." Why? The chances of that agent
representing your type of work may be slim to none, so
it's best to do your homework to find out which agents
handle books in your genre.
Once you've targeted an agent who represents your type of
work, then cast a wider net and keep looking for more.
Due to the volume of publishing houses and the rapid
turnover among editors at these houses, no one agent
could possibly know all the editors who might be
interested in your book. The agent who responds
positively to your work will already have in mind one or
more editors who may be interested.
So, how do you go about finding these
"appropriate" agents? Of course you might meet
agents at writers'conferences. You could also visit the
AAR Web site or peruse your library's copies of the
annual directories, Writer's Market and Literary
Market Place. But there is a better, expeditious and
more targeted way. . . .
The method I always recommend begins with rolling up your
sleeves and getting to work at your local
bookstore. The method I'm about to describe has served my
clients best because it has allowed them to send their
material from the get-go to agents who have already
expressed interest in their type of work. As a result, my
clients have a lot of control over the process and don't
have to wait months and months to hear from inappropriate
or inconsiderate agents.
What you do is go to the shelf where you are convinced
your book would appear when it has been published. Take
down all the competitive books and read through their
Acknowledgments sections. When authors are happy with
their agents, they often mention them in this section. If
you find an agent's name here, then you know you have a
potential agent for your book one who has a track
record of selling in your genre and one who has sold
somewhat recently. Make as long a list of these agents as
If an agent is not mentioned, then try calling the
subsidiary rights department of the publisher. Several of
my clients have had success securing an agent's name in
By the way: While you are leafing through these
competitive books, jot down notes and your impressions.
Record full title, subtitle, author name, publisher,
length, price, interesting tidbits about the Table of
Content, and anything else that stands out as good or
bad. You will need this information later when you are
doing the "Competition" section of your book
proposal (for non-fiction).
Once you have your list of potential agents, you will
need to research how to contact them and how they want to
be approached. The resources I mentioned above should
help. Or, you can visit a helpful book, updated each year
and written by literary agent Jeff Herman, called "Writer's
Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents."
(Please note that I do not receive any commission by
endorsing this book; I just think it is the best book
available on the topic.) The agents listed in this book
are members of AAR and will tell you in detail how they
want to be approached. Keep in mind, however, that not
all quality agents are members of AAR; nor are all
quality agents listed in Herman's book. There are many
quality agents out there who don't take the time to
bother with either of these listings/affiliations.
So, how do you approach potential agents? By far, the
most recommended and professional way is with a query
letter by snail mail accompanied or followed by
combinations of synopses, author credentials, chapter
outlines, sample chapters, and/or a book proposal. (Note
that each of these supporting pieces merits its own
explanatory article and cannot be served well in this
brief article about agents). What you send and how you
send it (e-mail may be an option) depends upon the type
of book you are proposing and how the agents have said
they want to be approached. You should know this from the
research you carried out, described above.
Before I close, let me leave you with two important
- 1) - No matter how
hard you have worked on your query/book proposal and no
matter how wonderful Mom says it is, show it to a
professional writer or writing consultant before you send
it to an agent. You can never know what weaknesses,
editorial mistakes or lapses in judgement you are failing
to see; nor can you know what marketing possibilities
you've left out.
- 2) - Most
importantly, remember: when an agent rejects your
query/proposal, you have the right to be discouraged and
sad, but do not give up. The only thing a rejection means
is that there was not a match between your work and that
agent; it does not necessarily mean that your project
lacks quality or salability. Keep in mind that many
successful books were rejected by agents before they were
Good luck, and remember what I said earlier no one
was born published.
Copyright Debra Koontz Traverso. All Rights Reserved.
Debra Koontz Traverso, M.A., is a creative
and commercial writer, public speaker and consultant,
having published several books and hundreds of articles.
She also serves as a guest instructor at Harvard
University and as adjunct faculty at her local community
college. She can be reached at Debra@DebraTraverso.com.
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