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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:
What 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).

The Editor-Agent Relationship

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 it requires.

So the next question, then, becomes:
What is a quality and appropriate agent?

The Quality 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/.

The Appropriate Agent

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 Targeted Hunt

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 you can.

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 this way.

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).

The Approach

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 thoughts:

-
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 sold.
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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