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Some Tips for Getting a Literary Agent

I’m getting a lot of questions about how to get a literary agent.  I hope this post will be useful.

First things first: I had some luck.  A literary agent–Lisa DiMona–offered to represent me when the idea for the book I eventually sold was–well, to say the idea was in its infancy would be charitable. The point is that I wasn’t beating the bushes trying to convince someone to read my proposal/book, because it didn’t exist.

I’m not the norm in this case.

However, since the book deal I’ve spent time with some publishing insiders, past and present, who have told me a lot about the author agent relationship. And I do have an agent, which has given me insight into the nature of an agent’s work.

Let’s address the question that many aspiring writers have:

Do I need an agent?

It depends.  What are your goals?

I self-published a novel with Createspace.  That, of course, didn’t require an agent.

I also sold a memoir to Gotham Books.  I’d predict that without my agent, I never would have come close to catching their eye. My agent had the contacts.  My agent could make the calls and send the emails.  My agent vouched for me.

Having an agent made this particular outcome possible. That doesn’t mean this particular outcome is necessarily the ideal one.  We’ll see how it goes and a year from now I’ll be able to speak from experience, having published a book with a publishing house.

An aside: there are some very successful authors who think that anyone who doesn’t self-publish is either crazy or ill-informed.  I’ve found Jon Konrath’s blog Newbie’s Guide to Publishing full of questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask before this all started.

For more in the same vein, check out Barry Eisler’s blog.

But for now, let’s assume that you’re convinced that you need an agent.

Tips for getting a literary agent

Here is what I have learned for myself, and been told by agents and editors.

1. Approach literary agents exactly how they want to be approached. You’ll see this advice echoed on this page of Writer’s Market, which is a fantastic resource. If an agent says he doesn’t represent fiction, don’t send him your novel.  If he says not to double-space your query letter, don’t double-space your query letter.

They’re busy and they’re looking for reasons to dismiss your manuscript or query so they can keep hunting.  Don’t make it easy to dismiss you by going outside of their submission guidelines.

2. If you don’t hear back right away, don’t be a pest.  Give it a few weeks and then politely ask if the agent got your message.

3. Have something to show them. Something on paper. There are people with great ideas who think writing a book is way easier than it is.  If you get a chance to tell an agent how great you and your book are, be prepared to back it up with a writing sample, should she ask.

4. Find out if they represent books that are similar to your own.  Here’s the authors page for the literary agency that represents me, Lark Productions. My odd memoir wasn’t an obvious fit for the agency, but remember: I didn’t approach her.  She called me. So I got to talk her ear off and brainstorm and she liked what we heard and away we went.  I got a chance to tell her about myself and my possible book that you don’t get when you fire off a query letter.

That’s a long way of saying: don’t assume your book is so good that anyone would be glad to have it, particularly if they don’t have a history  of representing  books similar to yours.

5. Write the best book possible

Ultimately, the work has to speak for itself.  Your best agent will be the one who love books, and the thought of your book not finding a publisher will drive her mad.  Keep in mind that an agent can’t make anyone publishing anything.  Having powerful contacts is not the same as having the ability to persuade those powerful contacts that a crappy book is actually a gem.

I’ll leave it there for now.  I’ll return to this soon.

Ask questions if you’ve got them.  I’ll answer if I can.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Daisy July 3, 2012, 11:42 am

    Thank you! This is very helpful. I feel like I’m stuck at a roadblock, and finding a good agent will help get back on track. Sorry for the mixed metaphor -it happens.

  • Ara Bedrossian July 13, 2012, 5:22 am

    I’m glad to hear of your in-roads into getting your stuff published. Gives me hope! And thanks for the links. And you’re right about writing seeming to be easy. It is, but good writing isn’t.

  • Krish July 24, 2012, 5:32 pm

    I think I’ve written a pretty good book, but I’m just having no luck whatsoever finding an agent willing to represent it. It’s frustrating to have to cram my book’s concept into a small 1-page query letter that certainly doesn’t do it justice. I’m currently at the point where I’m worried that it’ll never really get out there, so I suppose my questions are as follow:

    1) Is it possible to run out of agents to query?
    2) Is it only useful to query agents near me geographically?
    and 3) What do I do if I never get an agent? (Although this may sound dramatic, it’s definitely one of the worries currently overshadowing my life as an author)