The agent issue is such an emotional one for writers. Having one is a huge validation. I was fortunate to sign with an agent while still writing my first novel and it was wonderful being able to work and know that someone was waiting for what I was writing.
But the eagerness to have that feeling often pushes writers to make poor decisions when it comes to the hunt for an agent. With some thinking, solid preparation and research it is possible to hook up with an agent and have a satisfying relationship with him or her. Here are five crucial points to help you with the process.
1. Do You Need An Agent?
You've probably heard the oft-cited fact that most publishers these days don't read unsolicited manuscripts. But that only means that the editor hasn't been contacted beforehand. If you send a query letter and the editor asks to see your book or book proposal, you can send it without going through an agent.
However, if the editor does want to make an offer, they will suggest that you get an agent. An agent will help you get the best deal possible and, in the best of worlds, an agent will also be interested in helping you develop your career as a writer. If you can get an agent before the submission process, I think that's even better because the agent can help you put your manuscript in the best shape possible before it gets submitted. As they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression. With that in mind...
2. Be Ready.
You have to be writing at a top level to grab an agent's attention. Unfortunately, a number of writers tend to skip that part. You may be eager to get an agent, but if you're continually sending out subpar material, you'll be seen as a writer with poor skills and poor judgment and someone not to be taken seriously.
Granted, I know you want to know that you're not writing for nothing and an agent would provide that validation, but at some point you have to make the decision that you're writing for the long haul and working on your craft. If you can do that, getting an agent will not be a problem.
3. Find the Right Agent.
When you're ready to make the search, DO NOT get a bunch of names and do a mass mailing to anyone with the title "agent". You'll only get a bunch of rejections from agents who don't handle your material or aren't looking for new clients. If you do a little work, you can find out what kind of writers an agent represents and the type of material they favor. Writer's Digest publishes the Guide to Literary Agents (see below) where you'll find complete listings.
Here's another great tip: if you join Publishers Marketplace, you can get a daily e-mail listing of what deals have taken place in the book industry. You'll see what kind of book sold, what editor bought it and the agent who represented the author. This is good information because you'll see immediately who is representing your type of writing and--more importantly--who is buying it!
4. No, You Don't Have to Pay an Agent!
I get asked about this a lot, usually by writers who have already been taken advantage of by agents who charge expensive "reading fees". A good agent makes money when you make money (usually a 15 percent commission). You'll want to ask some questions. If an agent makes most of his money from writer fees and not from actual sales, you'll want to move on. A good way to weed out this group is by checking out members of the Association of Author's Representatives (AAR). Members of AAR are forbidden from charging fees.
An agent is much more likely to pay attention to a manuscript from someone they have met personally. I know networking and meeting agents can be hard if you live in the mountains of Arizona or on an island in Puget Sound. But consider it part of your work as a writer to get out to a conference at lease once or twice a year to meet agents, editors and, of course, other writers! I'll let you know when good ones are coming up.
One last note
An agent is NOT a magic pill. Even the best agent can't work miracles with mediocre material. It will ALWAYS be your job to do your best writing.