Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Agents in a Nutshell

If you're a new writer -- or even if you're not so new -- you will no doubt ask Do I really need an agent for this pile of paper on my desk that I hope to call a book someday? Well, agents, of course, will tell you that you do. After all, writers feed them.

But even though many (ok, some) writers think literary agents are mean characters that Stephen King thought up, they really do want to help you. And if anybody deserves help it's that writer with that big pile of paper that she wants to sell.

If you're trying to sell to major publishing houses (uh huh, good luck with that first time around) like Penguin, Harper Collins, or Simon and Shuster, you definitely need an agent to negotiate the sale and insure that you're treated fairly. If you've written a book that is wonderful and excellent but not yet the one that will win you any literary prizes, you can try to sell to a publisher on your own. Those good-but-not-gonna-win-any-prizes books are sold to publishers every day and the writer happily skateboards to the bank without handing over 15% to an agent.

We know what we want from an agent, but what does an agent want from us? Well, it's recommended that you've finished your book (and polished it until you're almost ready to set it on fire and become a snake oil salesman) before you contact an agent. Agents who handle fiction don't have time to read a query outlining that brilliant book you're going to write someday when the kids are grown or after the laundry is done or when you finally grow up enough to know what you want to do with your life. They want to see a query from you that will tell them whether your book is worth trying to sell.

Your initial query is a one-page introduction to your work and who you are. Yeah, I know -- how do you possibly explain the book and yourself on just one page? Don't ask me, I'm still trying to cut down that seven page query letter that I continue to think is even more brilliant than the book I've written.

Briefly, the first paragraph is basically Hey, I hear you're a phenomenal agent and I can't think of anyone else in the business I would want to represent me. Seriously? No, don't say that. Simply let the agent know you know the kinds of books they handle and that yours would fit that particular genre.(That's called research.) The second paragraph should be a synopsis of the book, the tantalizing meat of your story, no side dishes, no condiments, though. The third paragraph is your brief bio as a writer, publishing credits, etc. (Probably shouldn't mention that your 16 adorable grandkids, or your cats, are your muse. This stuff comes under the heading of cutesy, and agents don't want cutesy, they want good writing. This ain't Facebook.) If you have no publishing credits, you don't have to say so, they'll figure it out when you don't say so.

In addition to your query letter, agents will want to see at least two or more chapters to prove you're not lying to them that you are smart enough to put as many as 100,000 words on paper while avoiding unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, and cliches. Not to mention changing the names of the innocent.

So where do you find these mythical creatures called literary agents?

Literary agents hang out on the Internet, and one of the most comprehensive sites is Of course, there are hundreds of literary agents online, and a great many helpful blogs written by both agents and writers. These blogs will obviously be far more helpful than this one. I certainly hope so, because I surely would like to get paid for my work someday.

With regard to writing a book, George Orwell said "One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand."

I'd hate to think I'm possessed by a demon if I'm not going to get paid for it.  

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