What Every Author Should Know About Literary Agents

Many publishers will no longer accept a proposal unless it comes from an agent. While agents don’t guarantee your book will be published, they can ensure that it gets a reading and advocate for you all along the process. You can find the right agent for you if you know where to look.

Why use an agent
An agent …

  • will critique your book proposal before it is submitted and make suggestions or edits to help you improve it.
  • knows which publishers are likely to be interested in your proposal.
  • can garner attention for your proposal and sell it faster than you can.
  • is your business representative and, as such, protects your best interests, secures advances, settles contract disputes, collects money, reviews royalty statements, ensures that publishers meet their contractual obligations, and host of other activities.
  • is your support system, guide, and cheerleader, which every author needs.
  • can bring a new editor up to date on you and your book if that becomes necessary.
  • only earns money when he or she sells your book proposal, which is a great motivator.
  • is your closest ally in the publishing process.

How to Find an Agent

Start online by looking up The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), a not-for-profit organization of qualified literary agents. AAR provides resources to its members and protects the best interests of their clients. AAR agents are obligated to uphold integrity and the highest professional standards in all of their business dealings. Do not consider an agent who does not meet the rigorous standards of the AAR and the National Writers Union (NWU).

Check out on line and print directories. Jeff Herman’s book, Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents, is invaluable. His online directory also lists agents’ e-mail addresses and websites. Writer’s Digest Books Guide to Literary Agents and Literary Market Place (LMP): The Directory of the American Book Publishing Industry are excellent sources and may be all you need.

Hardcover and trade paperback publishers produce catalogs to send to booksellers, libraries, and sales reps, which often include agents’ names and contact information. Browse bookstores shelves in the sections where your book might be. Check the dedication and acknowledgment pages of competitive books to see if the authors have thanked their editors and agents.

Let agents find you by getting your book published or publishing it yourself, then making sure the media knows about it.

And, of course, network, network, network. Go where writers and agents are likely to be, such as writing classes, readings, lectures, seminars, book signings, conferences, and book festivals. Join writers’ organizations, and attend meetings. Talk to people who have been published. Ask if they have used an agent, and don’t hesitate to request referrals. In my experience, writers are generous folks who are more than willing to share such information and support each other.

What do agents want from you?
Agents have different policies about what they want from potential authors. Most agents prefer the initial contact be made in writing. They may want anything from a one-page query letter to an entire manuscript. Check the agent’s policy before making any submission. Obviously, whatever you send should be neat, organized, accurate, and well written. This is your first impression; make it a positive one.

A query letter is a one-page document that must entice the recipient to want to know more about your book. It is by definition concise, so every word must count. Its job, like that of a good resume, is to get you in the door. To do that, it must be informative and inviting — both steak and sizzle. In essence, a query letter is a mini-proposal, an encapsulation of your most salient points on a single piece of paper.

A solid query letter is not something you dash off. It takes a great deal of thought and often many revisions. The agent not only wants to know what your book is about and why you are qualified as the author, but also how well you write. This letter may be the single most important piece of marketing you will do.

How to deal with an agent, once you have one
According to Lori Perkins, author of The Insider’s Guide to Getting an Agent (Writers’ Digest Books), there are ways to treat an agent and ways not to. On the plus side of the ledger are simple courtesies like saying thank you; keeping them posted on developments as they occur; educating yourself about the publishing industry; and, though it should seem obvious, always being completely honest.

On the other hand …

  • Don’t expect miracles or the impossible. It’s in everyone’s best interest to sell your book.
  • Don’t second-guess their decisions. Agents will do everything possible to make you feel special and to get you a good deal.
  • When the deal doesn’t meet your expectations, don’t shoot the messenger.
  • Don’t be pushy about money or contracts. Pressure doesn’t speed up the process.
  • Don’t expect your agent to teach you to write, advance you money, or act as your attorney, therapist, or publicist.
  • Finally, if your agent thinks you need to do more work on your book or proposal, don’t be a prima donna. Ridley Pearson, the best-selling mystery writer, tells a story about a writer he referred to his agent.
  • When the agent suggested some changes, the writer took offense and said no. He never got his book published, by the way.

In this age of specialization, literary agents are no exception. Like doctors, they have specific niches. When you do research, begin with your particular genre. There’s no sense sending a query letter or proposal to someone who is not an expert in that area of nonfiction. Narrowing your search will increase your odds of success.

Bobbi Linkemer is a book coach, ghostwriter, editor, and the author of 16 books under her own name. She has been a professional writer for more than 40 years, a magazine editor, and a book-writing teacher. Her clients include Fortune 100 companies, entrepreneurs, and individuals who want to write books in order to enhance their credibility or build their businesses. Visit her Website at: www.WriteANonfictionBook.com.