Elizabeth wrote to ask, "Can you tell me the basics of how to get an agent, when to get an agent, and how the agent relationship works?"
I have responded to this basic question in the past, so let me repeat some of my old ideas...
First, remember I’m a literary agent, so I'm either "experienced" or "biased," depending on your position. I’ve been in the publishing business for more than 20 years, full time as an agent for the last 14 or so. I made my living as an author and, later, as an editor before I fell away from the Lord and became an agent. I was with one of the top literary agencies in the business for many years, and now I’m out on my own – so I admittedly have my own perspective. Second, I’m pretty successful at what I do, in a business where some people call themselves “agents” but don’t seem to know what they’re doing (and, consequently, don’t last very long), I’m fairly well known in the industry and, by and large, have developed a pretty good reputation (more evidence for the existence of God). Feel free to ask around and see what others say. Third, most people who know me will tell you that I’m not an agent evangelist. I happen to know there are some very good things a literary agent can do for you (no matter what Jon Konrath says), but I’ll be the first one to tell you that not everybody needs an agent. And I’m fairly safe in talking about this because I’ve been saying the same stuff for years. So I’m going to give you my opinion…
When NOT to get an agent:
-When you're not a proven writer. Generally, publishers are looking for great ideas, expressed through great writing, and offered by a person with a great platform. Sometimes they get all three, usually they settle for two of three. (I’ve taken on some unproven writers because I liked an idea or the writing, but understand that I have to work MUCH harder for an unknown author, and get less return, than I do for a proven author… and that's why agents prefer to work with proven authors.)
-When you don't have either a full manuscript (if it’s fiction) or a dynamite proposal and sample chapters (if it’s non-fiction). Without those, you’re simply not ready.
-When you won't let others critique your work. Criticism is how we get better. Why is it the worst writers seem the least ready to listen? (Maybe because in their hearts they know they aren’t that good, and admitting that would hurt their self-esteem… or maybe I’m guilt of psychologizing.)
-When you're not ready for rejection. This is a tough business. Do you have any idea how many times I hear the word “NO” in a week? If you can’t take some rejection, or if you can’t take criticism, or if you can’t take direction, go back to the dry-cleaning business. You obviously aren’t tough enough for the writing biz.
-When you have so much time on your hands you can do everything an agent does. (Right. Like THAT’S going to happen.)
-When you feel like you're "giving away" 15% of your income. I don’t think many of the authors I work with resent my percentage… they know I help them earn more than they’d get on their own. But if you don’t feel that way, you’re probably not ready to work with an agent.
-When you enjoy selling books and negotiating, you know what you're doing with marketing and contracts, you have the relationships with editors to set up your own book deal, AND you don't mind singing your own praises.
When TO get an agent:
-When you have a dynamite proposal that a publisher will fall in love with. The agent should help you find the right house and maximize the deal.
-When you don't know who to go to. An agent should have strong relationships in publishing… ALWAYS ask a prospective agent who he/she represents, ask to talk with some of his/her authors, and ask what deals he/she has done lately. If an agent doesn’t really represent anybody, or hasn’t really done any deals, you have to wonder if they’re really an agent or just playing one on TV. An agent lives or dies on his/her relationships. Make sure you pick somebody who is good at relationships.
-When you don't know about contracts (they are legal documents that govern every aspect of your book for as long as it's in print -- a contract can impact your life for years) or how to negotiate.
-When you don't know what a good deal or a bad deal is.
-When you don't know how to read a royalty statement.
-When you don't know how to market your book.
-When you don't have time on your hands and don't want to negotiate with the publisher yourself.
-When you don’t want to be the person promoting or selling yourself and your work.
-When you need career guidance.
That said, my advice for finding an agent isn't necessarily going to please everyone...
-Go meet agents up close and personal. Attend conferences, make appointments at their office, or connect at a book show. It will give you a feel for what the individual is like.
-Get to know and trust the agent. Again, I think there are a lot of people who claim to be agents but don't really know the business, so make sure you connect with the person one-on-one and ask questions.
-Find out if they like books and if they're good with words. In my view, the best agents are word people first. (That’s an important point. Just because a guy has negotiated contracts doesn’t mean he can help you with ideas or writing or editing or selling.) Ask what they read.
-Ask who they represent, then go check with some of their authors.
-Ask, "How many books have you contracted in the past year?"
-Look for a full-time agent preferably, not somebody who is part agent, part editor, part author, part Amway salesman. More and more I think this is true. Not everybody can be an agent. (Just like not everybody can be an author, a copy-editor, a sales rep, or the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.) So look for somebody who knows the job and is sold out on doing it, rather than somebody who is trying to represent people while also doing a dozen other things.
-Go create a wonderful proposal with good writing and a complete bio. This is really the most important step. Make sure to include your sales history and a market analysis.
-Remember MacGregor’s Law of Agenting: Make sure you LIKE the person. There's nothing worse than having to do business regularly with people you don't like. I LIKE the authors I represent. Most are personal friends. I can’t imagine working in my office, having the phone ring, hearing the receptionist say, “Mr Farnsworth is on the phone,” and me going into a spasm of disgust - “Yikes! Farnsworth! I HATE that guy! Tell him I’m not here!” Life is too short for that sort of BS. I routinely tell authors that I’m not the agent for everyone. My personal style is fairly gentle (believe it or not…I’m not nearly the smart aleck in real life as I appear in print), I’m pretty soft-spoken at meetings (people are often disappointed when they meet me). So I’m not the right guy for a writer who wants Mr. Take-Charge. If you don’t LIKE the individual, don’t hire him.
-Once you settle on someone, make a commitment to work with him or her long term. A good agent should talk with you about your writing career. My goal is to work with the authors I represent for the next 20 years, so we can all retire together and still be friends. That said, always ask if the agent you’re talking to relies on a “term” agreement or an “at will" agreement. My agency agreement is a letter that serves as an at-will agreement. There’s no term -- it starts the day we sign it; it ends when we start calling each other names and throwing manuscripts at each other. (I’ve talked with too many authors who got locked into really bad term agreements -- “I’d like to have you represent me, Chip, but I’m stuck with Mr. Bonehead for the next two years.”)
-Understand that not all agents are alike. One person is a “contracts” guy – his focus is on intellectual property rights law and tough negotiation. Another person is an “editorial” type – her emphasis is on helping you craft a great manuscript. Some agents are “idea” guys (they come up with great ideas), others are “life management” types (they will coordinate your speaking, writing, media, money, even your wardrobe, I suppose). My strengths are in “recognizing great writing” and “career development,” and those are two things I’ve established pretty firmly as my agent identity over the last decade. Figure out what you need in an agent, then determine what the agent’s strengths are. That’ll move you down the path much quicker.
I used to tell would-be agents (1) only represent people you like, and (2) only represent good writers. I've been able to hold to that, and have done really well in the business. The authors I represent are friends, and every one of them can write.
So... can you get published without an agent? Of course you can. You can also sell your house without a realtor and draw up your own will without a lawyer. But you may not want to do any of those things, and it’s getting harder and harder to do them well. In fact, trying to get a career established in publishing without a good agent is an uphill climb. It’s doable, but it’s harder than it used to be. A good agent should help you decide on a salable idea, create a better proposal, and get that proposal in front of the decision-makers who matter. More and more, your agent will help you refine your work, assist you with your marketing, and shape your career... not just get you another book contract.
Whew... maybe that was more than you wanted. Hope it helps.