Agents — Who Needs Them?

By Apryl Duncan

Many authors, especially first-timers, think a literary agent is someone you associate with names like Stephen King, Judith Krantz and John Grisham. Truth is, having an agent handle your work really depends on your own personality.

Before taking on an agent, you have to first evaluate yourself. Are you the type of person that has to do everything yourself or can you hand off important responsibilities to others?

You have to be willing to trust your agent. Trust that he or she is out there negotiating with publishers for you. Trust that your money will be collected, 10 to 20 percent taken off the top for your agent’s fee and then the rest sent to you promptly. You even have to trust your agent to choose the right publisher for you . . . even if it’s not a major one.

Before you decide you’d rather do all the legwork yourself, consider this: Agents are a powerful force in the publishing world.

On your own, you could send out your manuscript to 10 different publishing houses. But an agent has an insider’s view of what those 10 currently need. This helps you eliminate a waste of time and money sending out your manuscript to a publisher that’s not interested from the start.

Agents target the right publisher for your manuscript. They know the editors. Have lunch with them. See them in social settings. It’s a more casual approach than a hard sell.

Publishers also consider agents a valuable resource because they weed out manuscripts that aren’t ready to go. This saves the publisher the extra effort of having to slave through a pile of manuscripts for the one that screams, “Jackpot.”

Another advantage of having an agent is the money factor. Many writers are so anxious to see their work in print, they tell the publisher money doesn’t matter. Be glad that, for agents, money does matter. They’re motivated to get you the best deal. On your manuscript. On advances. Even on paperback and foreign sales.

And they don’t stop there. While turning your novel into a movie is a long-shot, an agent does have connections in New York and Hollywood that can help turn your dream into a reality.

Unfortunately, many authors are scared off by the 10 to 20 percent cut for the agent’s commission. But after the negotiation process, most authors find they do better with an agent even after a 20 percent cut.

Now if you’re ready to find an agent, don’t think it’s as simple as opening the phone book and hiring a plumber. Most literary agents reject 98 percent of materials that come across their desk. The market has tightened so much that agents can literally pick and choose the manuscripts they want to represent.

To increase your chances of landing an agent, research the agents you want representing you and your work. Then prioritize a list of the ones you’re most interested in. Make sure your choices accept the type of work you write. If you like to dabble in the different genres, search for an agent that handles all types of fiction.

Also, consider an agent’s member associations. The Association of Authors’ Representatives Inc. (AAR) keeps its agent members informed of changes in the publishing, movie and television industries. Agents must subscribe to the organization’s Canon of Ethics and meet certain eligibility requirements in order to become a member.

While narrowing your list of agents, pay careful attention to their submission requirements. If an agent says No Phone Calls, they really do mean no phone calls.

You’ll also find out how they want your information. Some may want a query. Others may want to see your sample chapters and book proposal.

Agents aren’t just for big-name authors. With a little research and a strong manuscript, you can find an agent that will help you reap the benefits of being published.

This article originally appeared on FictionAddiction.net. Reprinted with permission.

Apryl Duncan is the founder of FictionAddiction.NET, an award-winning site for fiction writers and readers. She is an author, workshop instructor and professional freelance writer who enjoys writing everything from mystery novels to how-to articles on the writing craft.

Book Review: An Agent’s Point of View By Sheri Williams

Reviewed by Amy Brozio-Andrews

In her new book An Agent’s Point of View, Sheri Williams shares her insight and advice with writers who are either looking for an agent, or seeking a positive working relationship with their agent. In a short 73 pages, Williams gives tips and examples on writing queries and book proposals. She gives us a peek at real emails and letters she’s received at an agent at Williams Agency, and points out what each of these writers did right and wrong.

An Agent’s Point of View also includes a chapter on etiquette (otherwise known as how to prevent your letter or proposal from immediately being sent to the circular file) as well a comprehensive look at what editors expect of writers, and what writers can expect from their editors, addressing common concerns and problems on both sides of the editor/writer relationship. Williams’ book also offers a glossary of terms that will help new writers find their footing before sending their work to editors, as well as a list of helpful online resources including writing websites, grammar help and market information for poets, novelists, screenwriters and more.

Williams writing style is straightforward yet friendly. Readers will feel like they’re really getting an behind-the-scenes look at the world of editors — what they like to see in queries and proposals, how they like editors to approach them, and what happens after the editor agrees to represent the writer. She pulls no punches, and makes it clear exactly what works for editors, and what could cause them to pass over a query or proposal without a second glance.

The book is especially helpful to aspiring writers because she includes a complete query and book proposal for readers to use as examples in developing their own. Williams lays out all the parts of each piece, and explains all the components of a successful writer’s pitch. With a copy of An Agent’s Point of View, it’s like having your own personal agent looking over your shoulder, pointing out all the things you’re doing right (and wrong).

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. She brings more than five years’ experience as a readers’ advisory librarian to her work, which is regularly published by Library Journal and The Imperfect Parent. Her reviews have also been published by The Absinthe Literary Review, ForeWord Magazine, January Magazine, and Melt Magazine.

Backspace Writers Conference

Pen nibJust a reminder to those of you thinking about attending Backspace Writers Conference in May, you’ll get an early registration discount if you register before February 1.

(In the interests of full disclosure, Backspace does advertise with AbsoluteWrite on occasion, but this is not a paid post, and I’ve personally heard really excellent things about this conference.)

This is a terrific opportunity for agents and writers to find each other. From the Backspace FAQ:

Both the Agent-Author Seminar and the 2010 Backspace Writers Conference offer access to agents so that authors can talk about their project, get a feel for the agents’ personalities and interests, and learn from the agents’ cumulative knowledge and experience. We offer workshops, not pitch sessions, which means that while an author can get their work in front of agents, if the agents feel it’s not yet ready (or if your opus is not quite finished), authors haven’t burned any bridges. The agents know that based on what authors learn at the conference, they might want to take another pass through their manuscript before they submit it. So while ideally, authors will be coming to the seminar with a finished manuscript in hand, they can still connect with agents and learn from their feedback, even if their work is not quite finished.

Writers generally have to do a lot of self-educating about both writing craft and the publishing industry. Conferences like Backspace Writers Conference can offer an excellent set of resources for a writer’s continuing education and professional network.

Interview: Miriam Goderich, Vice President Jane Dystel Literary Management

By Laura A. Hazan

The song New York, New York goes something like this: “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.” That pretty much sums up the feelings of many writers, too. Breaking into the elusive New York publishing world equals success, and the highly sought after New York literary agent is the first step to making it there.

Obtaining a New York agent isn’t easy, but it is possible with concise, error-free queries, a well-written story and a professional demeanor, advises Miriam Goderich. She should know—she is a New York literary agent. Goderich, Vice President, Dystel and Goderich Literary Management (DGLM), started as an assistant to Dystel and 13 years later is her partner in the agency. DGLM has over 300 clients, between 100–150 are active.

Goderich and the three other agents at JDLM receive 300–400 queries a week. “People overdo it,” Goderich said. A professional one-page query letter with some precise details about the project and relevant information about the author, free of typos and grammatical errors, will be given proper consideration. Complete submission requirements are available on www.dystel.com.

Goderich feels that the query letter is one of the most important documents in the publishing process. She recommends having letters, outlines and synopsis proofread and critiqued just like a manuscript. Many of JDLM’s queries are unsolicited; others come from referrals and contacts made through conferences. Be patient, JDLM will respond to every query they receive, but it may take 3–4 weeks.

Goderich knows she wants to see the complete manuscript when that one letter “sticks in my mind. If I’m still thinking about the concept or the character a day or two later I know I need to see more.” Once JDLM receives the complete manuscript it may take up to 6 months for them to decide to represent it, especially for an unpublished writer.

“It is harder to sell them to publishing houses. Publishers want return on investment,” and with new writers there is little guarantee that will happen. New writers also present other challenges, such as “educating them on various aspects of the industry” Goderich explained. “Like any business, with some experience you know what to expect, what to ask and what to do.” Unpublished writers simply need more guidance.

Nonfiction works dominate JDLM’s client list (available on dystel.com). “Nonfiction is about 80 times easier to sell then fiction,” Goderich said. Most agencies survive on their nonfiction sales. As a writer of nonfiction “all you need is the proper credentials and a good idea,” Goderich explained. Fiction needs a compelling storyline, terrific characters and, to show that the rest of the novel will hold up, it “really does need a good opening. A great opening is not always about the writing, it can be about setting or characters,” Goderich said. On rare occasions if a manuscript has a strong character but a weak story or vice versa, Goderich might make suggestions and ask to see the manuscript again. She has even come across manuscripts with solid writing that don’t work for the agency at that time and “told the writer that I would love to see anything else they do.”

JDLM sells about 90 books a year. Together with their clients, JDLM agents edit and revise manuscripts to ensure that a strong project is being presented to the marketplace. They are currently marketing mainstream and literary fiction, and their nonfiction areas of interest are parenting, cooking, nutrition, politics, health and women’s issues. “The market is great, we’e done well this year. Even fiction is doing better,” Goderich stated. Occasionally “publishers come up with ideas and call us looking for a writer,” Goderich said. While this is not a common occurrence, it demonstrates the importance of a well-connected agent.

Goderich advises writers to do their homework before contacting an agent. Read the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market or check their website– make sure they market what you write, and if possible, stick with agents that are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). “AAR is a good way to weed out fly-by-night agents and those that charge reading fees. As a writer you should never pay reading fees. AAR will also answer questions you may have about an agency,” she stated.

Goderich also suggests writers read everything, to help keep current and generally aware of what is being published. She also recommends reading other recent works of fiction and nonfiction because reading good writing often benefits the project a writer is working on. “We even have a book club in our agency to help us keep up on newly published works,” she said.

“The center of the publishing community is New York. It is an old-fashioned sort of business with a lot of face-to-face meetings and lunches,” Goderich explained. That sort of networking is why a New York literary agent is so important.

Keep sharpening those queries and maybe you will find yourself represented by a New York agent and one step closer to making it there.

After years of being surrounded by books in her career as a librarian, Laura Hazan has taken a hiatus to write a book of her own. Laura is currently working on her first novel and pursuing opportunities in freelance writing.