Literary Agent

Somebody famous said it.  I'm sure of it.  I think it was a guy, and I'm pretty sure he was a writer. 
          He(?) said, "Don't get an agent until you are making enough to afford a good one, because 10% of nothing is nothing."

          Essentially, a literary agent's job is to say, "Okay, you write.  I'll distract 'em!"  Agents act as a buffer between you and those publishers seemingly  compelled to say "No!" to any question asked them.  They sniff out Mr. Grinch clauses from contracts.  They are marketing managers. They walk into your life to handle the business side of writing after you have become so successful you no longer have time to write and sell.  You need one when the percentage of his commission from your sales is big enough to snag his attention and when your schedule demands outweighs the expense.
          You don't need one for short stories. 
          You don't need one for a first novel.
          You don't need one to get your book on the Amazon Kindle Store.


          Picking an agent ranks somewhere around the difficulty level of teaching cats to whistle.  Otherwise reputable resources swell with the names of No-License-Required professionals promising that with minimal effort you'll quit your day job and be a millionaire and fart nothing but rainbows and roses.  So, the first disadvantage is that you can easily get scammed.
          Even if they are legitimate, no agent can guarantee you will get a book deal.  Your manuscript being on the right desk at the right time still dominates all other factors, including your talent.
          Will an agent steal my story?  Maybe.  Probably not, though, especially since the income of the average successful writer places him somewhere below the poverty line.  Being a honest agent probably pays more.
          The good news is that some warning signs exist.  Harlan Ellison said, "Money always flows toward the writer."  If they are asking for any upfront charges, such as a "reading fee" (sometimes polished with the less threatening epithet of "expenses") they probably will do little else than relieve you of that pesky disposable income always lying around.  The same goes for suggesting an editorial service.  Professional agents have enough experience to spot the weaknesses in your book.  They would simply ask you for a rewrite.


          You need an agent.  No other choice.I know, you're probably wondering right now whether I actually read the first few paragraphs of this post.  The truth is most big publishing houses will not accept unagented material.  Editors don't have time to slog through the stacks of manuscripts written by wide-eyed gonna-be writers who have not yet figured out that opening with "It was a dark and stormy night," is not the height of originality.
          Of course, this creates a Catch-22: How do I get published without an agent?  You make noise in the publishing world.  You get accepted by anthologies and magazines (the few remaining) frequently enough your name starts getting remembered.  You submit quality work to Amazon and learn as much as you can about marketing so that your ebook sales get noticed.  Then, you use these events as collateral to approach an agent.
          Agented manuscripts skip the slush pile.  The slush pile is the haystack and your manuscript is the needle.  It is the bottom level of any publishing house where sits the vast stacks of unrepresented submissions, most of which are not yet professional quality.  The slush pile provides the reason most publishers refuse unagented material. For those rarities who still do (or temporarily open for unsolicited work), a junior-level editor slips your manuscript from its 4th-class manila envelope just far enough to read the first paragraph, before immediately tossing it into the recycle bin. If an SASE happens to fall out, the editor will kindly add a "Your material does not meet our needs at this time" to your form letter collection.
          When an agent is involved, you benefit from the fact that your representative might be on a first-name basis with the person directly responsible for getting your material onto store shelves. It is human nature to be more likely to buy from someone we know and trust.  At very least, the editor looks at the contact information and thinks, "Hm, this is one of Shirley's clients. She's a sharpshooter for hitting Amazon sales. Let's see if her newest keeps me turning pages after the first chapter."  If the editor accepts the submission, the agent then helps leverage the quality of your life for the next year -- namely money.
          Chris Rock said that the definition of minimum wage is "I would pay you less but it is against the law." Like any business, publishers exist to make the highest profit possible, not to pay writers more than the value of their product.  An agent negotiates higher advances, movie deals, and generally ensures you are not paid less than the value of your product.
          But long before the talks of royalties and foreign rights, agents help mold you into a better writer.  Their income depends on how good you really are. They have enough experience to know what sells.  They are not your well-meaning spouse or your mother and less likely to gush platitudes like, "Sweetie, you're so talented!" and more likely to say things like, "Um, you know your burly, profanity-spewing homicide detective?  Your target audience is not going to accept him with the name Bubbles."

Finding an Agent

          Landing an agent is a lot like landing a publisher.  Most provide submission guidelines, as to whether they wish to see the entire manuscript or the first three chapters and an outline.  They may prefer not to receive electronic submissions.  Research before sending. 
          Several publications offer good places to start.  Each year Writer's Digest Books publishes the Writer's Market, and Information Today Inc. prints an equally good counterpart, the Literary Marketplace.  Note, however, the copyright of the book as these listings can become dated quickly.
          On the Net, aims to be (as stated on their website) " the only one-stop writer’s resource on the web about literary agents and publishing."  They host a database of 900 agents that can be searched by genre or keyword.  Best of all, you do not have to register to search.

          The quest for a literary agent is an exercise in patience.  It is part of the apprenticeship period, providing an opportunity to learn how publishing works as opposed to the popular romantic view of being a writer.  You'll be grateful to be armed with this experience when your time comes.

* UPDATE (12/28/2012):  A kind and observant reader reminded me that not all publishing houses refuse un-agented manuscripts. Small publishers in fact are often quite willing to work directly with the author.  So, thanks for keeping me on my toes Lissa.

UPDATE (05/21/2014):   The advice in this post has become dated.  With the advent of indie publishing, just about everything in the industry is in flux now.  I personally think this is a good thing.  To quote Dean Wesley Smith, who is a hybrid author with 30 years of experience, “Agents are not writers, agents can’t help you rewrite, and they only know about six or seven editors and nothing at all about the new world of indie publishing.”


  1. Why don't you need an agent for your first novel?

    I may be ready to submit my novel in 2013, but I'm fortunate to have a few ins where I won't need an agent. One is from going to a writer's conference and getting a request to send, and the other is a place called Evolved Publishing, which doesn't use agents. It's "small press," but growing. Angry Robot Books also has a month where they accept unsolicited manuscripts, though I can't remember if that is recurring, or not. They've also gone from any genre, to fixed, with last year's being epic fantasy, I believe.

    All that said, I'm still not decided on agent or self publish. If it's good enough, I should be able to self publish and let word of mouth create a fan base that would garner the attention of a large publishing house once the right deal comes along (see Hugh Howey recently signing with Simon and Schuster).

    The question for me is whether I want to make an advance (assuming that would be it as a new author), or taking my chances self publishing and keeping all my rights.

    Have you heard about some of the restrictions big publishers put on your ability to write and sell other books while in their contract?

    The main draw to big publishing is the credibility inherent in their company on your title. You'd hope this means your book is on their website and newsletter, which may reach more readers than your circle of friends on Facebook.

    That's my two cents. Thankfully, I'm not at this point yet of needing an agent. Good advice, though, for someone who is.

  2. Wow! Excellent comment, Tim. You've obviously done your homework.

    The main reason an agent is unnecessary for a first novel is to give the fledgling novelist experience with the business side of the industry and how to approach publishers. An agent will take a lot that out of your hands, and this is an area where you want to be strong. Also, it is extremely difficult for an unpublished novelist to land an agent (a reputable one, at least), because he hasn't proven himself yet. If this was your first novel and you already had a contract in hand, this might peak some interest for representation.

    Big publishers placing restrictions on writers moonlighting doesn't surprise me. I mean, you wouldn't expect Michael Jordan to suddenly start promoting Reebok. It protects the publisher from being auctioned off, as well.

    My advice for a first novel is to publish it through Kindle or a small press. (Some of the pros are going the small press route because they keep a higher percentage of sales.) Granted, the Kindle market is saturated, but that's where you learn everything you can about marketing. This will pull your book into the leader of the pack (with some luck too, as is always the case). The big houses notice high sales on Amazon. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me (sooner rather than later) that they don't start requiring new authors to provide a resume of Amazon sales to lessen the risk they are taking.

    Again, thanks.

  3. Back in 2007 I published my first novel through a shady small press. Still, sales for my first book were decent. Then, life happened, and my writing took a backseat for a long time. Earlier this year, I basically started over again, and self published a new novel. I consider it my first novel even though it's not. I'm more determined than ever now not to let my writing take a backseat anymore. I'm not quite ready to query an agent yet. But thanks for the advice! Great post!

    1. Yes, it is unfortunate that small press can be just as shady as any other business relationship in which a person places her trust. I am glad that you dove back in with a new novel. I firmly believe that we create our own reality, so keep seeing yourself succeeding. As Edison said, "I didn't fail one thousand times. The light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps." Good luck.

  4. I'm not that surprised that "It was a dark and stormy night" is not considered an original story opener, it's very cliche. When writing a story or anything really you want to start it with a literary hook, and generally a cliche is not the best way to grab your audience attention.
    I prefer writing short stories, so I won't be needing an agent anytime soon.
    Also it might be a good idea to consider any entries, both winning and rejected, made into a writing contest as background experience in your writing portfolio.

    1. Sage advice. There are two schools of thought about the opening hook. One says they are pretentious and the writer inevitably fails to live up to the promise. I on the other hand love a well-written hook. I look forward to the gooseflesh when I read something surprising and know this author just grabbed me by the collar and is going to drag me deliriously excited through his roller coaster.

  5. I'm coming back to my writing after a long hiatus. My goal this year is to clean up the 3 or 4 novels I have in very incomplete states and see if I can get one or more of them totally and completely finished.

    I really liked your mention of the Kindle (and Nook by extension?) market. I've debated for a while now whether or not I should publish stories on one of the various "app stores". Could you suggest some resources I could tap for cover design, to look as professional and interesting as possible?

    Even though I shouldn't, I *still* judge a book by its cover!

    Thanks, from a new reader,


    1. Welcome back to writing, Anne! About a decade ago, I took one of those hiatuses myself, which I recount in “Writing: Don’t Waste Your Time.” At least for me, it has taken a while to get the engine turning again, writing every day, but I’m working on it. Good luck.

      Yes, ebook publishing is opening a new world for writers. I feel as if we are entering a new Golden Age. Kindle is not the only outlet. Others are Nook, Smashwords, Lulu, Kobo, . . . the list is huge. Kindle it still dominates, though.

      As far as cover designs, there are many services on the Web. I can’t personally recommend any, because I really have little experience with them. My first choice would be a local graphic designer or good digital artist. If you know any personally, you would be helping out a friend as well as your local art community. Just about any book or SF convention will feature such artists, as well. If you see or know someone whose work you like, talk with them. Artists are usually very approachable and eager to toss around ideas.

      Also, I have spoken with a novelist friend of mine, Deborah Cota, who has quite a bit of experience with e-publishing, including cover design. She has agreed to write a future guest blog about her experiences as soon as she gets a break in her schedule. I am sure she will offer lots of valuable information that we can all look forward to.