The old saying goes in this business that it’s tougher to get a good literary agent than to make a sale to a publisher. And in reality, that’s pretty much the case. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? These folks aren’t in the business for grins.
Agents are the front line in vetting a manuscript. They wade through piles and piles of often terrible stuff (how many writers think their manuscripts are perfect and need no editing/critique? Especially in this day of self-publishing) to find a gem or two buried in the muck. And even then, that gem almost always needs work. The manuscript that is completely ready to go is that proverbial one in a million.
But when a reputable agent takes on a manuscript (or, as many do, a writer and all of her works), he has a good idea of where to submit it—to which house, which imprint, which editor. And in the back of his mind, he believes he can sell it. Remember, real agents don’t make a dime until they actually do sell your work. So, think of all the time and effort that goes in before making the publishing deal. Boggles the mind, actually.
Do they know what’s going to sell for absolute certain? Of course not. Many of the agents I work with are alternately surprised when something sells better than they thought, or chagrined that a work they believe in whole-heartedly hasn’t sold. For the record, the editors at big houses I know go through the same thing So much of this business is truly subjective, from the first portal to the final destination—readers.
But pretty much, they know. Agents have their own niches, and though they sometimes go outside of those niches, that’s fairly rare.
So, how can you find a good agent?
1). Make sure your manuscript is truly the best it can be. And that doesn’t mean that Aunt Martha, who used to teach English, has a clue to that answer. She doesn’t. You have to work with someone inside the industry, who knows the business, to bring your writing and your book up to publishing standards. There are many ways to do this (another topic entirely!), but just be certain that yours is as nearly perfect as it can be.
2). Know the market. That’s the agent’s job, right? Nope, it’s yours. It’s your responsibility to find the right agent for your genre; one who specializes in what you’re writing; one who has sold your kind of book. And be able to tell him exactly that in the opening line of your query letter.
3). Settle in for the long haul. Because this takes a lot of time. Especially in today’s tough market, most of the agents I know aren’t even taking unsolicited manuscripts. A book has to be referred. Or, they have to meet you at a conference and be intrigued by your pitch.
4). Attend Literary Conferences. This is the best place in the world for networking. Cherry Weiner of The Cherry Weiner Literary Agency doesn’t even take queries from writers she hasn’t met in person. But she has taken on a lot of clients whom she met at literary conferences. “When meeting and spending time at a conference, the first thing that is important,” Ms. Weiner says, “is—is there a connection. Can the author and I work together. Next, by the author telling me the genre, word count and story line I can tell immediately if it will work as is, if it needs more or less words, and if the topic is something that I can relate to or deal with. Meeting people first makes things a lot easier and somewhat less work for a very backlogged person.”
5). Get referred. Most of the agents I know are taking referral-only for new writers. Tricky, no? Number 4 above is helpful, but if you can’t go to a lot of conferences, other paths exist.
* Do you know a published author whom this agent represents? Ask for a referral
* Work with a developmental editor who has connections to agents, and can open that door for you
6). Finally, be respectful but not awed. Literary agents really are just folks, who deal with the written word and sales. I know a lot of them, and they’re just trying to make a living, as is everyone else, and happen to do it via the love of good books. On the other hand, I know how frustrating it can be to get those rejections, but don’t attack the messenger. If an agent doesn’t take you on, do not write back what a lousy sob he is (you would be amazed at how often this happens). Because if so, you’ve just burned a bridge that five years from now may have taken you to that pot of gold.
Elusive beasts, these Literary Agents. But if you perfect your craft, have the right book at the right time, do your homework, approach them in a business-like fashion, and keep at it, one just might be yours!