The Traditional Path To Being Agented

When you're trying to sell your first novel, you're stuck in a terrible Catch-22: many publishers won't look at your work unless it's represented by an agent, but it's very hard to get a legitimate agent without a published novel under your belt or a publishing offer in hand.

Joe Haldeman once told me that the single best way to get a decent agent is through a combination of shopping your own novel around and networking with other writers. The best way of getting noticed in the slush pile is to have a track record of short story sales -- even a few credits look a whole lot better than none. Novel writing is very different from short story writing; some folks do the one well and the other poorly. However, having short fiction credits shows that you have marketable skill writing fiction. Heck, in some instances the editor might actually recognize your name. Whatever you can do to get your manuscript out of the slush pile and into an editor's hands is a very good thing.

If you're starting to get short work published, joining professional writers' organizations like the National Writer's Union, SFWA or HWA can be a huge help; these organizations will help you develop professional relationships with established authors who've already been around the block a time or two when it comes to agents and who can recommend someone when you've finally got a bite from a publisher. They'll also help steer you clear of known scam artists.

In some instances, these professional organizations offer you other opportunities to get in touch with publishers. For instance, the Horror Writers' Association has set up pitch meetings with book editors at this year's World Horror Convention. While pitch meetings can be a terror some writers don't want to deal with, they can yield very good results for those who present themselves and their work well in person.

When you get an offer back from a publisher, that's the time to call up your author aquaintances and see if they know of decent agents who'll be willing to look over the contract. The 10%-15% agent commission is well worth having someone knowledgeable check the contract to make sure you're getting what you should and, possibly more important, aren't selling away important rights.

Evaluating An Agent

Sometimes, though, you don't have contacts, and you're not a story writer. What then? How do you separate the hordes of scam artists and bogus amateurs posing as legitimate literary agents from the real McCoys?

You should probably look elsewhere if an agent:

You should definitely look elsewhere if an agent:

  • Runs advertisements in writing magazines seeking clients or runs a promotional website to drum up business.

  • Charges a reading or other up-front fee.

  • Won't reveal who his or her clients are.

  • Can't demonstrate that he or she has sold anything to a legitimate commercial publisher.

  • Charges marketing, contract, representation, handling, processing, retainer, or circulation fees -- all this should be covered by their commission. Some legitimate agents do deduct overseas mailing fees from author payouts, though.

  • Is eager to offer you editing services for a fee (see below).

  • Refers you to a book doctor if he or she rejects a manuscript.

  • Owns or works with a vanity press.

There are other factors to consider, of course. Getting data on agents can be hard, which is why it helps to network with experienced authors. A good agent should make most of his or her money off commissions paid after your work finds a home -- if they don't sell your work, they don't get paid. An agent who charges reading fees etc. doesn't have much of an incentive to get your work out there and sold.

For a good free evaluated database of literary agents, visit

Agents as Editors

A lot of scam artists posing as agents work as "book doctors" or covertly run vanity publishing companies; they pretend to be an agent so as to procure business for their press or marketing/editing sidelines. However, a few agents legitimately work as freelance editors for commercial publishers.

How can you tell the one from the other? Check for legitimate credits as an editor and an agent -- the person should be happy to provide them. A legitimate editor/agent should always agent on commission and should never solicit editing business from clients. Professionals know where the lines are drawn, and they keep their businesses separate.

Legitimate Agents Who Just Don't Work Out

An agent who does well for one writer might not do well for another. Sometimes, there's a personality conflict. Or an agent might mishandle a book in a genre that he or she is not familiar with. An agent might work very hard for his or her top-selling writers and almost totally ignore the others. An author I know experienced the latter situation; his manuscripts languished for the three years he was with a particular agent, but after he severed the relationship, he sold six novels on his own.

The key thing is that a good agent will keep the lines of communication open and will provide evidence that he or she is doing what he or she is expected to do. Agents are usually murderously busy, yes, and it doesn't do to be a pest when asking for updates. But you should see progress, and you should feel that an agent is listening to your concerns and taking them seriously.

A good agent is worth his or her weight in gold. In addition to invaluable aid on contract negotiations, he or she will save you a lot of headaches in dealing with troublesome publishers and will generally run interference so that you don't get into a fight with people and generate ill will.

December 2007 Update

I just got my own literary agent, so the above advice is a lot less theoretical than it used to be. I've signed with an agency that has a relatively small list of clients with solid publishing credits. Earlier this year, I had two small-press books published ... which wouldn't have attracted my agent's attention if they were all I had. The market for fiction collections is tough. What attracted him was my as-yet-unpublished first novel, which he deems quite marketable (further edit: and which he in fact sold in May 2008 to Del Rey). He was the second agent I queried; I contacted both on the recommendation of author friends. The first agency, a very big, important group with lots of high-profile authors, never replied to my query. My new agent read my submission quickly and got back to me within a couple of weeks. His speed was possibly due to my other author friend giving him a heads-up, but he's been very prompt with his responses since then.

So, to conclude, if you want an agent:

  1. You must be seeking representation for a novel or book of marketable nonfiction. If you're writing poetry or essays or academic nonfiction, you are unlikely to attract an agent's attention unless you're some kind of celebrity.

  2. It helps to be published. A track record of having actually sold your writing is a whole lot better than nothing at all. It shows you have marketable talent and persistence. And a record of having sold articles is very important if you're trying to sell a nonfiction book. Conversely, many unpublished writers have gotten an agent on the strength of a novel manuscript; however, you can expect that your agent hunt will likely take a whole lot longer than for someone with a publishing record.

  3. It helps to network with published authors. No good agent will take you on purely as a favor to one of their existing clients, but if one of their existing clients tells them about you, your submission may get a more interested reading.

  4. Speaking of submissions, every agent has slightly different requirements. These submissions guidelines will be posted on their agency website, if one exists; if not, query first. Follow the guidelines to the letter. If you're talented but come off as an airhead or prima donna who can't (or won't) follow direction, they'll pass. No agent wants a difficult client unless they're assured of bestsellers.