Mincemeat: on writing
  "The only reason for being a professional writer is that you just can't help it."
Salman Rushdie

Agent Advice; or, My Best Guess

Do you have some agent questions? I wish I had easy answers for you, but hereís the best I can figure.

"Do I need an agent to get published?"

No, certainly not. Is it easier? Most certainly. An agent (that is, a good agent*) knows major editors, lives in New York City and has lunch with them, knows whoís looking for what kinds of stuff, can submit to multiple publishers at once, can phone or email them directly to ask how the read is going, has knowledge of publishing houses you might not have heard ofÖ In addition, an editor might be more likely to take a submission from an agent seriously than one from the slush pile because someone in the know (the agent) has already read it and recommended it.

"If itís such an advantage to have an agent, then why doesnít everyone have one?"

Maybe because itís not easy to find representation. Many agents already represent as many authors as they can handle, most receive an appalling number of query letters every week and canít possibly agree to look at all those manuscripts (mss). Itís a financial risk for an agent to take on a new writer, as first books rarely make an agent any money, and they invest a great deal of time as well as money (making copies, Fed Ex, etc.) to find you a publisher. Itís HARD. And you have much sympathy from me in the frustrations of your search. For an excellent example of someone who was unagented and published from the slush pile, see Linda Sue Park's personal experience.

"Do you have an agent?"

Yes, I do. Itís possible that the goose girl might have been published without one, but even with an agent, it was turned down nine times. On my own, I wouldíve been submitting to fantasy publishers for an adult audience, but my agent identified my book as being firmly in the young adult camp and went that route. I asked my editor at Bloomsbury if she wouldíve bought my book from the slush pile and she said yes, but on my own I donít know if I ever would have thought to send it to Bloomsbury. Without my agent, I might still be looking for an adult fantasy publisher.

"How do I go about finding an agent?"

You query an agent.
  • Find agents listed in the resource guide Writerís Market or Childrenís Writerís Market.
  • Figure out who represents your favorite authors or those who write in a similar genre as you do. If youíve read and loved some of the books the agent represents, it might not hurt to mention that. Itíll show the agent that youíve done your research and are not just querying all agents A-Z, and it might mean you have like minds.
  • Meet an agent at a conference and if you seem to connect, ask her if you can send her your ms.

"How do I write a query letter?"

There are lots of books that can tell you better than I, and I highly recommend you take time to research and write it. But here are a few tips that might help.
  • Your query letter reflects your writing ability. A common mistake many writers make is to spend two years writing a book and 10 minutes writing a query letter. That query letter had better be polished, proofread, and pretty darn compelling to catch an agentís eye.
  • Be straight forward and sound like yourself. Overwrought language and salesperson lingo are sure to turn an agent off. Self-praise or outlandish claims like "My story is subtly, sweetly sorrowful, yet rises on the wings of hope" and "Iím the next J.K. Rowling" are sure to land your letter in the trash bin.
  • Donít make those stupid mistakes, like leaving off an address or name or other essential info.
  • Always include an SASE.
  • (You didnít hear this part from me:) Even if the agentís listing in Writerís Market or elsewhere says, "Query only," include at least the first two pages of your book. Some agents are willing to look at as much as the first three chapters of an unsolicited ms. If your writing grabs them, agents will be more willing to take a risk and look at a complete ms. Therefore, your first two pages had better be pretty darn good.
Thereís a lot more to be said about query letters. Do take the time to research before writing yours.

"How do I write a compelling plot synopsis?"

Boy, if you figure it out, let me know. Some people have a knack for elucidating their story in a way that you get a sense of it, not just the plot but the feel and tone of it. Others (me) struggle. Definitely keep it to one page or youíll just annoy the agent. There are books out there on writing the book synopsis, too.

"What will make an agent more likely to want to represent me?"

Put yourself in her shoes. Imagine you can only pay the rent when your clients are making money. First books make very little money, so their agents make 15% of very little money. Which novice writer would you be more willing to take a risk on? (hint: thereís really only one correct answer on this one, folks)

Person A: "I just got out of college and had some free time over the summer and I thought, Hey, Iíll write a book! It was pretty fun, and I think it turned out great. Do you want to read it?"
Person B: "My wife and I like to tell stories to our kids at night and we decided to write one of them down. Our kids love it and so does my sister, who has an English degree and really good taste."
Person C: "I have published two short stories in small literary journals, but my real passion is young adult historical fiction. I am a great fan of Katherine Paterson, Kimberly Heuston (who I know you represent), and Richard Paul Curtis. I am currently writing a sequel to my novel Flimflam Girls and am researching ancient Jakarta as the setting of a future novel."

Key point: Agents are interested in representing professional writers. Wouldnít you be, too?

"Can I talk to/meet/solicit your agent?"

Thereís nothing stopping you! His name and address are on my website. But know that everyone I've recommended to my agent or editor was turned down. Don't put all your eggs in the same basket, and all that.

*Check out the excellent information at sfwa.org, Writer Beware. In fact, I'd recommend not taking any steps toward finding or accepting an agent until you have.

Return to On Writing