I attend lots of writers conferences all over the United States. Almost all of them have “agent panels” where participants ask agents to address their questions. Here are some of the most common. And if you have other questions, send them to me and I’ll try to answer them.
1) Can I send my book to a publisher without being represented by an agent? The legendary publisher, Alfred Knopf, once said “An agent is to a publisher as a knife is to a throat.” Things have changed since then. Now the largest publishers will only accept agented submissions. They expect agents to filter out the projects that are unsuitable for commercial publishing. Publishers believe, probably correctly, that agented submissions as a group are more likely to be of higher quality. Many of the smaller publishers don’t require agent representation.
2) Can an agent get me a bigger advance? Most writers think that an agent is in possession of secret alchemical powers that will get them more money. This is true to a certain extent. Going into negotiations publishers usually have a sense of how much they are willing to pay for a book. An experienced agent will be more likely to know what the publisher’s bottom line is and secure it for you. Otherwise you might find yourself accepting a very modest offer. Book deals and book contracts are loaded with “roadside bombs”. You need to be aware of them or work with someone who is.
3) Other than helping me get more money, what will an agent do? A good agent will earn her commission in a myriad of ways. There are dozens of publishers, big and small, who would serve as good homes for your book. A good agent knows which publishers are appropriate and which editors within the publishing houses would be most open to your project. You don’t want to send your literary novel to an editor who specializes in science fiction.
Most novels and non-fiction book proposals aren’t ready for submission when an agent receives them. A good agent will work editorially on a client’s novel and will improve a book proposal to make it more convincing to a publisher. A good agent will work to enhance a client’s career as a writer and serve as an ally throughout the publication process and after.
A bad agent will do none of these things.
4) How can I tell a good agent from a bad agent? Sometimes you can’t, but here are some things you ought to be aware of. An agent should work for a commission only. If the agent can’t sell your book, he will receive nothing. The biggest red flag signaling bad agents is that they charge money up front for such items as editorial services or reading fees. Don’t work with these agents. Check out the website “Author Beware”. It has good advice about how to avoid unscrupulous agents.
More difficult to assess are agents who are simply too lazy or too busy to provide you with the kind of support you need to find a publisher. Many of these agents are very successful and have a large number of high profile authors they represent. I have frequently worked with extremely talented writers who had been previously represented by one of these “celebrity” agents. Those authors were not served well. One of them, for instance, had written a fine literary novel, a genre difficult to sell. His first agent sent it out to the usual 10 big houses. When the book was turned down, the agent gave up. I loved the book and decided to represent it. I found another 30 publishers who would have made a good home for the book. When you are looking for agents, it is a good idea to ask them if they will go the mile to get your book published, even if the likely advance will be modest.
5) How do I do the research to find the right agent for me? I wrote a blog about this called: “11 Steps to Finding an Agent” which will give you more details. There are several good websites that provide resources for finding agents. My favorite is Agentquery.com. It allows you to do searches based on defined criteria. You can specify that you only want agents who are actively seeking projects in your genre. Once you develop a list of possible agents, you want to go to each one’s website and try to evaluate further whether this agent seems right. Always look for their submission guidelines on their websites but also check out their list of books and authors to see if you are going to be compatible. Watch out though. Agents are inveterate name droppers. And just because they have some big name authors doesn’t mean they won’t be interested in your book.
6) How important is it to have a New York agent, a “celebrity” agent, or an agent from a big agency? As we said above, having a “celebrity” agent may not be right for you. It’s impressive dropping their names at literary parties, but that’s probably not your main objective.
Some authors still think that there is some advantage working with agents in New York. This isn’t true either. In the old days we heard that most book deals were the result of “connections” and were consummated over the famous “publisher’s lunch.” It probably wasn’t true then, and it definitely isn’t true now. The big publishers are all owned by multimedia conglomerates. Editors are under intense pressure to acquire books that will meet the often unrealistic expectations of their corporate bosses. Ask any editor and they will tell you that the single most important element for them in the acquisition decision is a good book proposal. For fiction, it’s all about the story. Of course an author’s previous track record will play an enormous role in the decision.
There are some advantages and disadvantages working with a big agency. Sometimes there is considerable collaboration within the agency and accordingly there may be useful collective wisdom. Some agencies have foreign rights departments or film /tv specialists who can work to sell subsidiary rights. A good independent agent, though, will have a network of foreign and entertainment co-agent specialists who will perform the same services. Regardless of the size of the agency, you need an agent with a passion for your project, a belief in your talent, and the will to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. There are no good agencies or bad agencies. There are only good agents and bad agents.
To be continued. We will ask and answer questions about query letters, book proposals, book deals, commercial vs. self-publishing, and more. Send me your own questions and I’ll try to address them.