Writing Wednesdays – Agents, by Sara Hantz

Today I’m talking about something that I’ve been asked about often, and that almost every writer at some time has deliberated on, particularly now when so much in publishing is changing. Having an agent.

Assuming you’ve decided that you’d like to have an agent, undertaking the search for one can be daunting, whether published or not. Finding a good agent, one you click with, has been compared with finding the right marriage partner. It’s an extremely personal decision and one person’s ideal agent is another person’s monster.

A literary agent is your business representative. They will try to sell your manuscript to a publishing house, handle contract negotiations (to get the best deal possible) and act as a go-between between you and the publisher.

An agent will use their insider knowledge to place your manuscript with the right editor. Also, many big publishing houses won’t accept unagented submissions, and even if they do it’s likely your manuscript will end up in a huge ‘slush’ pile. Having said that, many smaller publishers will accept unagented submissions, although most of them will say that agent submissions will be assessed quicker.

Also, when it comes negotiating the deal, a good agent can often obtain a higher advance/royalty rate than authors can for themselves. They can also fight for deal points, remove harmless-sounding but deadly clauses, and are familiar with all the legal issues concerning a publishing contract.

Although there are hundreds, if not thousands, of agents out there, not all of them will represent your genre, so finding out which ones do is a good place to start. This can be done in a number of ways: You can find out who the agent is of other authors writing in your genre – by searching online, or visiting the library or bookshops and looking in the acknowledgements pages of books, where authors often thank their agent. Or you can go to specialist websites such as Agent Query or Query Tracker and gather a list of agents who you think would fit with your requirements. You can also subscribe to Publishers Marketplace which is a huge database full of information about publishing – including deals made, reviews, agents, writers, editors, and publishing news. It costs $20US per month (though they do have a free months trial, which might be sufficient). Alternatively you can subscribe to their free emails Lunch Deluxe and Daily Deals.

Once you have compiled a list of suitable agents, check out their websites, so you can get a better idea of what they’re like and also find out their submission requirements. Remember to follow their guidelines to the letter. Some agents get over twenty thousand queries a year, and from these may only take on three or four clients. So when they’re culling queries, one of their criteria might be people who don’t follow their guidelines.

Another way to find out more about an agent is to visit their blog (if they have one), or follow them on twitter

Agents can take anything from five minutes (if it’s an email query) to more than a year to respond to your query. And in some cases may never respond at all. So, it’s not advisable to query one at a time. Many people will query up to 20 agents, often more, at any one time.

The bad news is, it’s at this stage where many people get stuck. It’s often said that it’s harder to get an offer of representation from an agent than it is a publisher. So, don’t be disheartened if you receive a flow of rejections. Don’t take it personally. It means that your project is not right for that agent at that particular time. Remember, every rejection is taking you one step closer to your goal of being published.

What makes a good agent? A good agent is one who’s willing to share their client list and published books. Be wary of any agent who tells you, either directly or on their website, that their client list is confidential and cannot tell you any books that are in the book stores which he/she has sold.

Good agents will be members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), or state that they adhere to their code of practice.

NOTE OF CAUTION: Agents who ask for reading or editorial fees up front are deemed unethical and you should steer well clear of them. Before signing with any agent I advise you check them out on Preditors and Editors which is a site that gives information about agents and editors, and in particular you can see if any of them are not recommended.

You may be lucky enough to find yourself in the position of having more than one agent to choose from. So how do you know which one is right for you? There is no set rule because it varies from person to person, and depends on personal preferences.

One thing to consider is whether you want an agent who is hands on in terms of editing, or who leaves the writing to you and sends out the book as you submit it to them. You’ll also need to decide whether you want an agent who will simply get you the most money, or one who will help develop your career and help you become a better writer.

What’s an ideal author/agent relationship? Although each agent/writer relationship is unique, there are certain basic requirements of an agent. They should be honest with you, and have your best interests at heart. They should respond to your emails in a timely manner and support you and help build your career and develop your writing skills.

Likewise, as a writer, there are things you should bring to the relationship. You should aim to meet deadlines, honour any contracts, behave in a reasonable manner, realize that you are not their only client, and respect their time.

I hope this has given you an insight into how agents and writers work together. For those of you embarking on an agent search, good luck.

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