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Ask a Literary Agent

by Susan Henderson on July 9, 2008

I’m thinking it’s time to bring a literary agent to LitPark, but I want you to be a part of the interviewing process.

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Many of you know how difficult and demoralizing it is to try to get an agent. Some of you have been trying for years – cold-querying, reducing your beautiful manuscripts to dreaded single-page summaries, and sending the first fifty pages to one stranger after another.

Many of you are past that stage, and now you are stuck with aloof agents who don’t return your emails, or sweet but completely ineffective agents who have told you things like, “I’m sorry. Your manuscript is all shopped out.”

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Do you really need an agent these days? What about all the folks right here at LitPark, who sold their manuscripts to respected publishers without any middlemen at all?

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Well, now’s your chance to share your opinions, vent your frustrations, and ask all the questions you’ve been saving up. And in November (or thereabouts), I’ll bring an agent to the park to give some answers.

Have at it in the comments section.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

lance_reynald July 8, 2008 at 11:38 pm

hmm.
being one of the agentless, yet respectably signed…ahem.

do you need them? maybe not.

but…

throughout the process I’ve thought it would be nice to have a great one on my side.

by great I think one savvy enough to help manage my career a bit, and shield me from some of the tedious stuff that comes with all the great stuff.

I’m happy with everything so far, but… sometimes I think just having that middleman there to do all the tedious stuff might just free me up to get a little more work done.

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Nathalie July 9, 2008 at 7:32 am

Actually I would tend to share Lance’s opinion because where I grew up, an agent was only something for show business artists. I would hazard the guess that it is still very much like this still, although writers who are in demand might need to have one to manage their career (in the same way a stage artist would). But maybe my conception of what is an agent and what they are doing is warped…

So what does an agent do exactly, over at your place?

Since I cannot find the time to try and find publishers for my work – beyond a few on-line publications – I am thinking that maybe an agent could be some help in this. But then again if finding an agent turns out being just as bad than finding a publisher, it is a no go.

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Aurelio July 9, 2008 at 9:54 am

It is not clear to me what an agent does, or is supposed to do. Perhaps different agents do different things? Some do more than others? So, my first question is, is there an industry standard for what agents actually do?

One best-selling writer I know recommends skipping an agent and hiring a publicist instead. I think this is fine for her, already being famous and all, but I’m not sure this is good advice for the rest of us literary plebes, and frankly, it came off a bit Marie Antoinette to me.

An agent on MySpace claims they primarily negotiate the deals, and one can get a much better deal through an agent than on one’s own. I have heard this from other sources too, but wouldn’t a good lawyer be able to do the same thing? And wouldn’t this require agents to also be lawyers, so their clients don’t get legally screwed? (Since agents expect a cut, I would think it requires them to get their clients better deals.)

I know HarperCollins won’t even accept manuscripts unless they come through an agent (because they told me so, and even though my manuscript for EVE had been personally recommended to them, they still insisted I send it through an agent. Not having an agent or being able to immediately secure one, I sent it through my entertainment attorney, but I could tell this made a bad impression.) I assume this means all the majors function similarly, so if this is true, then having an agent seems necessary if you want to get your book to a big publishing house, no?

One complaint I’ve heard from others with agents is that their agents try to become co-writers, or editors, giving them notes and insisting on changes before they’ll pitch the manuscript. This seems wrong to me, but I’ve heard it from a few different sources, so I am assuming this is common practice–but is it? And, is it right?

(I’m pretty sure I’ll have more questions to add later.)

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SusanHenderson July 9, 2008 at 11:19 am

These are wonderful and unexpected comments/questions. Keep ’em coming!

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Xujun July 9, 2008 at 11:46 am

I had an agent for over a year but things did not work out. I can never figure out what you are supposed to do when she does not answer your email questions, or when she schedules a call and you don’t dare to go anywhere all day but the call never comes and no explanation ever given. And I can’t figure out what questions are appropriate or inappropriate. Or does she really mean it when she sends you an one-word email reply such as “Fantastic!” ? Or what does it mean (good or bad) when she says she needs time to edit your manuscript but you never see any edits at all?

I think we do need agents but the question is how to find a good one (or right one).

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass July 9, 2008 at 12:26 pm

I think it must be extraordinarily hard to be an agent. I liken it to this: When I browse bookstores and the library, I am always on the look-out for a great gem of a book. I will pick-up and lay down dozens of books, sometimes leaving the bookstore or library with nothing. All of those books and nothing sparkles enough to capture my interest.

So when agents get hundreds of queries and have dozens of requested manuscripts to review, I imagine he/she’s like that. Mining for that gem.

Some agents, however, have a finer eye in perceiving the gem buried within the vein. I think this is what distinguishes agents one from another. Some will accept uncut gems and help the author cut and polish the manuscript, while others won’t consider a manuscript that isn’t market ready. I think that agents who will help authors shape their manuscripts invest in the author as much as the book.

I’m looking for an agent who believes in me as an author as much as he/she believes he/she can sell my book. There. I said it.

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Heather_Fowler July 9, 2008 at 1:52 pm

When I think about having an agent, I think about wanting someone who will sell all of my work, not working astronomically hard to find a one project pimp, per se– but I’ve recently heard that it’s possible to have a book represented by an agent and therefore have “representation” but that the same agent will not represent other books of the author (in the same genre, like “novel”) because he or she (the agent) may not have a publisher contact to pitch the other manuscript to due to a different niche market–i.e. one book is literary modern, one book is historical fiction–is this common?

What does it all mean, Basil? *grins* I suppose this means that an author who wants all of his or her books out should likely have multiple agents(?) or wait to get as big as someone like Stephen King where you can hypothetically decide to publish a pamphlet on foot fungi and all will be well? Also, I have a friend who has an agent here and one in the UK–that’s interesting… Is this common?

Personally, as I edit my novel and work on two more, I’d love to hear the exact nuts and bolts of the process of people who were bold enough to enter the marketplace without an agent and succeed. I.e. how did they pick which houses might be receptive, what exactly did they send, is there a bible about doing this anywhere, did they carpetbomb copies of their manuscript and move with blind hope regarding certain venues, what did they learn not to do, etc?

I’m all for having an agent if that means that I just review, approve, self-publicize, do readings, get more money for each book, and write more with less focus on the business end–but I’ve also heard that soliciting an agent with a book you sold unagented (non-vanity) and a query about another book is something that impresses an agent –and that many may hook up with one after having become “a published author” of a booklength work. Curious what your visiting agent would say about that. 🙂 For or against? Also, I’ve known writers to go through huge lagtimes and multiple agents when one isn’t responsive or doing his or her job—what a horror that must be. My question for the agent who visits would be: What should an author look out for as potential negatives when signing to be represented by an agent– and conversely, which attributes should be viewed as good signs for the relationship to come that can be seen put in print in any such agreement?

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Greg July 9, 2008 at 2:24 pm

I just finished a humor manuscript and just started the agent search… so I’ll be interested in asking your agent-of-choice some questions. I’ve sent the manuscript straight to about five independent publishers…

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Paula July 9, 2008 at 6:19 pm

What a great week to check back in!

Someone mentioned this in an early comment — hiring a publicist instead of an agent .

I’ve been considering this, too. Not for myself (yet), but I’ve been working to get a friend published and have kind of become the middlewoman, in a way. (It can’t hurt to learn the ropes and I believe in his writing that much. Yeah, I know.) Sometimes I wonder how many of layers/degrees of assistance said friend can tolerate, too… but that’s another story. And I’m no literary agent… yet. But that might be my dream job, I think.

Anyway… I do have a few local PR connections from my day job, but none in the book publishing world in NYC. That’s why I’ve been thinking of veering off the beaten path. It seems a little backwards, but it also seems like it might work — at least a little better than the needle-in-the-haystack search for the right agent in the right mood on the right day, etc.

I will say this, too. On the flip side, I know PR folks because they submit story ideas to me. So I know what it’s like to sit on that side of things, too.

And I HATE to admit this, but the people they recommend usually do get quicker responses, because: I know they WANT the publicity, I know their PR rep (the ones I listen to most, anyway) will help set up photos or pin them down for interviews quickly if I need them and those PR reps know a thing or two about deadlines and have some empathy about them. I imagine editors feel about the same way about literary agents, so point for getting an agent.

However, I’ve also been the victim of that unsolicited & badgering PR rep who just will NOT give up on a story I have NO interest in doing. (Usually they’re out-of-town firms who don’t even really know their clients personally). That is a big turnoff. That is why literary agents are such a turnoff to me. I can just imagine an “insider” lit agent in Manhattan pushing a book by a guy in Louisville, Ky., he or she does not know at all. Ew.

I think I’m babbling.

And I think my bottom-line question is: What can a literary agent do for me that a good publicist couldn’t?

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terrybain July 10, 2008 at 2:23 pm

My question:
It seems to me that publishing (at least at the overwhelmingly enormous publishing houses) is unavoidably broken. First question, then, is whether or not you agree (based on my skimpy and rather ambiguous question). If so, imagine yourself pub-nipotent. How do we fix it? And if not, why not?

Blessings.

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SusanHenderson July 10, 2008 at 9:59 pm

Loving these questions. Keep ’em coming. Tell your horror stories, your love stories, where you are in the process. Let’s hear it all!

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Funky_Limey July 12, 2008 at 4:04 pm

Would an agent increase your chances of selling articles to high-paying glossy mags, such as The New Yorker or Esquire etc? (I have an agent representing my novel, but just wondered if them subbing articles would make the slightest difference to the chances of a sale in this venue.)

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Aurelio July 12, 2008 at 7:13 pm

This is a great question. All of The New Yorker’s fiction lately seems to come from only well-known writers, so I’ve wondered about this.

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EllenMeister July 14, 2008 at 8:20 am

What a great idea for a LitPark entry, Susan!

I’m very happily represented by a wonderful literary agency, but I know that back when I was querying I got almost no bites until I refined my search to the right kind of agents for my work. So I wonder if your agent guest could give some insight on how to figure out what genre or category one’s own work fits into (not always so obvious!), and how to find the appropriate agents to query.

More questions:

What are some red flags in a query letter that would get an automatic rejection from you?

On average, how many queries do you get in a week, and how many manuscripts do you ask to see? Of the ones you read, what percentage do you actually take on?

Once an author gets an offer of representation, what questions should he or she ask?

Some agents work with a contract and some without. Can you discuss the pros and cons?

How would you define your “dream client,” if there is such a thing?

Likewise, how would you define “the client from hell”?

Is there a minimum/maximum number of submissions you would make for a single book?

If I think of more questions, I’ll come back …

Ellen

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SusanHenderson July 15, 2008 at 3:15 pm

GREAT questions. Keep ’em coming!

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bhobson July 17, 2008 at 11:00 pm

Do agents really read literary journals, looking for writers? If so, which journals?

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kategray July 18, 2008 at 9:36 am

I’ve hit the wall on trying to write query letters – I no longer really feel like I understand what agents want to see. In my case, with the book I wrote being set in the future, most people would classify as Sci-Fi, even though I don’t really think that it is, necessarily. As a result, the bulk of agents around, that I have read through mind-numbing lists of, say NO SCI-FI, and then I don’t bother sending anything, because it’s clear that nobody wants to take the time to find out what the book really is about.
I guess I dunno whether that means I need to pitch it differently, or what. That’s probably what has led me to the WEbook process (oh, please come and vote…!), because with all the other things I have to do on a daily basis, having a completed novel that nobody even wants to give a chance to look over has become a whining albatross in my life.
I suppose that this webook thing will, depending on the outcome, help me think about whether any of the trappings are still necessary – are agents still relevant? are publishers doing what the movie industry did (by not getting into the home movie trend), and will find themselves outmoded by the digital age of books? I just don’t know if the answers are out there yet, but I’m willing to be a part of the beta trend and find out.

(P.S.: vote at http://www.webook.com/vote for my book “Sleep”, if you care to!)

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Darby Larson July 20, 2008 at 4:51 am

Do you believe that art that sells is art that’s good?

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SusanHenderson July 25, 2008 at 10:50 am

Great question, Brandon. I do know that Nat Sobel regularly contacted the editors when I was working at Night Train to get in touch with our writers. I don’t know how many others do that or what it nets.

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SusanHenderson July 25, 2008 at 10:51 am

Query letters and anything to do with reducing your work to a page or to a genre is completely demoralizing, isn’t it, Kate?

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SusanHenderson July 25, 2008 at 10:51 am

Darby! Great to see you here.

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SusanHenderson July 25, 2008 at 10:52 am

Ooh, good question, t.

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kategray July 25, 2008 at 11:03 am

More than demoralizing. I’m getting all these positive “wow” comments from people who are reading in the voting process, from folks I have never met, and it just makes me feel a tiny bit more depressed. Why? Well, because it means that people would read it off the shelf, and all that means is that I just don’t know how to market myself. *sigh*
I’m willing to do the hard work – what I need is somebody, I guess, to package me up and sell me.

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SusanHenderson July 25, 2008 at 11:19 am

Yes, exactly! I’ll be sure my guest gets at this very issue. Is there something presentation-wise that’s keeping great writers or great books from getting through the door?

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kategray July 25, 2008 at 11:29 am

I always say that the ghost of Hemingway is hanging over my shoulder, making sure I never like my own work very much – and then I can’t think how to get rid of that thought long enough to be objective about my work and to distill it down the way an agent would like.

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