As I walked into the hotel lobby, I was greeted by a sign announcing that I was in the right place: the site of Muse and the Marketplace, a writers’ conference put on by Grub Street in Boston. I wasn’t here to attend workshops or mingle. I had a lunch meeting with my agent, who had been reading the third draft of my novel after I’d rewritten it completely: new point of view, certain characters killed off, a hundred pages axed entirely.
In other words, it was almost a completely different book and I was nervous. Not about meeting my agent, exactly—I adore her—but because I was afraid that she wouldn’t like this new revision. To jack up my jitters, the Park Plaza Hotel was crawling with writers, many of them here to pitch their manuscripts to agents and get one of their own. The air was crackling with anxiety.
The writer-agent relationship is complicated, right up there with parent-child in terms of how bad or how good your agent can make you feel. Add to this the fact that your agent can make or break your career, and it’s probably no wonder that, with so many new publishing avenues, a lot of writers are opting to fly solo.
1. Do You Really Need an Agent to Submit Your Work?
Yes and no. If you’re striving to be traditionally published, especially by one of the big houses—Hatchette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, or Simon and Schuster—then you must have an agent. Likewise, Amazon’s publishing imprints, like Lake Union, are more likely to take a serious look at your manuscript if it’s agented. Some of the smaller literary and academic presses prefer to work with agents as well. You do not need an agent to self-publish your work or to publish with one of the hybrid boutique houses—though I’d urge you to hire a lawyer to look at the contract with those publishers to make sure you’re not giving away all of your rights.
2. How Do You Get an Agent?
There are four top strategies for finding an agent: 1) ask friends who have agents if they’ll recommend you, 2) look in the acknowledgment pages of books similar to yours to find the agents who represented them, 3) read interviews with agents in Poets & Writers magazine, and 4) attend writers’ conferences that set up meetings between agents and writers. Once you’ve assembled a list of names, check out the web sites of these agents and do exactly what they say to put together query letters and submissions.
3. How Do You Know If an Agent Is Right for You?
First, never pay an agent up front. Reputable literary agents take a percentage of the money you earn, and that only happens if the agent sells something for you. Second, check out the agent’s list, which will probably be posted online. If she has a good history of selling thrillers, but you write science fiction, ask what her strategy would be going forward with your book. In fact, that’s a good conversation to have with any agent. Third, ask how hands-on she is as an editor. Some writers have agents who give their manuscripts a cursory read before submitting them, while I prefer agents like mine, who really pushes me to make the book better through multiple drafts before submitting it.
4. After You Get an Agent, How Do You Take Care of Her?
I phrased this question deliberately because that is EXACTLY what you need to do. Just as your agent will take care of you by helping you revise your work, submitting it to the right editors, and pushing for bigger advances or international sales, you must take care of your agent. This means working hard on your end and respecting her limits. Don’t whine for attention or cry about lousy sales. Don’t expect her to rush into reading your manuscript if she has seven others ahead of yours, and don’t expect her to work miracles. Sometimes, really wonderful manuscripts get turned down because the market is sagging, publishers are looking for another sort of timely topic, or your last book’s sales were mediocre. That’s not the agent’s fault, nor is it yours. All you can do if that happens is write another book. Always thank your agent for her efforts. And, if she does sell something for you, make sure you demonstrate your gratitude. Remember: you’re not the only one going up against the wall and getting rejections or hoping for a big deal. In an ideal agent-writer relationship, the two of you are a dynamic team, putting your heads together when it comes to making crucial decisions not just about a single book, but about your career.