Book Agents Are People Too: What I Learned from Working with Them

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Agents: they can strike both fear and excitement in the heart of an author looking to get ahead in the writing profession. Who are these people and what can they do for you? That depends more on what you can do for them. Book agents who work with writers are like attorneys who work with court clients. They represent your best interests by getting you the best deal possible, making commission in the process (15 percent is still standard). The more you earn, the more they earn—and the more eager they are to work with you.

While you can go into court without an attorney, would you really want to? That, too, depends upon you. What are your goals for getting your work in print? Do you want to go it alone with small publishers or self-publishing? Then you don’t need a book agent.

find a book agent

Do you want to approach only the largest publishers? Then you will need an agent. Most major publishing houses won’t even consider looking at your submission unless it comes to them via an agent.

Through my 25 years of experience as a freelance writer, I’ve had three agents; fired one, lost one to a terminal illness and the last one—well, let’s just say I had no clue where this person was coming from; more on that later. But one thing I did learn is that book agents are just like the rest of us—some are great people to know and work with, some not so much, and all are trying to make a living in a business that is rapidly changing right before their eyes.

So how do you find a book agent?

Finding an agent is very similar to finding a publisher: start with Literary Guide to Agents, a current edition of Writer’s Market, a library search, or go online. The majority of book agents have a website with detailed information on what types of work they accept, whether they are taking new clients, and what their specific submission guidelines are. Make sure your genre is within their realm and follow their submission instructions to the letter.

Another good way to find an agent is to join or network with writer groups. The American Society of Journalists & Authors, for example, holds an annual conference in NYC in which agents agree to visit for a day and meet with writers. It’s all set by appointment in advance and means a trip to New York, but it can pay off big time when you are sitting face-to-face with an agent who specializes in your particular topic. An enthusiastic response, an exchange of business cards, a follow-up query, and you can be well on your way to landing an agent. Network with other writers and ask them if they can recommend an agent, though be aware some writers notoriously guard their client-agent relationships and may not want to rock the boat by referring an unknown writer who may not prove productive.

If an agent does ask for a query only, don’t send a manuscript. If they want to see more of what you have to offer, they know where to find you. Some still prefer snail mail to email because of spam issues. Quite a few can’t or won’t accept an email with an attachment (again, due to spam) and will ask that you put your material into the body of the email.

If you’re looking online, locate the name and title of the book agent or assistant most appropriate for your submission and send it to that person. (Also, don’t work your way through an agency’s roster hoping to get a yes from someone. If you get a referral, that’s fine, but take a “no” as a no.)

Then expect a wait. There was a time when responses arrived within a six-week period maximum. Today, you’re more likely to get “the silent no.” That means no response at all. Don’t let that stop you if you’re determined to find an agent.

Tracking Your Progress

Keep a spreadsheet with columns listing agency title, agent name, what you sent, when you sent it, any responses you received, and after 90 days, the silent no. Work your way down the list just as you would if you were trying to find a publisher on your own. Set your own goal of how many agents to contact before you give up the process. Average number: 35-50 agents are what I hear from other writers.

My Experience with Agents

My first book, Trooper Down! Life and Death on the Highway Patrol (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991) required an agent. A mystery writer friend of mine agreed to refer me to his book agent in Boston. However, her specialty was fiction and my book was nonfiction. She reluctantly took me on, but then turned me over to her assistant, a lovely young woman who took me under her wing and worked hard to find the right fit for the book.

We had a verbal agreement that after five attempts at landing a publisher with no success, the agency would spend no further time on the project. Weeks went by with one phone call from the agent, then another: “Your book is too regional for this publisher so they said no.” “Your book is not regional enough for this publisher so they said no.”

Finally, on the fifth and final attempt, a regional publisher branching into national sales, accepted the book. The agent did her job, the timing was right, and my first book was launched.

Tragically, this same young agent was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor at the age of 32. After she died, the owner of the company decided that after my second book, Flight for Life (Pocket Books, 1993), she would no longer accept nonfiction work. So I was back to square one.

By the time my third book, Gifts from Shane, was finished in 2002, I had taken a few years off from writing and lost many of my contacts. It was also a very specialized book with a limited audience. Plus, the publishing world was changing with the rise of e-books and self-publishing. But I didn’t see the harm in reaching out for a book agent again.

I learned that Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, was living in my region. Since my subject matter had similarities to Gump, I contacted him to see if he would be interested in writing a foreword for my book. That might help me land an agent. What was the worst that could happen—he wouldn’t respond?

Not only did he call and graciously agree to write the foreword, he referred me to a new New York book agent who was trying to break into the business.

I ended up going to NYC and meeting with this will-remain-unnamed literary agent who, to put it kindly, had a unique personality. Talking with him was like encountering a being from another planet that neither spoke my language nor seemed to even comprehend life on planet Earth. He was just odd, though he did tell me my book made him “cry.” I tried reading the one novel he had published but could not make heads or tails out of it. In time, the two of us traveled in circles with nothing to show for it, and I wrote a firm but polite letter releasing him from his duties as my “agent.”

Once again, I was back at square one. I ended up publishing Gifts from Shane, with Winston Groom’s wonderful foreword, through print-on-demand and marketing it myself.

Today, I have a small publisher (no agent required) for Pearl, MD, my first historical novel. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t welcome an agent if one showed a high interest in my work. Good agents get the job done for you; great agents turn you into a successful author with a high profile and lucrative deals. Finding and keeping a book agent can be like finding a spouse—the best thing or the worst thing you ever did.

Or like life and people in general, something in-between.

Photo courtesy of Laura Taylor.

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