Mark Terry

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Getting A Literary Agent

November 21, 2006
Over on PJ Parrish's blog, she has a post about "Mystery Date," which refers to the hunt for a literary agent. I suggest if you don't have an agent (or if you do), you go over and read it. (You might also consider picking up one or all of her (their) books, too). She's specifically talking about when agents ask for exclusivity and I give my 5 cents worth on that topic there, as well. But, every few months I feel obliged to give suggestions on my blog about how to get a literary agent. I figured today was as good a day as any.

1. Write something. Complete it. Make sure it's really, really good.

2. Find a list of agents. I suggest the Association of Authors' Representatives although my own agent does not actually belong to AAR. Many do. My agent, for whatever reason, follows their guidelines, but does not belong. Or, go buy the 2006 Guide to Literary Agents by Kathryn Brogan, although I actually suggest you wait until the 2007 version comes out. That or some similar book that has a nice, reasonably comprehensive list of agents in it. Either start at the beginning, at the end, or anywhere you want and...

3. Write a really hellaciously terrific query letter. No longer than one page. This is your introduction. Typically there are 3 parts. The first part says something like, "I have completed a thriller novel titled YOUR TITLE HERE that runs 95,000 words." Then go on to briefly describe. By briefly I suggest 3 or 4 sentences. Second paragraph, who you are. If you are a published writer, say so. If you have won awards, say so. If you are writing a medical thriller and are a doctor, say so. If you wrote a forensic thriller and you're a criminalist, say so. If you wrote an espionage novel and you're an accountant in middle America, keep that to yourself. The agent really doesn't care what you do for a living if it isn't relevant to the book. Get this clearly in your head: YOU ARE A WRITER. That's what you're selling yourself as. The third paragraph is a closer, something that explains what you have enclosed and the final question: Would you be interested in reading...? Keep in mind this is a business letter. You are trying to create a business relationship. Rewrite this letter until it sparkles.

Let me repeat this, because I didn't do this until much later, and I'm sure most aspiring novelists don't either: REWRITE THIS LETTER UNTIL IT SPARKLES.

4. What to include:
There are, as far as I can tell, 3 different philosophies on what to actually send an agent. Most of the agent articles and books suggest you send:

A. A one-page synopsis and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Yep, that's it. I don't actually happen to agree. One, I hate reading synopses, and two, what you're doing at this point is saying, "Would you be interested in reading part or all of my book?" Which gives an agent a really nice opportunity to say, "No," and drop a pre-form rejection letter in your SASE and send it back to you.

B. A chunk of your manuscript along with an SASE. This is my recommendation. How much of the manuscript? 50 to 100 pages. Enough so an agent can take a peek at it. I know you've probably heard that agents make a decision in the first 50 pages. Guess what? I think that's total bullshit. Agents make a decision in about the first page, but probably give it five. They know whether you can write by then and whether it's salable. I was a bit skeptical about this until I agreed to read a couple novel partials for people. I'm doing it now, as a matter of fact, for the MWA mentoring program. In the previous manuscripts I reviewed, I could tell in the first page. If not by then, in the first couple. Everything after that became a chore. Interestingly enough, the one I started reading yesterday sucked me right in. The prologue is terrific. This guy can really write. The first chapter, however, has got some issues. So that's why you send 50 to 100. Why give the agent a chance to reject you twice?

Now, a word about SASEs. I wish these would go the way of the Dodo. I would think e-mail would cover this. If you're sending 50 to 100 pages, should you send an envelope and postage enough to cover it? Nope. Just send a #10 envelope with your usual 39 cent postage stamp on it. I used to write something like: "...if this manuscript does not meet your needs, feel free to discard it and let me know in the enclosed SASE..." but decided that it was just sending the wrong message, as well as the fact that agents and their staff are probably not idiots, and can figure out what you want them to do here.

Two follow-up points regarding SASEs. One, but don't you want your manuscript remnant back? No, you do not. An agent is very, very, very, very, very unlikely to write a useful comment on it. They are veryX5 likely to spill coffee on it, get the corners all beat up and get it crinkled to pieces sticking it back in any envelope you have. It will not be usable if they send it back.

And two, there are a number of people who suggest not sending an SASE. Like my earlier line about sending it back, they feel it sends a message that you're expecting it to be turned down. (Gee, why would authors think that?) Also, if an agent really wants to read the manuscript or represent you, they're not going to stick it in an envelope, they're going to phone you (or possibly e-mail you). So why bother? It's a perfectly legitimate question and I'm inclined to agree with them. The reason TO send it is that it's a courtesy. Period. There's really no other reason.

C. Send your whole freaking manuscript with a cover letter. Why just send a partial? Well, because it's presumptuous and a waste of paper, toner, and postage. Yes, it's possible an agent will like it so much they'll read the whole damned thing just because you send it. Some might even feel obligated to read the whole damned thing because you sent the whole damned thing. Most will be pissed. Some will be so pissed that they'll just automatically send it back without looking at it. Mostly,+ don't do this because it's too expensive. And one of the reasons it's too expensive is:

5. Getting an agent is a numbers game. Not all agents are looking for clients. Many agents are always looking, but they're very, very picky about who they pick up. One thing I read lately suggested agents only bring on 1 or 2 new clients a year, yet they receive several hundred queries and manuscripts a WEEK! They have to respond to your work and think that you as a writer show promise and that the work in general is salable. If you sent out a single package and the agent picked you up as a client, you, my friend, are one in a million. Most likely you'll send out dozens, even hundreds. I acquired my agent somewhere between letter 85 and 100.

So here's the point. Don't do this once. My recommendation is pull out 10 agents who handle your type of work, customize your query letter, photocopy the first 50-100 pages of your manuscript, get 10 SASEs, and send them out simultaneously. Then wait a week (or so) and do another 10. And another and another...

And here's the really important part:


Don't get frustrated at 50 and say, "I suck, no one will represent me." (It may be true. You may suck and no one will represent you, but how can you tell?) Stick to it until you get an agent. If you run through the list of agents who handle your type of material and you had some read your stuff, but turned you down, what should you do?

Well, first I would take a cold, hard look at your manuscript and see if they have a point. Maybe you do suck. Or maybe there are obvious typos. Maybe (gulp) you're just not as good as you think you are (hint: none of us are). In that case, do a rewrite and start over again.

Otherwise, start over again. Many big agencies have multiple agents handling similar materials. If you tried Joe Schmo at BIG BAD LIT AGENCY and he turned you down and you've already tried 200 agents, then try Jane Schmee at the BBLA this time.

Just a few miscellaneous thoughts.

There are agents who charge a fee to read your manuscript. Sometimes this fee is quite small, like $25 and sometimes it's hundreds of dollars. Avoid these agents. Some are undoubtedly legitimate, but the AAR disapproves of this. And with few exceptions, it's just a scam. The agent (or so they call themselves) is just picking up a nice tidy income off reading fees, but not actually selling any or many manuscripts. Agents make their living off their commissions from manuscripts sold, which is 15%.

My agent charges me (sometimes) a photocopying fee. We've been kind of inconsistent on this since I started getting published. It's a minor expense and I go along with it. Not all agents do this. How you handle it is up to you.(We also seem to be making a shift toward PDFs, but that's a different topic for a different day).

Keep in mind at all times that this is a business relationship you're trying to get going. This person not only will be your representative, but they will handle your money (before you do), so it needs to be built on trust and respect.

And my final comment. Sometimes we get caught up in the "I want a hot agent like so-and-so has, look at the deal they get." Yep. But what we really want in an agent, above everything else, is someone who thinks your writing is great, who thinks YOU have what it takes to make both of you rich.

Mark Terry


Anonymous spyscribbler said...

In the previous manuscripts I reviewed, I could tell in the first page. If not by then, in the first couple."

I was skeptical, too, until I did a pitch workshop with an agent. We were just practicing pitches (so the work could be unfinished). I was floored by the fact that this agent picked up every single problem I was having with the novel, just in those three sentences! Wow!

Readers judge a book by its first page, too, if they get past the cover and blurb.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Btw, I forgot to mention. Great post! I'm saving it. Thanks!

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree about sending the first 50-100 pages with the query. Send ONLY what agents ask for. Guidelines vary widely. Some want only 3 pages or one chapter or 20 pages. If the agent doesn't specify, I suggest sending the first 3-5 pages--up to the first chapter.

Here's a reason to send an SASE: Because sometimes the envelope contains a request for a partial or full manuscript.

And yes, a sparkling query letter can take you far. Mine generated a 50% response rate. : )

6:09 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

You may certainly disagree, respectfully or otherwise as to whether to send 50-100 pages. I'm just basing my recommendations on MY experience. I've gotten agents both ways, but by just sending a query letter, you're adding a step and thus adding one more chance for an agent to say no.

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I would only disagree with you respectfully, Mark. ; )

When I was querying last year, I was sooo nervous about doing something "wrong," most of the time I didn't even send sample pages unless the agent said "send sample pages." So my recommendation is based on being a Nervous Nelly Dorkazoid.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I get stuck on #3 on the query letter where I have to tell them about myself. I've held numerous jobs, raised a couple of kids, held a few more jobs and basically all I ever wanted to do was write so these job-things were never real important to me. I recieved my blackbelt in '81, mountain bike (but I'm not very good at it) and spend too much time mucking in township politics. I have tons of stories in boxes in the attic because I've always written. Now the kids are out of the house I decided to start sending stuff out. None of that would look good on a query letter! So can I just leave the bio part off?

7:32 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I suspect you could leave this out. The reason I say this is years back when I wasn't having much luck with my queries, I sent a copy of it in to one of the Writer's Digest columnist and asked him his opinion. He circled the part where I said I had a degree in microbiology and worked as a genetics technologist and wrote: Present yourself as a writer.

If you've got ANY publishing credits, mention them. If not, I'm inclined to think it's best to focus on the manuscript. And honestly, as an editor of a technical journal and a few other newsletters and things, I can't imagine an agent being distrustful of a SHORT query letter. One of the things that drives me crazy in e-mails and letters is a failure to get to the point. So put the good stuff up front because most agents will read the first couple lines to decide if they're interested, then skim the rest (or skip it).

4:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Aimless,

Do you write mysteries, romance or some other genre? I joined Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America as a way to learn more about the business, but also to demonstrate to potential agents that I'm serious about my craft. I think memberships in national organizations can help round out the old bio. Good luck to you!

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Mary Kolesnikova said...

Hello, I've had a tough time figuring this out and I would appreciate a response... I'm sending out partials and full manuscripts requested by agents... and one agent wants temporary exclusivity while she reads.

Is this like Early Admission to college where you apply and if they accept you, you HAVE to go?

If I send this manuscript to the agent asking for exclusivity and she happens to accept, am I bound to representation from her?

I would absolutely adore a response:

mary.kolesnikova at gmail dot com

6:34 PM  

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