Words for Writers: How Do I Get An Agent? Why Do I Need One?

I got this note in my email today, and I thought I would post my answer in an open letter for everyone:

> Hi JM:
> I was intrigued by your comment on your ‘About’ page: “JM Frey is currently seeking literary representation.”
> Isn’t a matter of opening up the yellow pages and calling a few
> literary agents? LOL
> What is the process of finding a literary agent?
> Regards, _________.

Hi ______,

If only it were that simple! I really wish it was!

Getting a literary agent interested in representing you is a massive undertaking that is usually the first hurdle that causes new writers to turn back. There are thousands of agents out there at any given time, but those thousands of agents are getting requests for representation from hundreds of would-be-writers every month.  So, you can see that there’s massive, massive competition for the attention of a single agent, and so the querying process has been developed to separate the wheat from the chaff and help the agents find the authors with the talent, drive, and discipline that they want to represent.  Agents can, therefore, afford to be picky.

Which, I think, is good for the market. That means only the best of the best books make it through to the publication stage, and therefore the reading public knows that they can trust that whatever book they spend their hard earned money on will meet the standards of quality that they deserve.  (Self publishing is another matter entirely – I feel that books intended for a specific niche can do very well in self publishing).

Firstly, usually an agent won’t look at representing an author until the author has a finished and polished manuscript (and generally a handful of publications in short story anthologies, genre magazines, academic journals, newspapers, etc. to prove that there have already been others who have invested in the author).  Once the author has that, they submit it to a literary agent for consideration with an industry-standard query letter.

Then the author is contacted or rejected based on that manuscript and/or query (does the agent think it’s well written? Is it original, fresh, intriguing, saleable?). If they are contacted, they may be offered a deal in which the agent will take a certain percentage of the author’s revenue in return for then shopping the manuscript to the various publishing houses, and handling all the legalities on behalf of the writer. Sometimes it also includes editing services.

The ideal outcome is having a manuscript auction, where the various houses compete to give the author the best deal, but generally what happens is that just one house is interested in publishing and the agent goes about setting up the contracts. Sometimes it happens that nobody is interested in the manuscript, but the agent has enough confidence in the author to keep her on and encourage her to write another book, which they then try to sell to the publishing houses.  Sometimes, but rarely, the agent will drop the author if nobody is interested in her work.

But the agent always works hard for the author, because if the author doesn’t get paid, then the agent doesn’t, either. Agents are genuinely interested in getting their authors work, and getting their authors the best deal with the most number of zeroes that they can.

This is where a lot of writers first stumble – they don’t finish and polish the manuscript, or they don’t research the agents they’re approaching enough and submit to the wrong agents, or their cover letters are horrendous. The agent-writer relationship is very important, and it’s vital to find an agent who not only represents the kind of writing that the author is submitting at the moment, but also the sort of career they want to have – and the agent has to be excited about the writer’s manuscript, too, and have the connections to sell it to the right publishing houses or manage the various rights.  The agent and the writer have to like each other, and have to be able to maintain a professional relationship based on trust. They don’t have to be friends, but they have to be able to get along.

For example, I’m looking for an agent who represents both YA and Adult market books, represents both science fiction and fantasy, preferably one who lives in Canada or in New York City, and has experience also representing screenwriters as my career has begun to push me in that direction, too. It doesn’t sound like a very exclusive list, but that narrows it down to very few people in North America, and some of those people won’t look at my work unless I’ve been recommended first by a client they already have, or they happen to pick up a book I’ve already published and like my work and call me.  So that leaves even fewer agents in North America that I can submit to. If whatever book I’m submitting to them with doesn’t pique their interest when it crosses their desk, I get a polite rejection letter.  And I’m also competing against the other hundreds of writers that might have submitted that month.

With Triptych, I submitted to publishers and agents simultaneously. Dragon Moon Press took it because I had actually met the acquisitions editor totally at random at a party, and she decided that she would like to try to work with me because my concept intrigued her and we got along so well in person, despite where the manuscript was at the time (it needed a lot of massaging).  And even then, they conditionally rejected it pending some major overhauls.

I got about 20 agent rejections and 5 publisher rejections before that.  The rejections are the hardest part for most new writers, and that’s where a lot of them quit. Luckily, I had lots of practice being rejected as an actor (my mantra is: “it’s not that they don’t like me, it’s just that they don’t like me for that role”), so I didn’t let it get under my skin and kept going for it! ^_^

I took me about 3 years to write Triptych; the first year was actually writing the book, (writing the short story, three months of querying, rejection for, and then finally selling the short story, then another few months of writing the full manuscript). The next two years was spent polishing and editing every time I received a rejection, based on the feedback the editor/agent gave me, if any.  (To this day I still don’t understand what the note “The opening is too jittery” actually means. o_0)

With Triptych coming out, and with a few other  publications on the way, I’m a step closer to getting an agent – I have proven that I can finish a project I start, I have proven my talent, and I have proven that I am worthwhile because someone else has already invested in me.  Now I am back to querying agents with my new manuscript “First Impressions“; I’ve learned a lot about what not to put in cover letters and how to format manuscripts since the last novel, and hopefully this time I’ll get the agent.

But the reason I have “currently seeking literary representation” on my site is because, if an agent reads my work and is curious about me and looks up my website, they’ll see immediately that I’m available and am seeking an agent.

A lot of people wonder why they need an agent, and the short answer is “to do all the things that the author would have to do in terms of contracts and marketing, so the author can focus on writing.”  Giving up a percentage of my revenue to an agent is a pretty sweet deal if it means that I don’t have to spend hours every day writing press releases, working on marketing, contacting reviewers, and the like. That really eats into writing time, and into writer-brain. It takes me ages to wrest my head around from writing letters for Triptych to writing action sequences for Skylark.

So, as much as I wish that it was as easy as picking up the phone and saying “Hey, I’m published and I’m talented, want to represent me?” it very much isn’t.   Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s even hurtful. But when that very special “yes” comes back, it’s suddenly worth everything.

I hope this has been helpful for you!


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: How Do I Get An Agent? Why Do I Need One?


Join the conversation
  • Ruthanne Reid - November 4, 2010

    Great post! I’m gonna tweet this one.

  • JM Frey - November 4, 2010

    Thanks, Ruthanne!

  • Literary agent of north america - November 12, 2010

    […] How Do I Get An Agent? Why Do I Need One? 3 Nov 2010. What is the process of finding a literary agent?. So that leaves even fewer agents in North America that I really want to work with, How Do I Get An Agent? Why Do I Need One? […]

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