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Finding a literary agent:: When's the right time to phone an agent?

Want to successfully find and contact a literary agent?


Before sending hundreds of query letters to unfamiliar names in a directory, learn the basics. This is not a drive-by shooting. Don't pull up to the curb, toss your manuscript, honk, and speed away. How will you know you've got the right agent? When is the right time to phone and introduce yourself?


Finding a literary agent.
By Kate Sullivan
Understanding your relationship. Author Representation is a business. The reality: this individual is not your mom and publishing is not really as much art or science as it is timing and professionally crafted material. Consider your actions carefully because you have just entered a court of publishing opinions.

The business of publishing is too fast paced and filled with too many rapidly subjective decisions to allow for lingering friendships and idle chats at the coffee table. When you want begin a relationship with one out of more than 500 reputable Manhattan literary agents, you'll need to think about the business side of publishing. It's a business where the exchange of information may be held in an elevator or hallway as well as at lunch or dinner. And the conversations tend to be brief.

Unless an agent is a long-lost family friend, chats with your agent about Dorothy Parker during the days of the Algonquin writing group or suggestions about plot twists in books you've recently read are too time consuming. Think about it. Would you have that discussion with an attorney who is about to represent you in a circuit court?

Okay, the analogy is a stretch, but your new agent is in the business of representation. This person is your defense attorney, the one who pleads your case in front of the publishing's literary bench.

The Premise of the First Date - "Your Honor, I brought my lawyer."

How would you find an attorney to represent you in court? Would you go on a blind date? If not, then why apply that buckshot approach to finding your agent? Think about this while your are searching for an agent. You are preparing yourself to enter into a business partnership for which you agree provide a commercially viable product (a finished fiction manuscript or a nonfiction manuscript with three chapters and an outline) to that agent.

You'll be signing an agreement. A legally binding contract.

The agent then presents your product to key business contacts he/she has in the publishing industry.

Initially, it's a business contract. Always try to remember to treat it that way. Begin with a professional and structured business transaction. The agent is not yet your friend, although history proves that can happen, but the reality is this literary agency is simply a professional conduit, a road for your work to travel to its ultimate destination. So, dress nice. Comb your hair. Don't pull up to the curb and honk. Above all, don't send the agent a flawed manuscript filled with punctuation errors and expect to get a goodnight smooch from publishing's judges. Getaway cars go in both directions.

Treat the agent with your best professional demeanor. Have respect for their time. Of the commodities they do have (contacts in the business and your potentially saleable book), time is not one of them. Reading your work takes up the evenings. Contacting publishers is a 24/7 occupation. Does it take up time? Yes, so value their time.

Present your best work (proper format, clean, readable typeface, and quality paper) to the agent. Never, and I'll stress this point, never give any agents your work with a note that tells them that they'll "need to polish this up and fix this for me" or "here's the gist, can you help finish it" because the agent will give you the gist by not responding. Or, by responding, "I'm sorry, this is not up my alley."

What if you get a note that says, "Not for me, I just don't have the enthusiasm for this." And you're wondering what the "enthusiasm" part means? It means finish your work, revise it again, and have someone else read it. Then study the market (books written in a similar style and subject matter) and send it to an agent who represents your genre, your style and category.

Finding and Contacting Agents - Capturing the elusive agent.

Research the agents.
Begin your own log of agent's names that are referenced in the Thank You pages of every book that you might be reading. Keep a list of your favorite authors, particularly authors whose style, voice, and genre match yours.

Why do you read the acknowledgment and/or thank-you page? Standard practice in the industry is for authors to thank their agent, their publisher's key contacts, including the editor. You'll find the agent's name along with the author's mom, dad, dog, sister or brother (who may have keyboarded or typed the manuscript five times). Then there are distant relatives who may have housed, fed, and nurtured the author's talent. These pages are a snapshot into the life and times of the writer and you'll learn quite a bit.

Personally, I like authors who thank their dog. Who else stays up all night tending the midnight fires by your feet? When your own book is published thank whomever you must, including Trigger my golden retriever and Upshot the cat, but don't forget to thank your agent. The work is hard and they get little glory while standing behind the curtain.

Research the Agent's Category and Personal Preference.
(What Genre Did You Say? Jacobean Historical Pleasures?)

Some agents specialize. Find out what their preferences are. Usually they represent or "agent" what they like to read as well as work that breaks or falls into current publishing trends.

Is your genre (category) mystery? Thriller? Suspense? Or science fiction? Collect the names of those authors' agents. Are you writing the great American novel in high modern form? Read and absorb the style and voice of those books, and capture the agent's name. Can't find someone who represents Jacobean Pleasures? Widen your net to include agents who represent history and humor.

Or are you crafting a memoir that wrenches poverty into a half-nelson arm grip the way Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes did? He thanked his agent with wit and grace in his Acknowledgments page. "Molly Friedrich, who became my agent and thought that Nan Graham, Editor-in-Chief at Scribner would be just the right person to put the book on the road. And Molly was right." - Frank McCourt

You see, there are very few secrets in publishing. Just a strict requirement to get the research done first.

Contacting the Agent.

Do not call the agent. Ever. Okay, here's where we break that rule. Call them once, but only after you have checked the library's copy of LMP (or the online website) and found the agent's name. You'll want to find out the correct spelling and pronunciation of the agent's name and also check to see if they are still with the same agency. Agents, like autumn leaves, drift occasionally. Verify that they still are where "the books" say they are. (*See "the books" by scrolling below if you need details.)

First contact is by letter. - It's not a bench warrant.

In the books you'll find agents have rules about how they like to work. Some prefer to work by e-mail, however, most prefer to see a snail-mail query letter. The rule, broken often, of sending a query only (not the query plus your nineteen-pound novel) needs to be observed. Write a professional one-page query using our three-point version of an introductory cover letter. Your agent will thank you for it.

Follow up.

You've sent your manuscript. Time scrapes slowly across the floor, denting your parquet flooring with its claws, and you still have not heard. Wait an appropriate time. Ten days is not an appropriate amount of time. Try to wait at least two months. Full ones, not February doubled. Then send a one-page letter with a summary of what you sent and ask politely if they have had a chance to review your work. Wait another two weeks after you have sent the follow-up letter and call, restating you are looking for the an update of submission. They may not remember you or your manuscript, so don't take it personally. Just act professionally - and quickly state your reason for calling. "I'm a writer who submitted my manuscript three months ago and if you are still considering my work, I'd like an update."

Conduct. - Speeding tickets and reckless driving? Not allowed.

Do we really have to say this? No tantrums, no whining, and to avoid publishing's night court of abandoned writers, try slowing down. We know that's a tall order. Interestingly enough, editors have long memories and so do agents, so if you are moved to express yourself in ways which do not belong on paper and are even less appropriate over the phone, restrain yourself. You'll thank us later.

Whatever you do, enjoy the journey. Remember that you are in this for the long haul, that your writing just needs persistence and time. Not to mention court-approved manners.


:: Writing Tip :: Word Smitten Online ::

Page Tip

This page's recommended links for "the books" and other stuff:
Literary Marketplace Online - Find current information on publishing.
AAR - The Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. - Agencies.
Writers Net - A neighboring website's directory for writers




More Writing Tips

:: Getting a Lit Permit
:: Finding a literary agent
:: Writing the Cover Letter
:: Promoting your book
:: Attending a writing conference
:: Fundamental Writing Tips


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