Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Finding the Right Literary Agent

I've been getting a lot of emails recently from aspiring authors looking for guidance in the hopes of finding both an agent and a publisher for their book/proposal. Having worked in editorial prior to writing full time, I understand that the publishing industry can be a tough maze to navigate, with unforeseen pitfalls lurking around every corner. So here are some do's and don'ts when looking to sell your first book.

DO: your homework. I've written this before, but not all agents are created equal. Some have many contacts at many different houses and know exactly who to send your work to, and when. Some agents will simply throw a dart at the board and hope it hits the right spot. There are too many resources available in print and on the web for a smart author to make a good decision.
(tip: subscribe to Publishers Marketplace. There is a monthly fee, but you'll have a complete listing of every deal since 2001. Split the fee with a friend or your writing group, but it's definitely worth it. You'll find numerous agents who represent works in the field you write, and you can confirm which agents have made sales to reputable houses. Priceless information for aspiring authors)

DON'T: query editors directly. Most major houses have a strict 'no submissions' policy when it comes to unsolicited material. The average editor will receive 500+ agented submissions every year. They barely have enough time to evaluate those, plus give proper attention to the authors they have under contract. Most editors at major houses don't read unsolicited queries, and if you harbor dreams of your manuscript being pulled from the slush pile, the odds of that happening are enormously against you. Better you hone your craft and land a good agent who will get your work read by the right people.

DO: write what you want, not what you think will sell. Editors tend to have finely-tuned B.S. detectors. If you're writing a book about your pet dog (because dogs are hot) or a novel about the hunt for a religious artifact (duh), people will know if you're just trying to hitch a ride on the gravy train. You'd be much better off starting your own trend that becoming the umpteenth iteration of another. Think of it this way: the average book will be published about 15-18 months after acquisition. So that trend that's hot right now...are you sure you want to put all your eggs in one basket in the hopes it'll still be hot in 2010?

DON'T: tell an agent/editor how much your wife/sister/boss/uncle loved your book. They're your family. Of course they did. You have to think of a query letter like a job application. An employer generally doesn't ask for family references; they want professional references. If you've taken a writing class, maybe a few words from your professor. If a respected author has agreed to read the book, maybe a good blurb to accompany it. An agent isn't going to be impressed because "everyone in my family loved my book." They'll be impressed if an impartial outsider with some credibility did.

DO: expect correspondence with your agent. This does not mean your agent should be available 24/7/365, but that you're entitled to status updates on the submission of your manuscript. Be patient; the submission process can take weeks, months, and sometimes even years. It's completely normal to be nervous while your book is on submission, but allow your agent space to work. That said, if your agent doesn't return phone calls or emails, and won't give you any status updates or a list of editors/houses queried, be skeptical. 

DON'T: blame external forces. Most books do not sell. Most authors, even the hugely successful ones, have at least one manuscript in a drawer somewhere that was turned down by everyone with a pulse. I know I do. If your book doesn't sell, it won't help your cause to rant and rave against the unfairness of the industry, or vent on your blog about how brainless editors and agents are. The only thing that will help? Honing your craft. Assuming your end goal is to be published (not to become a critic of the establishment), focus your anger inwards. Venting might be satisfying, but it's a short term fix. Prove it to yourself first, and others will follow. 

DO: understand word counts. The average book page contains approximately 300-320 words. This means a 100,000 word book will clock in at about 320 pages, not counting front/back matter. So if you've written a 65,000 word thriller, keep in mind that will only amount to around 200 pages. If you're a book buyer, will you be more or less willing to shell out your hard-earned cash for a book that slim by an author you've never heard of? At the same time, a 300,000 word chick lit story will scare away even the most ravenous "Sex and the City" fan. Most novels fall in the 80,000-100,000 word range. Of course there are exceptions, but deviating too much on either side can be dangerous. A terrific 70,000 word book is always better than a mediocre 120,000 word book, but readers of certain genres have certain expectations.

DON'T: pick your book before it is ripe. Your book is competing against so many others for preciously few publication slots. Do you really want to send your book out into the world with its pants around its ankles? Keep revising your book until you wouldn't change a single word. Completing a first draft is a terrific accomplishment, but you don't get to the majors by taking batting practice once. Keep revising. Keep seeking (unbiased) opinions. Agents want to submit the most polished work possible. Don't give an agent or editor reason to turn your book down. Comb your book's hair, tuck in its shirt, and for heaven's sakes, make it use some deodorant.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Rob said...

This is really helpful. Thanks for posting it.

If you don't mind my asking, how do you go about plotting your thrillers?

11:29 AM  
Blogger Bryon Quertermous said...

As far as word count goes are you talking the old school 250 words per page calculation for manuscript or the actual computer word count. My computer word count has always been around the low 70k and I haven't had much trouble getting good responses.

I'm such a geek about this stuff.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Rob - My pleasure. When I start a new book, I have in mind the opening scene, the ending scene, and maybe one or two landmark scenes somewhere in the middle. I am contractually obligated to write outlines for the books, but both outlines I've written have deviated pretty substantially from the finished book.

Bryon - I'm talking about the word count in actual finished, printed books (I'm a wonk for these things too). A lot depends on the genre. Thrillers tend to be longer than mysteries. Literary runs from 900+ (Vikram Chandra's SACRED GAMES) to barely over a hundred (Stewart O'Nan's THE LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER). In the end, quality trumps all however.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Dana King said...

Great post, Jason. I have an agent I'm happy with, but I'm sending the link to your blog to everyone in my writers group. Thanks.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Glad you enjoyed it Dana. I might make this a regular feature.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Dennis said...

Thanks a ton. First time here, and your "Dos and Don'ts" immediately answered two troubling questions. I'll check around and be back again.

Peace,

- Dennis
www.donttipthewaiter.blogspot.com

2:01 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Not to overstay my welcome, but as a follow up question: What does the outline for your publisher look like? Is it just a few page synopsis or a chapter-by-chapter thing?

3:57 PM  
Blogger Rhonda9080 said...

Jason - helpful information!
Question: how hard is it to get an agent for 300,000 mss.? I have a journalism background and covered stories in the middle east. The book has a complex plot and large cast of characters. I'm trying to whiddle down some, but this just isn't a "Mcbook". I guess I'm asking, because I'm spending day and night with the editing on what is already pretty polished and tight. What to do?

9:03 AM  

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