Agents can be the most elusive, profound, elating and heartbreaking part of the publishing process. They’re the gatekeepers (But are they?), Anubis’s scales—the un-very-much-essential part of making your dreams a reality.

But what is an agent? And do you really need one?

An agent (put simply) is a middleman. Good agents have extensive experience in the literary market and know what kinds of books sell to what publishers to go on and become successful. Many publishers only deal directly with literary agents, and so it is obligatory to be picked up by an agent to sell to that publisher. An agent takes your book in its uncouth, ragamuffin state, refines it, and then whisks it away to sell to publishers. A good agent will not only sell you book, but help you groom your work for the market.

The dream is that your agent not only invests herself in your book, but also in your career as an author. We will delve into the marks of a good agent in a later post, but for now, let’s cover the basics.

While agents in the film industry tend to be hired, literary agents seek authors to represent.  That is, you cannot go out and “hire” a literary agent to sell your book.[1] Agents can only take on so many clients at one time, and are usually “open” or “closed” to queries—that is, authors coming to them seeking representation.

On average, a literary agent will be entitled to 15-20% of your profits. Thus, your agent’s success is directly linked to your own. If an agent does not believe that she can sell your book for a profit, she is most likely not going to pick you up. You have to remember that this is nothing personal; we all have to eat.

Just because an agent says no does not mean that your work is bad, you’re a horrible author, or that you’re the scum of the earth. Often, agents specialize in a certain genre, and if you don’t fit into their niche, they might not be able to work for you as well as they could for someone else. A rejection isn’t an insult; it’s just a way of saying that the book isn’t the right fit. An agent only has so much time in his day, and he may have a family (or a corgi) to feed. Every book ends up being an (estimated) $100,000 investment. If an agent isn’t absolutely in love with your book and willing to fight hordes of ravenous zombies to sell it, it’s not worth the time or effort.

Remember this: Agents needs authors as much as authors need agents. One, twenty, or even one hundred “no’s” does not mean that your next response won’t be a “yes.” There are thousands of agents out there, each one looking to pave the way for the next brilliant masterwork.

Why can’t that book be yours?

“Ok, that sounds cool,” you say. “I very much like the idea an expert doing the peddling for me. It’s pretty expensive to fly to New York and start knocking on doors…so how do I find my agent?”

There are several ways to go about this.

Perhaps, you are talented and marvelous and making oodles of money, and an agent comes searching for you. Perhaps, you are talented and marvelous and have a talented and marvelous friend who recommends you to an agent.

But, most likely, you’re talented and marvelous like the rest of us and have to take the hard road. Strap on your helmet, wolf down some Triscuits, and hike up your pants, my friend. You’re headed to the agonizing, soul-shattering tumult known as “the query letter.”

But what is a query letter, you ask? Good question. Think of a query letter as a business proposal. Most often, it takes the form of an email. You explain who you are (an author with XYZ experience), proffer your product (a brief summary of your book), and why you think you would be a boon to that agent’s repertoire.

We will talk more on query letters later. For now, just ride with the gist.

The author sends the query letter to the agent, waits anywhere from two months to seven years for a reply (The timing depends on the agent.), and then receives one of three replies:

  1. A partial manuscript request. That is, the agent is interested and wants to read more.
  2. A full manuscript request. The agent really likes what she sees and wants to read the whole thing.
  3. A rejection. That is to say: Thanks, but no thanks.

You may get some ones and twos. You’re sure to get a lot of threes. J.K. Rowling got threes. Stephen King got threes. I have my own little bone garden of threes sitting in the deepest chasms of my inbox.

Rejection is inevitable.

No matter what the outcome, here are some basic tips for dealing with an agent:

  1. Be polite. ALWAYS BE POLITE. No matter what an agent says or does not say, you’re only hurting yourself by responding with malice or going off on an internet rant. Like most other human beings, agents do have social circles, and they do talk to one another. Don’t establish a bad reputation for yourself before your book is even published.

In this industry, graciousness can go a long way.

  1. Do your research. Many agents testify that they like to see when an author is querying them for a specific reason. That is, the author knows what genres that agent represents, what she he sold before, and has an idea of how this new book will fit into her acquisition list. Agents usually post what genres they represent on their websites, and you can dig into their recent sales on publishersmarket.com.
  2. If the agent says that he is closed to queries, for the love of Odin, don’t query him. That’s the equivalent of leaning on the doorbell of a house with its lights out on Halloween night.

Treat every submission like a job interview. Before you walk into the boss’s office, you had better know the company you are seeking to work for, what they do, what they specialize in, what the agent specializes in, and why you’re a good fit for the team.

Here is Hannah’s Guide to (Unobtrusively) Staking an Agent:

  1. Go to the company website. Don’t just read the agents’ profile—read the whole site.
  2. Check to see if the agent posts on #mswl.[2]
  3. Check out the agent’s Twitter
  4. Search publishersmarketplace.com to see what the agent has been selling or has sold before.
  5. Read the agent’s submission guidelines.
  6. Reread the agent’s submission guidelines.
  7. Re-reread the agent’s submission guidelines.

Points 5, 6, and 7 are especially important. Nothing peeves me more than someone who cannot follow simple directions that are specifically written and posted directly in front of them. I imagine that it is the same for most agents. Carefully note what the agent is asking for on his personal page. Be careful! It may differ from the company’s submission format!

Send exactly what the agent asks for—no more, no less.

Don’t think that if you send the agent your whole book, she will be so awed and wowed that she will tumble right into it and sign you the next day. If anything, you’re just going to annoy her. You want the agent to be intrigued; you want him to write you back asking for more. Many agents receive over 100 submissions a day. Yes, you want to stand out, but not in the way that makes you the subject of a group email.

Chances are, you’re going to be sending out a lot of query letters. A LOT OF QUERY LETTERS. Trust me when I say that it would behoove you to stay organized. You have many options for this. You can do like I did, meticulously researching on Reader’s Digest and typing for hours to compose your own spreadsheet of names, emails, numbers, and descriptions…

Or, you could just get a FREE ACCOUNT at querytracker.com and let the website do all the work for you.[3]

Don’t get me wrong—I love spreadsheets. I love the meticulous organization, the crisp, clean lines of a grid, and categorizing things alphanumerically by color. However, I do not like spending hours upon hours of my time redoing something that someone else has already done.[4]

My advice? Don’t make the spreadsheet.

Now, onto our second question: Do you need an agent?

Yes. And no.

I ran into my publisher randomly, and I did not wait for an agent to sign on. Could I have been more patient? Yes. Could I have sent out more queries? Yes. Was it a lot of work to negotiate the contract myself? Yes. Did I consume significant quantities of wine while trying to determine which publisher to sign with? Yes.

Waiting for an agent could have been the best or worst decision of my career. There are plenty of authors who are successful without them; there are many who achieve success with them. It all depends on that meddlesome little cat, mais non?[5]

Ultimately, I love my publisher, and I was overjoyed at the deal that they offered me. I wanted to sign with a smaller publisher for personal reasons; the price was right.

Will I succeed in my ventures, starry-eyed and sans agent? Will I actually sell a copy of my book? Will PATEL PATTERSON AND THE APOCCALYPSE KEY go on to be an international best seller? Will people actually want to read a book about ninja nuns, magical sushi-go-rounds, and ticklish dragons?

I guess we’re just going to have to wait and see.

This concludes my agent screed. Note, this is not a post about finding an agent. Don’t worry—we’re getting to that.

In the next few posts, we’re going to dive into the query letter—what it is, what it isn’t, and how to write it. I may or may not have gleaned an exclusive interview with “QUERY EXPERT” Kris Asselin (aka, the Query Godmother), so if you’re battling in the query trenches, you may or may not want to stay tuned.


[1] If an agency or agent is demanding a submission fee, it’s a whole different ballgame. Frankly, it’s a scam. You should never have to pay to query an agent.

[2] See the “RESOURCES” tab for more on this invaluable weapon.

[3] I want to gently remind you that you can check out the “RESOURCES” page for all of this information.

[4] Ergo, this blog.

[5] Please see my last post on this.

Author: h.kates

H. Kates is a war gamer turned author. Her middle grade fantasy, PATEL PATTERSON AND THE APOCALYPSE KEY, debuts... Eventually.

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