The most common way to have a novel published traditionally is with the help of an agent. An agent is a representative for the author and their work who helps the author sell said work and hopefully get a good deal out of it.
- Helps the author edit their work to make it better
- Approaches publishers about buying the author’s work
- Deals with contracts and other legal sundry
Some agents also:
- Help the author sell the book to foreign publishers
- Help the novel (short story, etc.) get optioned for television or a movie
An agent is hopefully with you for your career, so you’ll want to find one who understands you and with whom you work well.
WARNING: You do not pay an agent! An agent gets paid when you sell a novel or something else. Typically the publisher pays your agent, and then your agent takes their cut (generally 15%, but make sure you understand how your particular agent works) and sends the rest of the money to you. If an agent is asking for money up front, beware. Check them out on the Internet, as they might be a scammer. (Writer Beware is an excellent resource whenever you are unsure about the legitimacy of something.)
Like we discussed in the previous section, to approach an agent, you generally send them a query letter plus whatever other materials (synopsis, first chapter, etc.) they ask for. It can help to have some other contact with an agent first, such as following and interacting with them on their blogs or social media, or talking or pitching them at a conference. This allows you to personalize your query letter more and may help an agent give you higher priority.
NOTE: Make sure you’re interacting with an agent in a professional, non-annoying manner. Do not badger them or press them about your novel unless directly asked to.
Alternative Pitching Methods
While the querying method is the most standard, there are some alternatives that can be used instead in some circumstances.
The most traditional alternative method is the “elevator pitch” which is basically a short oral pitch given to an agent, most often at a writers’ conference, though there are now online ones as well. Your pitch functions like your query letter does, with the intention to garner enough attention from the agent for them to ask to see more of the novel.
NOTE: Some agents will ask for material from a pitch, but some will still ask that the author send them a query letter with a note about the pitch included.
A more recent innovation, there are now Twitter-based pitching opportunities. These are normally scheduled days where an organizer rounds up a selection of agents and authors post Twitter-length pitches. How an agent indicates interest varies, but usually they will “like” a pitch they’re interested in, at which point the author can send said agent their manuscript. (This, too, varies, and agents will have listed somewhere what exactly they want sent to them.)
There are also pitching “contests,” where authors submit some material in the hopes of being selected by a mentor (normally a published author or an editor or someone experienced in some way). If selected, they work with the mentor for a period time, improving both their manuscripts and their querying materials. At the end of the time period, the authors’ revised work is ready and a selected group of agents take a look and ask for material for any they’re interested in. Pitch Wars is an example of this type on contest.
How to Find an Agent
The most important thing to remember when querying agents is to make sure you are querying agents who are interested in your genre. Someone who reps romance is going to have no time for your science fiction magnum opus. Querying can be a long process, so there’s no reason to waste your time.
One recommended way to identify agents that might be interested in your novel is to look at recently-published books in your genre, and look at the agents representing those authors. These agents are probably interested in what you write, and have sold books, so you know they can get the job done.
You can also talk to authors directly about their agents–whether they would recommend them, how they are to work with, etc. DO NOT ask authors to send your work to their agent or to recommend you to their agent unless you would count said author as a close friend.
Several databases exist that list agents and allow authors a way to keep track of both who they’ve queries and what the response times were. You can search these databases by genre or specific agent or agency name to get an idea of who might be a good fit.
NOTE: You should always check an agent and/or agency’s page directly before querying to make sure they sound like a good fit for you and your book, and also to make sure nothing’s changed from the information in the database. It would be a waste of time to query an agent about your thriller if a quick look at their website would have told you that they’ve temporarily stopped looking at thrillers.
There are both free and paid options for researching agents.
Several blogs also keep track of agents, including when new ones come into the scene or when new agencies are formed. Some people recommend targeting newer agents because they are actively building their author lists and may be more willing to take a risk.
So that’s agents, squiders! Friday we’ll talk about the submission process in greater detail. Let me know if I’m missing anything or if you have any questions!