25 steps to getting and working with a literary agent

Note the date on this post, and remember that the book publishing business, like any other industry, evolves constantly. Always ensure the information on which you rely is current and valid. Be discriminating. Your writing career is at stake.

Last night, I answered the questions of writers who had gathered for the monthly meeting of the Central & Southern Ohio chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (COSCBWI). A couple of questions were posted here in advance. The Q&A format was well suited to the enlightened group, but it also might have been confusing for someone who wanted simple, basic information about getting and working with a literary agent.

The basic strategy for getting published can be found in any number of books at the library and bookstores, as well as on dozens of writers’ and agents’ blogs. One of the best brief summaries of the process was written by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management.

I didn’t need to spell out the following 25 steps to the COSCBWI group, so I’ll share my notes here for anyone who’s learning. I don’t represent children’s and middle grade authors, so these are simply general principles applicable to most writers of commercial fiction and nonfiction who want to work with an agent.

  1. Become part of a community of writers, perhaps an online networking group, and start getting your work published online or in magazines appropriate for the type of writing you do. Blogging and micro-blogging can be part of this process. Establish a solid, professional reputation—your brand—from the beginning. Professionalism includes presenting your work to a critique group or critique partner for feedback and undertaking multiple revisions before you consider your manuscript polished enough to show to agents or editors.
  2. If you’re writing fiction or memoir, finish your manuscript first. If you’re writing any kind of nonfiction other than memoir, write a book proposal and include some sample chapters plus a table of contents. You might have sought grant funding, if you qualify, and conditions may include a deadline by which your book must be completed.
  3. Figure out what you’ve written. Categorize it. Be as specific as possible, but not at the risk of erring. Why? Your genre and subgenre are keyed to the word count favored by many big trade publishers. If the two don’t match, you’ll be forced constantly to explain why your manuscript is the exception to the rule.
  4. Find out what makes a good agent. Compile a list of your questions about agents, and start filling in the blanks with the information you discover online or in books on the subject during the next steps…
  5. Make a list of agents who represent the type of work you’ve written. You can do this by learning about the authors whose books are most like your manuscript and then trying to figure out who represents them, but those authors’ agents might not be open to queries. Instead, or in addition, try a keyword search by genre and other variables using a search engine or any of the free online literary agent databases, including:
  6. QueryTracker
    Agent Query
    AuthorAdvance (formerly Litmatch) [CLOSED]

    Other lists can be found at:

    Preditors & Editors
    The Association of Authors’ Representatives
    Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog

    Your library or bookstore might have:

    Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers,
    Editors, & Literary Agents
    Guide to Literary Agents
    LiteraryMarketPlace (LMP)

    And there are subscription databases, including:

    Publishers Marketplace
    Writer’s Market

  7. Take the list of agents you’ve compiled. Conduct research online. At the very least, look up each agent’s website and locate the agency’s submission or query guidelines detailing:
  8. What categories of manuscripts the agent is seeking
    What you need to include in the query
    How to submit the query: by mail, online form, or email
    Whether the agency is currently open to queries

  9. Make a record of which agents you’ve contacted, when you queried, what you sent, and what the answer was (if you received a reply). You can use an online submission tracking service or compile the information in a database on your computer or write it on index cards. Keep your records up to date. Some aspiring authors skip this step and wind up with egg on their faces.
  10. Use your email application strategically. Don’t add each agent’s email address to your software’s address book. If you do, then in the future, every mass email announcement you send will go to all of the agents you’ve contacted. Don’t turn on your out-of-office alert. Don’t fire up your spam filter so that the agents you query are required to register and be given permission to respond to your query. Don’t send out 50 queries when your email program’s inbox caps the volume of incoming mail it will accept. Don’t send out 50 queries all at once, which leads to the next step…
  11. Send only a handful of queries at a time, just in case a kind agent rejects you with helpful suggestions about what might be wrong with your query letter or points out an embarrassing typo.
  12. Don’t blog about your rejections or publicize your strategy to use one agent to push another off the fence. Agents know how to find that stuff online. If you’ve published the sad story of your 99 previous rejections, most agents will think twice, even if they were initially inclined to like your manuscript.
  13. Agents probably will reply to queries within six weeks if they’ve stated they’re actively seeking new clients. If you don’t receive a reply within six weeks, or within the time frame explicitly stated on the agent’s website, then send a politely worded email asking if your query made it to the agent’s inbox. If you don’t receive a reply to your follow-up email, chalk it up and move on.
  14. If you’re really on the right track with your manuscript and you’re targeting the correct agents and writing professional queries, then, as novelist Marcus Sakey recently claimed, you’ll get a 75% positive response to your query. That means three out of four agents who receive your query will ask to see more of your manuscript. Of those three, one or two are then likely to offer representation. Agents know a good thing when they see it. (You’re right. This is not as simple as it sounds.)
  15. Get on those three responses from the three agents as soon as they land in your inbox! Whip out your list of questions for each agent and see if there’s anything you need to know immediately. You can include any crucial questions with the requested partial or full manuscript—a meticulous, properly formatted manuscript, of course. But don’t start interrogating, because the odds are not yet in your favor. More manuscripts than you realize are still rejected at this stage—up to 90% or more.
  16. Expect a busy agent to take three months to read your full manuscript and give you an answer regarding representation. It can take longer. If the manuscript is fabulous, you could receive an offer from an agent within days. Some manuscripts go into the black hole and the agent is never heard from again. It’s bad, it’s inexcusable, it’s unprofessional, but it happens. Inquire politely after sufficient time has passed. Then, move on.
  17. On that exciting day when an agent calls or emails to offer representation, be ready to discuss your expectations. Typically, this conversation takes place by phone or in person, but email is OK too. Some writers would rather write. That’s OK. Whip out the questionnaire you compiled in Step 4 and make sure all of your questions are answered. If you’re polite about it, no question is out of line, except perhaps “Will you waive your commission?” [Updated on March 3, 2011] Read author Jodi Meadows’ superb advice about dealing with multiple agent offers.
  18. Read through the contract offered by the agent. Understand that it will most likely be an exclusive agreement, meaning you won’t be able to work with several agents simultaneously on the same rights to the same manuscript. That’s not to say that your agent won’t engage subagents to negotiate the licensing of dramatic rights or foreign rights. You might also choose to have multiple advisors: an agent, a manager, and an entertainment or intellectual property attorney. However, once you sign an exclusive agency agreement, your agent will be entitled to his or her commission even if you receive a direct offer from a publisher. If you anticipate this possibility, then you can try to negotiate a nonexclusive agency agreement, but be sure you understand the agent’s point of view first or you might give offense.
  19. Make sure you understand every word of the agency agreement before you sign it.
  20. Be prepared and willing to undertake revisions requested by the agent before your manuscript or book proposal is presented to acquiring editors. This process should not be unbearable. If it is, then you and the agent are not well suited to collaborating.
  21. Unless your manuscript is an incredibly hot property, each round of editors to whom it’s pitched can take hours, days, or months to request the full and then weeks or months to read it and, along with an editorial board, come to a decision about making an offer. Expect to be on pins and needles once again.
  22. When a publisher makes an offer, your agent will advise you what is normal, standard, acceptable, desirable, etc., but the final decision is always yours. Don’t relinquish all decisions to the agent. You care more about your rights in the work than anyone else—at least you should. Know a little something about what to expect in a book publishing agreement and be prepared to give the agent your input.
  23. Soon after the book contract is signed, you’ll be asked for things like jacket copy, your author bio, your author photo, and maybe even input on the cover design and suggestions for the book’s website or webpage. Don’t say, “Well, let me think that over for a couple of weeks. I’ll get back to you.” Have those things ready in advance.
  24. Your book contract will probably stipulate how much turnaround time you’ll have to review and approve the publisher’s requested revisions—occasionally as little as two weeks. Be ready to put everything else aside and work tirelessly when the proofs are sent to you.
  25. If things go wrong or you become tense or upset with anyone at the publishing house, hold your tongue! Contact your agent. It’s your agent’s job to mediate when any problems occur. A simple explanation from your agent might clarify a misunderstanding that could have become an obstacle to the success of your book. Working through your agent allows the agent to take the flak while you maintain a harmonious relationship with everyone who’s hard at work ensuring your book is a huge triumph.
  26. Many, if not most, literary agencies don’t have publicity departments. They know and can refer clients to excellent freelance publicists and publicity firms. You and your publisher (who may have an in-house publicist or a contract with a PR firm or both) will be responsible for generating excitement about your book. Your agent is likely to have some suggestions and a bit of advice (and might even have worked as a publicist at some point), but the job of a publicist is different than the job of an agent. The best publicists are worth their weight in gold, which is why they are typically compensated up front. Times change. The roles of publicists and agents are becoming more intertwined, just as distinctions between agents and publishers are beginning to blur. Roll with it. Agents are.
  27. If you have a good relationship with your agent, all along the two of you will be discussing your career goals and brainstorming about your next writing project.

It seems redundant to list these steps here, when so many others have already done a better job of explaining this process. Entire books are devoted to the topic, and I strongly suggest you start by reading one of those books. Oversimplification too often creates confusion instead of alleviating it.

I pointed the COSCBWI members to a few terrific online resources that seemed suited to their objectives:

Magical Words: author David B. Coe‘s series of posts on “Writing Your Book”

Lee & Low Books: Editor’s Desk

Agent Mary Kole’s blog Kidlit.com

9 Replies to “25 steps to getting and working with a literary agent”

  1. Hi Robin,

    I Facebooked (is that a new verb now? Can I use it?) this post for my writer friends. What an excellent and concise description of the whole process and how to be proactive and smart throughout. Thanks for typing it all up!

  2. J & J:

    At the meeting in September, I was told that relatively few attendees were using any form of online social networking, such as blogging, to increase their visibility and resilience as professional writers. It surprised me, although certainly there are effective ways of networking face-to-face, and their writers’ group is one of those ways. When you devote some of your energy to a blog, as both of you undoubtedly have discovered and as the late Reginald Shepherd put it, “All kinds of favors fall from it.”

    New means of gaining exposure and experience as a writer will continue to emerge. Online networking is not the be-all and end-all. Using new technology merely demonstrates you’re someone who’s willing to experiment and capable of taking risks, which also happens to be the mark of a good writer.

    If you’re reading this, take a look at Josh’s and Jennie’s blogs to see what I mean.

  3. I am having a terrible time finding an agent who is interested in new authors. Most say they only want to work with authors who have already published with a major house. Is there any way to find agents who are specifically seeking new talent? It’s very frustrating out there!!

  4. Stephanie, without knowing what you write, it’s difficult to imagine what all those agents who have had the opportunity to read and comment on your work have been trying to get across. If your writing is, without a doubt, commercially appealing, then agents will want to have you as a client, provided they are seeking additional clients.

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