Getting an Agent

Once you've become known as an author or developed an audience, you may want to seek out a literary agent to handle your nonfiction or fiction book idea or screenplay concept. While most poets, short story writers, and nonfiction article writers don't need the services of an agent, publishing-minded book authors and screenwriters can benefit from working with one.

But just what do literary agents actually do? And is it worth the 15 percent or more commission they'll get from you for selling your proposal? Agents work for the authors they represent. They counsel and advise, give feedback, help with book or script development and the proposal, work to sell their authors' books or screenplays at the best terms possible, and then handle any author/publisher or screenwriter/producer problems that come up after the sale. Your agent can become a great partner and guide your work as well as look out for your best interests.

A Connection to the Publisher

One of the key things agents do is get your work seen by an editor, publisher, or producer who is likely to be interested in it. Agents generally spend a great deal of time developing relationships with editors and publishers and learning who handles what type of work. When they take on an author, they know who to approach with that author's material and have already opened a communication channel. Often publishers won't even look at work that isn't submitted by an agent because they believe unrepresented authors have probably been turned down by several agents, and that signals to them that the work is not what they're currently looking for. Agents act as screens for publishers as well as conduits for hot ideas and fresh faces — like yours!

Negotiating Rights

Unless you're an attorney, you'll probably have a difficult time understanding a publishing contract. And with many publishing houses moving from print to into multimedia, there's a lot to navigate and, sometimes, negotiate.

An experienced agent will work with a publishing house to help you retain or sell the best rights possible to your work. These might include rights to sell an eBook version of your business book, TV or movie rights to your novel, or an audio version of your self-help book.

Your agent will also work to get you the best royalties possible and sometimes a higher advance. Yes, your agent will (typically) get 15 percent of everything you make, but they're working hard to earn that money.

How to Find a Great Agent

Often you'll hear about a good agent from another writer, and some represented authors may even set up a meeting for you with their agent if they believe your work is promising. Writers' workshops, conferences, and classes (see Chapter 21) are excellent places to learn about respected agents. You can also locate agents in several printed resources, including the Writer's Market; The Everything ® Get Published Book; the Literary Marketplace; The Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents; and the Guide to Literary Agents. Or you can contact professional writers' groups for recommendations. (See Appendix B for complete contact information.)

Agents can't take on all the authors who approach them, so solicit them with an outstanding query letter. Craft a specific, well-worded, enthusiastic letter that says exactly why you want that agent to represent you. Include a summary of your book, why it will sell, and your credits or experience.

What Should You Look for in an Agent?

First of all, you want a representative who is excited by your work and shares your vision. When you look for an agent, double-check that the agent handles your type of material. Don't send a letter about your romance novel to an agent who handles only nonfiction. You also want someone who knows the publishing or screenwriting industry intimately and keeps up with changes in both “hot areas” and personnel.

Finding an agent with a good track record is also important; you can ask for a list of recent sales and the agent's client list. You also want someone whose personality meshes with your own; if you're going to be working together, perhaps for a long time, it's important that you get along and that you agree with the agent's way of doing business. Your agent may not hold your hand — agents are often kept very busy working with a good number of clients — but she should respond quickly to your questions and be accessible.

Finally, a good agent will not charge you a fee to read your manuscript. To check if anyone has made a complaint about an agent's operation, you can contact your local Better Business Bureau.

A Side Note

Editors at small presses are often open to reading work by writers not represented by an agent. The term small press refers to a publishing house that publishes only a few books each year, perhaps three or fewer. Small presses generally can't spend a lot on marketing, but they're often very committed to the books and the authors they take on. Listings of small presses can be found in the Writer's Market and other guides.

Even if you work with an agent you respect and trust, if you're offered a publishing contract or the agent asks you to sign a contract with him or her, you may still want to hire a lawyer to see that your rights are protected.

Remember, your agent works for you. Just as you'd ask for references if hiring an employee for your small business, ask agents for a list of former or current clients. Once you call the authors, ask about the agent's level of attentiveness, responsiveness, and how hard they worked to help the writer land a book deal.

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