Someone wrote me to say, “I’ve got my manuscript done, I’ve run it by a professional editor, and I’m feeling ready to talk with literary agents. Can you suggest ways I connect with some good agents?”
Sure I can.
–Go meet agents. Attend conferences, make appointments at their office, connect at a book show, etc. Don’t just focus on one person — try to get some exposure to a few literary agents.
–Get to know and trust the agent. Again, I think there are a group of people who claim to be agents but don’t really know the business. So check their websites, read their blogs, ask around.
–Find out if they like books and if they’re good with words. The best agents are word people first… and that’s an important point. Just because a guy has negotiated contracts doesn’t mean he can help you with ideas or writing or editing or selling.
–Ask who they represent, then go check with some of their authors. Just because she claims to be popular doesn’t mean her clients are happy. Go ask others.
–Ask “how many books have you contracted in the past year?” You can also ask about which houses, which genres, etc. I’ve frequently suggested a number of questions you could ask agents. Check out some of my old posts on “agents” and make a list of questions that fit your particular situation.
–Look for a full-time agent, not somebody who is part agent, part editor, part author, part Amway salesman. More and more I think this is true. Look, not everybody can be an agent. Just like not everybody can be an author, a copy-editor, a sales rep, or the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. So look for somebody who knows this job and is sold out to doing it, rather than somebody who is trying to represent people while also doing a dozen other things.
–Go create a wonderful proposal with good writing and a complete bio. Make sure to include your sales history and a market analysis. The fact that you’ve completed your novel and have had it reviewed by a competent editor is a plus.
–Remember MacGregor’s Law of Agenting: Make sure you LIKE the person. There’s nothing worse that having to do business regularly with people you don’t like. I LIKE the authors I represent. Most are personal friends. I can’t imagine working in my office, having the phone ring, hearing the receptionist say “Mr Farnsworth is on the phone,” and me going into a spasm of disgust – “Yikes! Farnsworth! I HATE that guy! Tell him I’m not here!” Life is too short. I routinely tell authors that I’m not the agent for everyone. My personal style is fairly gentle (believe it or not…I’m not nearly the smart-ass in real life as I appear in print), and I’m pretty soft-spoken at meetings (people are often disappointed when they meet me). So I’m not the right guy for a writer who wants Mr. Take-Charge. If you don’t LIKE the individual, don’t hire him or her.
-Once you settle on someone, make a commitment to work with him or her long term. A good agent should talk with you about your writing career. My goal is to work with the authors I represent for the next 20 years, so we can all retire together and still be friends. (That said, always ask if the agent you’re talking to relies on a “term” agreement or an “at will’ agreement. I use an at-will agreement. There’s no term — it starts the day we sign it; it ends when we start calling each other names and throwing copies of manuscripts at each other. I’ve talked with too many authors who got locked into really bad term agreements — “I’d like to have you represent me, Chip, but I’m stuck with Mr Bonehead for the next two years.”)
Hey, the strength we have at MacGregor Literary is that Sandra and Amanda and I are both WORDS people (not just “contract” people). But does that make us the agency for everyone? Nope. Again, I tell would-be agents:(1) only represent people you like, and (2) only represent good writers. I’ve been able to hold to that, and done really well in the business. So… can you get published without an agent? Of course you can. You can also sell your house without a realtor and draw up your own will. But a good realtor can smooth things out for you, and a good lawyer will probably get the will done faster and more neatly. By the same token, a good agent should help you decide on a salable idea, create a better proposal, and get that proposal in front of the decision-makers who matter.
I hope this helps. Let me know any other agent-related questions you have.