Write It Sideways

The Secret Way to Find a Literary Agent

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Dr John Yeoman.

To get a novel published today you need an agent. Of course. But why? It wasn’t always thus. When I began writing books 40 years ago I sent my ms directly to publishers. Provided I’d observed the proper rituals – double spacing, one side only, return postage enclosed, etc – I could be sure of getting back a signed personal reply within three weeks.

Few agents existed then and authors were advised to ignore them. Why pay 15% of your earnings to a middle man, who’d do little more than check your contract, when you could go direct? Happy days!

Today, only a handful of mainstream publishers will accept an unsolicited ms directly from an author. Agents guard the doors. And they’re overwhelmed by newbies. In fact, a whole new industry is about to emerge – the agent’s agent. First, you’ll have to impress a literary ‘scout’ who knows an agent, who might recommend you to their friend.

Is the traditional publishing route worth it?

Needless to say, you could walk away from all that nonsense, self-publish your novel like everyone else and work 18 hours a day to promote it. Your life will become a round of blog tours and social networking. You will become an habitué of Goodreads and AuthorsDen. You’ll discover, painfully, that paid-for advertising does not work for fiction. (Nor does spamming your book at Google+ and Facebook.)

But unless you have the sales skills of John Locke or the manic energy of J A Konrath – authors who each sold more than a million ebooks by their own efforts – you’ll be lucky to shift more than a few hundred copies.

What’s the remedy?

The publishing industry is in meltdown. However, for an author who just wants to write not hustle, the traditional route still has its attractions. Your books appear in bookshops (what few remain). Your name is sacralized by a respected publisher. (There’s more clout in having Transworld behind you than an unknown indie house.) Reviews appear in trusted journals. Even bad reviews are better than none. At least, you’re being noticed.

You’ll have ‘arrived’ as an author. And your local writing group will offer you $200 plus a free lunch to tell their members how you did it. Success!

So how do you find an agent?

The textbooks are right, up to a point, when they suggest:

1. Study those authors in your genre whom you admire.

2. Locate their agent. A Google search “[author]” + agent often works.

3. Check the agent’s website for their terms of submission. Not all agents accept new authors and many have quirky requirements.

4. Note the agents that accept email submissions. Emails are likely to be acknowledged faster. Hard copy is for masochists.

And email them your cover letter, terse synopsis (1500 words max) and first chapter(s) (say, 6000 words max).

All six agents at once? Yes. Multiple submissions are the norm today, although agents hate them. But it can be argued that agents have only themselves to blame for being dilatory in the past. Who can afford to wait six months to receive a rejection slip from agent #1 before approaching agent #2?

Is that all there is to it? No! Your submission will still be binned, unread, unless the first paragraph of your cover letter is exquisitely right. How do you do that? Start with a very personalised introduction.

Here’s a secret that few new authors knew.

Attend a literary event, it doesn’t matter what. Check that it will be attended by agents who handle fiction, it doesn’t matter who. Ask to be directed to the most famous agent in the room. Ask that grand person “who are the best agents in [New York] for [historical fiction] right now, would you say?” Relieved that you’re not going to pitch them, the agent might trot out three good names. Find another agent, and another, and repeat the question.

You can now truthfully write to a select list of agents along these lines: “The agent [Ann Brown] personally suggested that I approach you because…” You’ll have overcome the first, and most important hurdle. Your cover letter will get read.

What happens then depends on the quality of your work and the professionalism of your presentation. But you have a chance.

Is this obvious wisdom?

No. Agents will tell you that 99% of new authors spam them with “Dear Sir or Madame”-type submissions. They’ve taken no trouble to choose an agent or justify, thoughtfully, their choice. Those submissions move to the Delete folder at the speed of light. Any personal introduction is better than a cold call.

Does it work?

I used that strategy several years ago and had three agents vying to represent me. Which did I choose? None. Instead of finishing my novel, I went off to get a PhD in creative writing. Maybe that was not the best career choice but at least I’d found a way to get an agent. Three of them! That might have posed a problem. Which do I choose? But it’s the sort of problem all new authors should have…