Storyville: How to Get An Agent
UPDATE: Since publishing this article, I HAVE gotten an agent. Been with Paula Munier for a few years now. Also, I've updated some of the presses to reflect the current industry standards here in 2019.
WHY DO YOU WANT AN AGENT?
There is really only one reason to try and get an agent. Did you say money? Well, you’re kind of right. If you want to get access to any press that is not open to unsolicited manuscripts, you have to have an agent. That doesn’t just mean the Big Six (Hachette Book Group, which includes Little, Brown & Company; HarperCollins, with almost fifty imprints; MacMillan Publishers, which includes St. Martin’s Press, Tor and FSG; Penguin Group; Random House; and Simon & Schuster, which includes Scribner), it also includes some excellent indie presses (Mulholland Books, Holt Books, Night Shade Books, Prime Books, etc.). Access is what we’re talking about. If you want access to the biggest presses out there, or to some of the smaller, independent presses that only take agented suggestions, this is the way you have to go about it. If you just want an agent to feed your ego, don’t waste your time.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
It’s just as difficult to land an agent as it is to land a press—quite possibly, more difficult. These are people that have to love your book, and be willing to spend a great deal of time (and possibly money) reading, editing and presenting your it to presses. To get an agent and then have them sell it to one of the Big Six? It’s the equivalent of playing darts and throwing a bull’s eye, and then doing it again. I’m just giving you the odds here, letting you know how difficult it is. Don’t think it will be easy. Prepare yourself for rejection, with no personal feedback; form after form after form rejection. Prepare yourself for no response at all. And prepare yourself for the heartfelt response, the agent that really loves your book, but passes anyway. Or even worse, an agent that approaches you, tells you they love your writing, they want to see your book, and then they pass. If you thought selling short stories was hard, you haven’t seen anything yet. I just want you to be ready for this. That’s why you have to believe in your book, and make sure it’s ready.
WHAT ARE MY OTHER OPTIONS?
So I’ve freaked you out now. Good. Wallow in that panic. And then take a breath, and remember that you are a writer, and your destiny is in your own hands.
Plan A: You can self-publish, but my personal stance on this is to only self-publish if you have a product that is a niche title, or if you are just publishing for fun, or to give your friends and families a copy of your book. You don’t have the power and pull to sell more than a few hundred copies, most likely. But feel free to hit up Lulu or CreateSpace or Lightning Source. The books will be just fine. And there are a lot of people that use POD (print on demand) and self-publishing to put out anthologies or collections, special projects, one-offs, or other creative endeavors. And that’s totally fine. You’ve all seen Warmed and Bound do very well with this kind of publishing, and there is very little stigma attached to these anthologies. I’m not sure why people can put out anthologies and nobody says, “Hey, why are you self-publishing, you hacks!” but if you self-publish your own novel, people still flinch sometimes. Times are changing, be assured, but there is still a bit of a stigma attached to self-publishing your own novel.
Plan B: You can find independent presses that are open to solicitations. And while there are some really bad presses out there, essentially vanity presses, or companies that will do no promotion and design terrible covers, there are also plenty of presses that are doing it right. Here’s a short list of places that I sent my first two novels to, just to give you some examples (in no particular order): ChiZine Publications (can no longer recommend), Dzanc Books, Blank Slate Press (dead), Cemetery Dance, Medallion (dead market), FSG (yes, they are open to solicitations), Angry Robot Books, Hard Case Crime, Tyrus Books, New Pulp Press, Dark Sky Books, Snowbooks (gone?), Coffee House Press, MP Publishing, Unbridled Books, Two Dollar Radio, Aqueous Books, Mixer Publishing, Soho Press, Small Beer Press, and Emergency Press. While most of these presses are open to dark, literary fiction, what might work for HCC (straight crime) might not be appropriate for Dzanc. It’s up to you to do your research. Some of these presses are on Duotrope.com, but not all.
I STILL WANT AN AGENT
My advice would be to query all of the above presses AND start submitting to agents at the same time. Why? If you land a good deal with a small, indie press that knows what it’s doing, you’ll probably be a big fish in a small pond, and you’ll certainly learn a lot, especially if this is your first book, or one of your first books. You want to grow your audience, see what works, and build up a platform and a network. And the odds are slightly better with the small presses. Much like you wouldn’t send your short stories out to ONLY markets that have a 1% acceptance rate, be realistic, and check out all of your options. But if you’re ready to start approaching agents, let’s see how you can go about doing that.
Much like Duotrope.com is the place to go for submitting short stories, QueryTracker.net is the place to go for researching agents. You need to find the right agent, and figure out how they want the work submitted. That’s the bulk of the work. Many authors only want to work with agents that are members of the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) but I’ll leave that up to you. Register at the QT site and set up an account. I advise you to pay the extra money for the premium membership. It isn’t much money ($30 a year, I think) and allows you to use some cool features, such as cross-referencing agents with similar interests.
So the first thing you do is pick the genre, and then see what agents show up. If you know for sure that your book is horror, then just use that pull down selection. But, if you think you might have multiple genres to consider, you can select several. I started out querying for Disintegration by selecting agents that represented horror, thrillers/suspense AND crime/detective/police. Those were the agents I approached first. And once I exhausted all of those agents, I moved on to horror ONLY or just thrillers/suspense. It’s up to you. And depending on your genre, you might get 50 agents that show up, or 250.
You have a list, now what? Your query letter for an agent isn’t much different than the query you use to submit short stories, but with a bit more information. You want to give them an idea of what your novel is about, a couple sentences. Some people like to include a few lines from the actual text. You can talk a little bit about your accomplishments, your publishing credits. It should be one page, maximum. Or if you’re sending an email, just keep in mind that it should be brief, a few paragraphs. So basically it’s this: hook, mini-synopsis, bio, and closing. It’s not rocket science. It’s all about the writing, anyway, as you should know by now. Some people like to be clever, writing the whole letter from the POV of the protagonist, or something like that. I don’t like clever query letters. All this is, your query, is a way for an agent to eliminate you from their ever-expanding slush pile of letters, or email full of submissions. Make sure you get their name right (Ms. Johnson or Mr. Brooks). If you have a connection, if somebody referred you, drop that name. If you loved a book they represented, an author you really enjoy, spend one line saying that. But don’t kiss too much ass, and don’t grovel. Just represent yourself in a professional manner, and they’ll probably read your work.
This is all over the place, so before you start submitting, you might want to prep some work. You have the full manuscript, 12 point Times, double-spaced, 1 inch margins, page numbers included, title on each page too (in case they drop it, or lose part, right?). Agents will ask for everything from the first 5 pages, to the first 10 pages, to the first 25 or 50. So get those files ready. They will want a synopsis—so spend a few hours typing up a one or two page synopsis that explains your whole book. Yes, this is very difficult, but just lay out the plot points, don’t worry about being cute, and everything will be fine. Most want Word documents, but read the guidelines. Some will ask for a portion pasted directly into the email. Every agent has different guidelines, so when you find an agent, go to their website, to see what they want. Some only want a query. Some want a query and pages. There is no universal way of submitting. Although, QT does have a very cool feature called the QUICK QUERY, where you just hit a button and your pre-saved query will shoot out to the agent. This feature is great, but make sure you check the guidelines first.
So you’ve done your research, sent out 50 queries, and hit up a dozen presses. Now what? You wait. Agents are notorious for either being really fast (rejecting you in hours, or a single day) or taking a really long time to even respond (at least three months on a query). And some never respond. Do you nudge? If it’s an agent you know—maybe you were referred by somebody, or you met them at a conference, or something, sure, after three months, shoot out a quick email. They’re probably just busy, but emails do get lost. If it’s a cold query, I usually mark them down as a non-response after three months, and move on. In the mean time though, I’m sure you’re sending out your short stories, or working on that next novel. That’s right, I said it. Working on that next novel. Hard as it is to imagine, try moving on to the next one, even if this one hasn’t been sold yet. You’re no one-shot wonder, right?
OTHER WAYS TO MEET AGENTS
Can you meet agents at book conferences? Sure. You can meet them at parties or book releases. Just about anywhere. Carry a card with you, or ask for one. Some people keep partials in their cars or briefcases. You always need to be ready, to give that elevator pitch that we talked about in my first column. Know your book and be ready to give a sentence or two synopsis at the drop of a hat. Maybe you can compare it to a familiar television show or movie or other book. (It’s Lost meets Of Mice and Men meets Fight Club, set in current day Chicago.) You definitely should know what genre it is. Be ready.
I’ve also seen these rapid-fire agent events, where you get one minute to pitch an agent. Maybe twenty or thirty or sixty agents are all at the event. If you have the time and money and the personality to make it work, go for it. Do whatever you can, nurture relationships with everyone—other authors, editors, publishers—because you never know who will be willing to hook you up, who will love your novel and know of somebody that might be a good fit.
It’s tough out there. If you think you’re ready for the abuse, then start looking for an agent. Believe in yourself and your book, and make sure you send out your work to the appropriate agents and presses. Do your research, and go after it like a dog on a bone, with everything you have. That passion and faith will be contagious.
NOTE: Markets change rapidly. As you can see many presses that looked at my novels ten years ago, are no longer with us. The most accurate, current lists can be found via Duotrope.com and Querytracker.net. GOOD LUCK!
There’s a really good book out there by Pat Walsh (of MacAdam/Cage) called 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might and this is well worth the read. Even if it’s a bit dated, pick this copy up if you can. It’s just a really good book in general, not just specific to agents.
As for short stories, I wanted to do something a little different this week. I usually try to promote a short story that is easy to find, online and free, if possible. Instead, I want to promote two of the best anthologies for contemporary fiction that are out there. They are the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (edited by Ben Marcus) and the Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories (edited by Tobias Wolff). I can’t recommend these two books enough. And they also contain some stories that I’ve mentioned here before. With work by William Gay, Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, A.M. Homes, Tim O’Brien, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Mona Simpson, and Kate Braverman, these are must own collections.
TO SEND a question to Richard, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
To leave a comment
Same information... Different website? I think that as writers we're inundated with this very same information repeated by bloggers over and over. Recycled topics are entirely yawn worthy. I stopped before reaching the end. Also, it is frightening that someone who has worked with the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub and has been published in so many places does not have a top agent.
Publishing is a tough game. You'd think someone who's read so much about it would know that...
Good column, Rich. Very informative. I'll be querying within the next few days. Very excited. We'll commisserate.
Nice piece Richard.
One thing I'd recommend with the query process, is sending out in smaller batches, perhaps a dozen at a time (rather than 50 at a shot). Especially if you have a smaller list of "appropriate" agents. This way if you're having trouble finding an agent, you can help distinguish if there's simply a problem with your query instead of your book before you burn through all your agents.
For example if your query is getting a lot of requests for partials or fulls, then you know your query is strong.
If your partials or fulls are being rejected then you may have a bigger problem with the work itself (or just not found the right fit yet - there are of course a million possibilities).
However, if you can't even get requests for partials or fulls, then you may want to look at reworking your query...and it's good to consider that before you've sent out 50+.
Thanks for the great piece here Rich. I'm both intimidated and excited for when I start my process. Rob, good luck bro.
I second what 1979semifinalist said--to send them out in small batches to allow yourself time to correct things along the way. Also, if you send them all out at once and then just wait, it feels less active than continually sending new ones out--you may get a bunch of rejections or non responses, but you just sent more out, so you've still got fresh hope floating out there.
Another thing I noticed when querying is that the day of the week you send your e-queries matters. I was sending out weekly batches of queries for awhile, and one day I sent a bunch of those off on a Friday afternoon. That batch got the least responses. That could be coincidence, but I'd wager to guess that those queries were then sitting at the bottom of a large pile that accumulated over the weekend.
As for the process of waiting, the painful, excruciating process of waiting, what helped me was to busy myself writing the next novel. That way I didn't feel like my writing career was on hold while I held my breath.
I was lucky enough to receive an offer for representation two months after starting the querying process, though my novel has yet to be pitched to publishers as it's undergoing a slow and thorough editing process. It's exciting to get an agent for sure, but as Richard mentions above--that's only the first stage of the battle.
One last thing to add in regards to reasons to get an agent--besides gaining access to the larger publishing houses, it is also nice to have someone representing your work who knows what they are doing. Because I don't. My knowledge of the publishing industry is made up from what I've read of it on the internet. It is a relief knowing I have someone who knows the business inside and out willing to go to bat for me and try to make publication happen--someone with connections that I simply do not have.
Great stuff. I'm definitely not at the stage where I need to be looking for an agent but lately I've found myself snooping through different agencies, remembering names and seeing who pushes the books I like. With authors always doing their networking and the conventions and the like it's easy to happen into an in-passing conversation with agents and editors whose work your psyched about, making connections with people you would want to work with. So yeah, that Querytracker site is quite cool.
BTW, there's a good few awesome writers that get amazing books put out without an agent. Craig Clevenger I don't think had an agent for his books. Bunch of the horror writers do fine without agents. I think Tom Piccirilli worked for quite a long time agentless. You can still have an awesome career without an agent, but then why would you want to?
@alisia - well, maybe it's the same information because we're all doing the same things, the process that works. this is all from my personal experience, so i can only tell you what i've been through. as far as me working with King and Straub and not having a top agent? sister, you're preaching to the choir. i can tell you that my second novel was sent to over 100 agents. and i love the book. it's really about finding the right person at the right time. it's hard, that's for sure.
sometimes it feels like the rich get richer, or in this case, the published keep getting published. and it kind of makes sense. if you have a business, would you rather back an unknown or a proven seller? once you break through, and you can do that in a number of ways, things get easier.
@everyone else - thanks for the kind words. i like the small batches idea, that makes sense. and i never thought about sending out queries on a certain day.
best of luck and let me know if you have any other questions.
@Richard Great article as always dude.
I was wondering, and forgive me if you already mentioned this, but are you actively seeking an agent and if not, why aren't you?
Hey, thanks for mentioning Blank Slate Press! If we were bigger and could boast deeper pockets, we'd be delighted to publish more wonderful unagented writers. As writers ourselves, we've felt both the sting of rejection and the joy of seeing our authors hold their debut novels in their hands for the first time. The latter is defnitely more fun.
@jacks_username - yeah, i've been looking for an agent for a year. i sent out Disintegration to over 100 agents. it's tricky. the novel is not straight horror, nor is it straight crime. and as i said to alisia above, most agents are hesitant to sign new clients, they'd prefer to work with a PROVEN author. but i've gotten VERY close several times. the last agent to pass, at a major literary agency, said that he was sure that i'd get snatched up soon, and that he was hesitant to pass, even if he at times didn't "get" parts of Disintegration, too slipstream at times, unsure of what was real and what wasn't. i can honestly tell you that if i had the backing of a good small press, and was a bigger fish in a smaller pond, i'd be fine with that. but sure, we'd all love to sell a million copies, and be able to make a good living at this. it's like being a professional athlete. you have to be in the top 1% of your childhood teams, the best on your high school team, one of the best in all of college sports, and then MAYBE you'll be a pro. it's long odds on top of long odds on top of long odds. OR, one day you could be discovered by the right person, and BAM, you're pushed to the top.
@kristy - hey! good to see you here. of course, you know i love BSP. you did a great job with Fred's book. i know Disintegration is a tricky book, very dark, and not everybody wants to go on that ride. if i had a nickel for every agent or press that said "this is really well written, beautiful language" and then passed? well, i'd have a sack full of nickels, that's for sure.
Good stuff Richard. Seems like that it would also be hard to land an agent now that the publishing world is in a transition phase. So, its hard to know what books will be exactly in the coming years.
Great info, Richard! Thanks for sharing!
oh, and btw, i may have just landed an agent.
Well, it's official. I have an agent. I have signed with Paula Munier at Talcott Notch Literary Agency and we will be shopping my second novel, the neo-noir, transgressive thriller, Disintegration. Paula has over twenty years of experience in the industry, and I'm thrilled to be working with her. She gets my work, is excited about it, and together we're going to sell this book to the best press we can find. Wish me luck! And thanks for all of your support.