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.
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