Agents–When Do You Need One?

Okay, so you’ve written something. You’re proud of it. You think you might want to get it traditionally published. You’ve heard about literary agents, but not how a writer finds one — or what kind of written works customarily need agents. Here’s how to determine whether you NEED an agent.
If your work is one of the following, you won’t need to start an agent search, because reputable agents don’t handle: poetry, short stories, articles, or essays. Any agent that claims to specialize in poetry or short stories is an amateur or a scammer. Agents make 15% of what the author makes — so for a poem, or a short story or article or essay, it’s simply not cost-effective for a literary agent to handle that kind of work.
(Before someone chimes in to say that they heard that Famous Author’s agent handles his poetry or short stories, this can be true…for Famous Author. But in a case like that, the agent is not doing it for the commission; the agent is doing it as a favor to his or her client. That doesn’t mean it’s true for you, with your first sale yet to come.)
You also won’t need an agent if your work is aimed at any of the following: self-publishing, niche or specialty publication, regional publication, and most small presses. These kinds of companies will read un-agented work, and you can submit to them yourself, with no third party involved.
In the case of some non-fiction, an agent may not be necessary either. Publishers publish more non-fiction than fiction, and I know of some non-fiction authors who did fine submitting their work un-agented, even to big NY commercial publishers. When in doubt, read publisher guidelines and research books that fall into the same category as yours. Also, keep in mind that an agent will almost always get a writer a better contract, advance, etc.
In the case of genre novels, there are still some big commercial publishers that will read un-agented manuscripts. Category romance is one such, and there are still a couple of science fiction and fantasy markets that accept un-agented work. HOWEVER, their slush piles are huge, and it can take six months, a year, or even more for your work to be read. So you’re still better off having an agent, because you’ll get a quicker response.
In general these days, if you’ve written a novel, or what they call “creative non-fiction,” (which includes works like memoirs — think Angela’s Ashes), and your goal is publication with one of the big publishing houses, you really need to sign with a reputable literary agent with a decent track record of sales.
If You Have Determined You Do Need an Agent:
For the sake of this article, I’m presuming that “you” (the universal “you”)  have completed a book. I’m presuming that the book has been revised and edited until it’s as good as you can make it. I’m presuming that you’ve asked a couple of writer friends to beta-read the book, and then used their feedback to improve the book even more. And I’m presuming that the book has been proofread and polished until it’s really ready to go out.
So how do you start searching for that agent?

Getting Started – Compiling a List, Researching Agent Listings, and Following Submission Guidelines

The first thing to remember is that you must research each agent before you submit to them. That’s because the internet is rife these days with scammers — con artists posing as literary agents or publishers — and amateur “agents” who have no clue what they’re doing.  Incidentally, the scammers aren’t out to steal a writers’ book. Their only interest is in separating a writer from his or her hard-earned money. And those amateur agents may be well-meaning, but they don’t have the professional publishing contracts, or knowledge, to sell your book — so signing with one of them means you’ll simply waste valuable time, and possibly money.
Writer Beware wishes we had a dollar for every writer who has written to us to say, “I submitted my book to Agent X, is this agency reputable?”  (All too often, the answer is “no.”)
If your book is fiction, and fits neatly into a genre, try this. Take a notebook to your local bookstore(s). Look up all the books on the shelves in that bookstore that are remotely like yours. If your novel is fantasy, for example, and has a half-elf as a protagonist, and it is set in the modern world, that would fall under the sub-category we call “urban fantasy.” In science fiction there are sub-genres, too, such as alternate history, military science fiction, post-apocalyptic science fiction, etc.
Sub-genres exist in mysteries and romance novels, as well. “Cozies” are different from hard-boiled PI novels, which are different from police procedural novels, which are different from forensic-scientist-as-detective novels. For romances, there are entire lines aimed at particular stages in a woman’s life, such as “second chance at love,” and so forth.
So try to narrow down your search so it’s as close as possible to the kind of novel you’ve written. Look inside the books you take off the shelves. Note down the title, author, and publisher or imprint in your notebook. Then look at the Author Notes or Acknowledgments section. You’re looking for a note where the author thanks his or her literary agent. Many authors do this. When you find it, note the agent’s name and agency.
If you do this kind of searching in books in a couple of bookstores, chances are you’ll wind up with a list of agents or agencies. Next, it’s time to start checking and expanding your list. Go through Writers Market, the hardcopy book, or online at Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents is another helpful resource. Good online sources to use to cross-check for information are AgentQuery and Query Tracker. They’re free, and they do “vet” the agents they list. Be warned:  many online listings don’t bother to check whether the agents are “real” or not.
You can also do a web search on the agent’s name (though never just type “literary agent” into a search engine; doing that will result in a list of scammers). Most agents have websites these days. Learn how to evaluate an agent’s website so you can tell whether the agent is “real” or a fake. A good clue to “real” is a track record of sales to recognizable publishers. An obvious clue to “fake” is no mention of track record, or a client list that doesn’t include any published writers.
Another good resource, especially if you have trouble finding an agent’s name or finding info about their track record, is the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check board at the excellent Absolute Write Water Cooler. There are hundreds of discussion threads there on literary agents (and others), many of which include hard-to-find information and warnings about nonstandard business practice.
The most important thing to remember is that you are collecting info on these agents to try and get a feel for what the agent likes, what his or her literary tastes are. Doing this kind of research will also ensure that you don’t waste your time querying agents that have gone out of business, died, have zero sales, etc.
In your research, you’ll also be looking for the agent’s preferred submission guidelines. You can usually find these in the market resources referred to above, though the most up-to-date source is the agent’s website. IMPORTANT TIP:  Pay attention to these guidelines and send the agent exactly what he or she asks to see.
For example, some agents will say “query only.” That means that all they want to see is your query letter. Some will say “query with first chapter and synopsis” or “query with the firs 50 pages.”  I can’t stress this too strongly:  send the agent exactly what he or she asks to see. No more, no less.
Keep a log of the agents you plan to submit to. Your log can be as big as you like, but it’s a good idea to prioritize, and start your submission process with the agents you’d most like to represent you.

How to Recognize Real Agents

Here’s a short list of “bewares” and advisories when agent searching:
1. Real agents don’t advertise. They don’t have to. If you see an agency name in a sponsored Google ad, or in the back of a writer’s magazine, odds are they’re a scam.
2. Real agents don’t charge upfront fees. The days of scammers charging “reading fees” are pretty much over. They’ve gotten cagier in the past few years — now they call their fees “contract fees,” “administrative fees,” “editing fees,” “critique fees,” “evaluation fees,” and so on. The operative “beware” in here is that the author has to hand over money as a condition of representation.
Bogus agents these days often CLAIM they don’t charge fees. And for some reason a lot of new writers don’t equate “paying for a critique” as paying an agent fee. But if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and the writer has to haul out his or her checkbook…it’s a fee.
Writer Beware even heard of one scam where the author had to fly to California in order to get “publicity pictures” made so they could be sent along with each submitted manuscript. There was no fee whatsoever associated with the agency, of course. But the authors had to pay $450.00 to get their “author photos” done. Need I add that this agency never sold any books to advance and royalty paying publishers? Matter of fact, we never found any evidence that they’d ever submitted any of their clients’ books.
Literary agents are like real estate agents, in that they work off commission. When they sell your book, they get their commission right off the top of your advance, and then again on any royalties you earn. Standard commission these days for domestic sales is 15%, and 20-25% is standard for foreign sales, because the commission is frequently split between domestic and foreign agents.
3. Real agents list books they’ve agented on their websites, and you’ll recognize the names of the publishers that bought the books. The publishers they list are not vanity presses or small presses that work mainly with unagented writers. They are advance and royalty paying commercial publishers, and you can find their books stocked on the shelves in brick and mortar bookstores.
Any agent that claims that their client list is “confidential” should be regarded with wariness, and their credentials should be investigated with extra care.
4. Being a member of AAR (Association of Authors Representatives) is a positive sign for an agency, because an agent has to have a proven track record of sales to qualify for membership.
However, there are two literary agencies that are on Writer Beware’s “questionable” list that are AAR members. We’ve gotten complaints about them, and it’s pretty clear to us that they’re making most of their money off their clients, rather than sales of the clients’ books.
Learn to trust your “gut feeling” when examining an agent’s website. Look carefully at their list of credentials and their track record of sales. If your gut tells you there is something flakey going on, don’t submit to the agent until you have checked them out in every possible fashion.
Regarding agent claims: If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
5. Real agents don’t insist on all client interactions being electronic. Real agents have phone numbers, and real snail addresses in addition to email addresses. When you sign with a real agent, that agent will TALK to you on the PHONE. You won’t be deluged with a slew of boilerplate-looking emails that are so generic they could apply to anyone.
6. Real agents don’t offer to edit for a fee. A real agent will work with you to give your manuscript a final polish before submitting–but they won’t charge for this service. It’s part of what their 15% commission will pay for.
7. Real agents don’t sell adjunct services to their clients. They don’t tell writers they must pay for a website so their work can be “showcased” for publishers who will go look at it on the internet. They don’t nickel and dime their clients by trying to sell them all kinds of “extras” — illustrations, business cards, flyers, brochures, photos, marketing plans, etc.
10. Real agents don’t submit books to vanity or non-advance paying publishers. A real agent’s job is to find ways for you to make money, not to spend it. A real agent paid when you get paid–no advance equals no commission.

Writing the Synopsis

We’ve already established that your manuscript has to be edited, polished, and proofread — totally ready to be seen by agents. There are two other things you’ll need to work on before you’re ready to actually submit to the agents on that list you’ve created — the synopsis, and the query letter.
Writers tie themselves into emotional and mental knots over writing synopses (also referred to in the business as “outlines).” They’re really quite simple, but they can be a bitch to write well. I advise my writing workshop students to do two versions of their synopsis, so they’ll be ready for whatever an agent might want to see along with the query letter, or, even better, what an agent might request to see as the result of reading your query.
The first synopsis you write should be one that covers the events in the book in a more or less chapter by chapter order, allowing perhaps one or two paragraphs per chapter to summarize the events. You can probably synopsize a 100,000 word book in about 7-10 single-spaced pages, skipping a line between paragraphs, and using a good, clear font. The reason I suggest using single-space for a synopsis is to visually differentiate the synopsis from the manuscript excerpt or full manuscript. But if an agent tells you to double-space the synopsis he or she has requested, by all means do so.
The second synopsis I suggest my workshoppers write is for agents that request a “one page synopsis” or a “short synopsis.” This kind of synopsis is so brief that you really can’t cover events in chapter by chapter manner. They’re even harder to do well than the first, more extended kind. Basically it’s a case of cut, summarize, then cut some more. But they can be done, and it will serve you well to have both kinds prepared.
Write your synopsis in present tense. (If you don’t know what present tense is, you’re not ready to submit anything to anyone – go back and take some remedial English courses.)
The synopsis should cover the entire book, including the end. Don’t get coy and say, “And to find out what happens at the end…read the manuscript!” (Aspiring authors have indeed done this, and agents and editors find it really annoying.)
Give about the same amount of detail in writing a synopsis for submission that you might use in describing a good movie to a friend. You don’t want to tell every single detail, but you want the plot to flow along in a concise, yet understandable, fashion. Use vivid, precise language, and be specific about what happens – just not detailed.
For example, if a character dies, say so, in vivid language.
“And then Gandalf meets his fate, to the grief of all his companions” sounds dull and stuffy, whereas, “Gandalf faces the fiery Balrog alone, and magically smashes the stone bridge, thus buying Frodo and his companions time to escape at the cost of his life. Frodo and the other members of the Fellowship watch, grief-stricken, as wizard and monster fall into the abyss.”
Only include details about characterization and subplots insofar as they relate to the resolution of the main plot.
When I’m writing a synopsis, I imagine my audience as a group of wriggly cub scouts around a campfire. They have short attention spans, and my narrative has to be riveting and dynamic to keep them “hooked” on the story you’re unfolding.
As an example, I’m including the first few paragraphs of the synopsis I did for my Star Wars novel, The Paradise Snare:
Young Han Solo is desperate to escape the cruel traders that raised him and are the only “caretakers” he has ever known. He plans and schemes, learning the rudiments of piloting, staking everything on getting from sadistic, drunken Captain Garris Shrike and his crew, so he can begin a new life as a free man.
Late at “night” aboard the huge space barge that is the nomadic trader colony, eighteen year old Han sneaks down to the kitchen to bid goodbye to his best friend, the Wookiee, Dewlanna, promising to contact her when he reaches his destination. He’s found a job at a religious colony on the distant world of Ylesia, and he hopes to send for her as soon as he’s settled in and has earned enough money.
Their farewell is interrupted by Captain Shrike and his henchmen, who have discovered Han’s escape plans. During the melee that follows, Dewlanna is blasted when she leaps in front of Han to shield him. Outraged, Han shoots the leader and flees. Donning a spacesuit, he slips aboard the robot cargo ship bound for Ylesia.

Writing the Query Letter

What is a query letter? It’s a business letter, professionally written, carefully proofread (NO TYPOS!) that introduces your book and asks the agent “would you like to read this?”
A query letter is not a synopsis. It’s not your autobiography. It’s short, pithy, and very well written. I can’t overstress how important a good query letter is. It’s a chance to showcase your writing to the agent. A poorly written query letter will axe any chance you have of the agent wanting to see read your manuscript.
The most common mistakes aspiring authors make in writing query letters are as follows:
1. Too long. A good query letter is brief, no more than one page. When I say “one page” I mean a few hundred words–not one page crammed from top to bottom with narrow margins.
2. Trying to include a synopsis of the book instead of a “sound bite” (I’ll cover writing this below). You can’t write an effective synopsis of a novel-length work in fifty words or less, honest. What you can do is write a “verbal snapshot” of the book in dynamic, fascinating language. That’s the “sound bite.”
3. Telling too much about themselves and their lives. Agents and editors don’t care about your hobbies or your family or your hardships–unless these directly relate to your book. Everything in the query letter, including the credentials section if there is one, MUST relate to your book and your unique ability to write it. Telling the agent all about yourself in an attempt to gain the agent’s sympathy is the kiss of death.
4. Telling the agent how much their friends and family members loved their book. Or about the published authors who loved the book. I made this mistake myself when I started out — it’s a natural one to make. But resist! Agents don’t care what your friends and family thought — it’s irrelevant to the all-important question of whether they think they can sell your book.
5. Telling the agent what to think. “This book will be a surefire bestseller!” is not a line to include in your query.
6. Making their writing experiences look like credentials when they aren’t. Writing a few articles for local newspapers for no pay doesn’t count as a writing credential. The same goes for recipes in your parish cookbook or a letter printed in the Washington Post or a story posted on a website no one has heard of or a win in a contest conducted by a tiny webzine. What counts is writing you were PAID to do, or writing for a venue the agent will recognize.
What if you have no writing credentials? Don’t sweat it. Many debut writers don’t have anything resembling a writing resume. If that’s the case for you, just don’t mention credentials at all in your query. A good agent won’t overlook a good pitch just because the writer has no publishing credits.
7. Writers who inform the agent that the book they’re submitting is the first book in a 12 book series they’ve spent the last ten years writing. This reeks of obsession, and agents will make the sign of the cross and back away. Concentrate on the book you’re trying to sell. If you plan on writing followups, or have other manuscripts available, mention this at the end of the query — but query for one book at a time.
There are two kinds of effective query letters. The first type is a good, workmanlike business letter, and it does the job. It’s short, to the point, written in dynamic, specific language, with NO errors of any kind — no typos, punctuation, spelling, grammatical, etc. Remember, letter-perfect!
The other kind of query letter is weird, quirky, but so irresistible and creative that it will capture the attention of an agent even though it’s far outside the “accepted” model. This kind of query letter springs from true talent and writing genius, and really can’t be taught. I’ve seen some of them, and they leave me in awe — and they immediately captured the interest of the agent(s) they were sent to. However, since they can’t be classified or taught (and are extremely risky, because they’re so hard to pull off — I’ve seen many comments from agents, for instance, who say they hate getting queries written in the voice of the novel’s protagonist), I’m going to concentrate today on the first type of query letter.
My suggested “template” for a query letter runs like this:
1. First paragraph: introduce your project in a one line description of the book, giving the title and genre. In this paragraph you also should specify the length of the manuscript (in number of words, not number of pages). Make it clear that this is a completed, polished book. Sometimes it can work well to quickly compare the book to another work the agent would recognize. However, instead of announcing that “My book is just like X,” use language such as, “In the tradition of X,” or “Should appeal to readers of X.”
Your language in writing a query letter is very important. It must be smooth, flowing, and persuasive, without telling the agent what to think, or engaging in hyperbole. That one-line description of the work is often a make-or-break. In the writing business we sometimes refer to the one-line description as “the elevator pitch.” This term comes from Hollywood, and is based on the idea that writers should be able to summarize their books in one arresting, unforgettable line that will capture the attention of a producer or agent – while taking no more time than would be required for an elevator ride.
(An example of a one-line description that actually sold a book to an editor occurred to me while I was waiting in line to get into a restaurant at a World S.F. Convention in Los Angeles in 1984. Harriet MacDougal, a Tor editor who’d acquired a previous collaboration from Andre Norton and me, was standing in line just in front of me, while waiting to get into the cafĂ© for breakfast. After we exchanged greetings, Harriet asked me what I was currently working on, and I replied, “Andre and I are writing Witch World: The Next Generation.” Harriet promptly told me to send her a chapter or so when I got home, which I did. She put it under contract.)
2. Second paragraph: here’s where you’ll need to get very creative, and showcase your best writing skills. This is the paragraph where you provide the “verbal snapshot” of your book in the form of a “sound bite.”
Michael Cassutt first described “sound bites” to me, and I’ll never forget the example he used – the sound bite for an apocryphal television show. “Bongo and the Pontiff. She’s a chimp. He’s the Pope. Together, they solve murders.”
I never forgot it — and that’s the POINT of a sound bite. It sticks in your head, like a tune you can’t forget. I repeat, it is NOT a synopsis. Instead it’s a “verbal snapshot” of a book’s storyline, a few lines that are so vivid, so enticing, that the agent will immediately want to read the entire book.
An example of one for my first published book, a Star Trek novel titled Yesterday’s Son might have read: “While checking computer data from a recent mission, Mr. Spock discovers he sired offspring with Zarabeth back on ice age Sarpeidon. Grimly determined to do the right thing, he travels through time using the Guardian of Forever to retrieve the boy. But instead of a child, he encounters a young man, Zar, who has grown up with dreams of the father who would someday rescue him…and love him. When these two must work together to stop a Romulan takeover of the Guardian of Forever, conflict is inevitable — and far from logical.”
That’s a sound bite. It’s a brief encapsulation that captures the heart and soul and “flavor” of the novel. Not a synopsis, not a summary. It’s a verbal snapshot, designed to intrigue, to spark interest in reading. The language you use should be vivid, specific, and dynamic. When that agent puts down your query letter and goes off in search of more coffee, that sound bite should run through his or her mind.
3. Third paragraph: this paragraph should contain a summary of your credentials for writing the book. If you don’t have any, then don’t try to manufacture them — that looks really lame. Just leave them out. As I said above, a good agent won’t turn up their nose at a good query just because the writer doesn’t have a publishing history.
Credentials fall into three categories:
-  Best and foremost, writing credentials. Writing credentials mean you’ve sold your writing. That means you received money for the right to publish it. Cite the venue, giving the title of the article, short story, or book. If you didn’t receive any payment for the writing, chances are you shouldn’t mention it. Things like letters to the editor published in your local paper don’t count. A recipe in a parish cookbook doesn’t count. Self-published books–and even small press books, if the agent isn’t likely to have heard of the press–don’t count unless they sold really well (on the order of thousands of copies). Any vanity-published book definitely doesn’t count.
- The other two categories of “credentials” you can mention would be lifetime experience, and/or academic degrees – providing they relate to the subject of your book.
There’s no point in mentioning that you have a degree in quantum physics if you’ve written a humorous fluffy unicorn story or a romance novel set in the Miami drug culture. However, if you’ve written a science fiction novel dealing with the true nature of dark matter, mentioning your degree would be relevant.
The same goes for lifetime experience. If you’ve written a detective novel, and you can truthfully state that you’ve been a homicide detective for 10 years, that’s definitely worth a mention.
Mentioning your age, marital status, number of children, grandchildren, whether you have bunions or gout, is NOT relevant, so don’t bother. (Corollary: do NOT send the agent pictures of yourself, gifts, cash, or anything except what the agent asked for. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard from agents about what aspiring writers have sent them. Nude photos were the least of it!)
If you have no credentials to cite, simply state that (Title) is your first novel, and that you’re working on your second. And then make sure that statement is true. Agents are not enthusiastic about “one shot” writers.
 4. Fourth paragraph: this last paragraph is simply a polite conclusion to your business letter. Thank the agent for considering your query. Tell them you hope to hear from them at their earliest convenience.

Then write “Sincerely,” and sign your name. If you are paper-querying (increasingly rare these days), don’t forget your business-letter-sized SASE.

@copywrite on

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