Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Business Side of Writing: the Agent Hunt

I've been talking to Heidi Mack, my Website Manager Extraordinaire, about putting some pdfs full of my take-it-or-leave-it advice for new writers on the sidebar of this blog. If I can get the technical side worked out, I'll create a little library for those of you who come here looking for information about the business side of writing.

I am going to pursue, as mentioned, the topics that the story in yesterday's post bring to mind, and that will be included in the library. However, I got an e-mail today that made me decide to postpone those posts a day or so in order to write about the agent hunt.

I won't repeat the whole e-mail message here or identify the sender, because even though I frankly found a lot of it ludicrous, I believe it was sent with the best of intentions and I don't want to expose the sender to ridicule.

The e-mailer wanted help for a friend who writes. He wants me to introduce the friend to my agent. (Both the e-mailer and his friend are complete strangers to me, by the way.) He is by no means the only person who has written such an e-mail to me. If this is something you've been thinking of doing, please don't.

Within this message, he made a statement that I suspect is believed by a great many people who don't know much about publishing:
As you know, you can only meet with a literary agent if you have a recommendation from another author.
This simply isn't true.

In fact, when I found my first agent, I didn't know any published writers.

There's a trap in the kind of thinking that's often behind statements like those of the e-mailer, a trap that I believe leads more new writers astray than almost any other. It's a trap that passes itself off as a balm for the hurt feelings of the rejected. It says publishing is an insider's game, a cabal of evil greedy bastards who delight in crushing the dreams of the artist before its golden altars of crass commercialism. The aspiring writer is told that only someone anointed by an insider will be allowed to be published.

What utter crap.

If you hear this kind of talk, walk away. Walk away from the embittered and impatient folks who offer supposedly easier paths, who love to strike poses as leaders of the rebellion for the downtrodden and rejected. What's often oppressing these folks isn't the publishing industry -- it's their own sense of entitlement and self-importance.

It's easy to be angry if someone turns you down, and to be lured by this kind of talk into making huge career mistakes.

So what's the deal with finding agents? Do you need a published writer to open the door for you?

Few of the writers I know got the help of published authors when looking for agents. Most writers I've talked to did a lot of homework, queried agents, and persisted like hell. They found someone who took an interest in their work and went on from there.

For the ones who had an author introduction to an agent, I know of no one who e-mailed a request to an author they barely knew (or never met) and got help that way. I'm sure someone out there will now post a comment about someone they heard about who did just that. I could probably find a stuffed two-headed calf in a taxidermy collection somewhere, but that doesn't mean I believe there are barns full of living ones all over the U.S..

So how did the new writers who got help from published authors manage to do that without begging for help from strangers by e-mail?

A few got involved in writers' organizations, got to know published writers well, and got advice from them on agents who might represent that type of manuscript -- although not necessarily a hand-carried introduction to an agent. Others took courses from authors at places like the UCLA Extension's Writers Program, and if they met an instructor who was willing to pass their work on to an agent, found one that way. A few were in writers' groups that included published authors, and got help that way. (I have mixed -- okay, mostly negative -- feelings about writers' groups, but that's for another post.)

So what else can you do if you have a polished manuscript ready to go? (Oh, you're worrying about this without having finished a manuscript? Stop reading now and get back to writing.)

You can also meet agents at the San Diego Writers Conference, the Book Passage Mystery Conference and other major, legitimate writing conferences.

These are important features that lead me to recommend these conferences, and you should look for similar features in other conferences you consider:
  • Well-established (the SDSU was founded in 1984, the Book Passage Conference is in its 14th year)
  • Connected with a reputable institution or organization
  • Offers an opportunity to meet with editors who are from major publishing houses and agents with established client lists
  • Offers an opportunity to have pages of your work read
  • Emphasizes teaching and has nuts-and-bolts workshops

What else should you do to find an agent?

Before you begin the hunt for an agent, you should carefully read the advice here:
Writer Beware
Writer Beware is must reading for all new writers -- and I wish more established writers, especially those who teach writing, would take a look at. If you're a new writer, you should read the pages of this site again and again, until you are sure you have grasped the warnings and advice there. Especially important -- read the Writer Beware List of the 20 Worst Agents.

Look for agents to send queries to here:
Association of Authors Representatives

Remember that there is no licensing requirement or other standard that must be met before a person can refer to himself or herself as an agent, so at the very least, protect yourself to some degree by going with agents who are in this professional organization. It’s important to read the Frequently Asked Questions section of the AAR site.

You can also get agents' names and information from a book available at most public libraries:
Literary Marketplace.

I recommend looking at these blogs:
The Writer Beware Blog

Miss Snark

Jennifer Jackson, especially this recent post.

Why do I recommend them? Writer Beware will help you to see why you don't need an agent, you need the right agent. I think the other two will help you to get a sense of the reality of the worklife of agents, and why some things new writers do to try to become their clients work well and others backfire big time. You'll get information from people in the business about the business. You may find agents who operate quite differently from these two, who disagree with them. But I think you'll learn something from reading their blogs. For example, Jennifer Jackson's statement that she gets 100 queries a week might help you to see why it might take a little time to get a response to your query. Miss Snark explains how it is that even those who meet her at conferences must query. (By the way, she's about to run the crapometer again, so you might take time to figure out what that is and how it may help you.)

I'll talk more about this at some point in the future, but I hope this has given some of you something to think about. I sincerely wish you all the best -- all writers benefit when talented new writers join our ranks. I also wish you the courage you'll need to remain persistent.

Photo above courtesy Mike Conners, from


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this blog entry. As an unpublished writer I appreciate you taking the time to address these issues. I especially loved this comment, "So what else can you do if you have a polished manuscript ready to go? (Oh, you're worrying about this without having finished a manuscript? Stop reading now and get back to writing.)"

I recently found myself worrying about my query and synopsis even though my manuscript isn't "polished" yet. An acquintance who is a published writer set me straight. She basically said don't sweat the query worry about the book and I knew she was right.

Thanks again,
MF Makichen

Jan Burke said...

Glad you found it useful!

Sounds as if you got good advice from your writer acquaintance.