Do you need an agent? That’s the first question you need to ask yourself.
How do you know if you need one? Ask yourself this next question: What kind of writing career do you want?
- Complete control and/or immediate publishing results.
- Shared control and an investment of time (typically measured in years) in order to be published.
If you choose A, then you’ll want to go the route of a small press or self-publish. You won’t need an agent. You’ll be calling the shots and doing all the work. Any mistakes will also be your own.
If you choose B, then be prepared to be a player in a team. This team shapes the manuscript into the final product. There are parts you get no say—or hardly any say. With the help of your agent, you may be able to have some control over the process.
Finding an Agent
There are two primary routes to finding an agent—besides having one approach you at a cocktail party and beg to be your agent. (We can all stop laughing now.) Route one is the query letter and route two is the pitch session.
For the query letter route:
- Make a list of books that are like yours. Then find out who their agents are. Send out query letters to those agents.
- Consult resources that list agents: Writer’s Digest’s agent issue; writersmarket.com ($6/month); QueryTracker.net; AgentQuery.com. Send out those query letters.
For the pitch session route:
- Choose a conference or convention where pitch sessions are being offered. Register. Develop your pitch. Deliver your pitch.
- Here are a couple of examples of conferences and conventions that have pitch sessions with the Big 5 publishers and renowned literary agencies.
-Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans Conference (affordable)
-Thrillerfest http://thrillerfest.com/pitchfest (expensive)
Before I go any further I just want to say that nothing is going to happen the way you think it’s going to happen. No one is going to go bonkers over your query letter or pitch. No one is going to write you a million dollar check on the spot. No one is going to jump up and down claiming that your book is the most magnificent book idea she has ever heard. What’s ahead of you is a lot of hard work, some disappointment, more hard work, and hopefully in the end the satisfaction of a published novel.
Query Letter Route
The Query Letter is predominantly done as email these days but retains the formality of a business letter. However, check and check again on the agent’s preferred mode of receiving a query letter. Did I say query letter? I mean query letters. And you’ll be sending out a lot of them. S.G. Browne—the author of Breathers, Fated, and many more critically lauded novels—experienced a lot of rejection before he landed his agent. On his blog http://sgbrowne.com/?s=query+letter, Scott writes:
“AgentQuery.com is where I found my agent, Michelle Brower, back in November 2007. This was after 15 months and 82 agents who passed on my novel. So the lesson here is: Don’t give up.
“The query letter I sent to Michelle for Breathers was included in the Writer’s Digest ‘Successful Queries’ back in July 2009. If you’re interested, you can read my query letter and my agent’s commentary on my query by clicking here http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/successful-queries-agent-michelle-brower-and-breathers.”
That’s right: 82 agents=82 query letters. Read Scott’s post about how he modified his query letter as he received rejections and other helpful tidbits about writing and publishing. Oh, and read his books if you haven’t.
Pitch Session Route
A pitch session is essentially a job interview. You are selling yourself as well as your book. I chose this route. I had always wanted to attend Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans conference. My manuscript was essentially “finished.” (Not really but eventually you have to take your baby out into public.) Why this particular conference? The roster of editors and agents for the pitch sessions made me salivate: Penguin, Tor, Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, and the list goes on.
Deciding to attend this conference and commit myself to seven pitch sessions took a lot of preparation. I didn’t take it lightly. Here are the major points to keep in mind:
- Prepare your logline/elevator pitch and complete pitch. You will probably have 10 to 15 minutes with the agent (or editor). The pitch should be about 5 minutes.
- Loglines/elevator pitches and full pitches are something you will have to research. It’s too extensive of a topic to cover now.
- Practice, practice, practice, and practice your pitch some more. A week before the conference Weston Ochse—author of Seal Team 666 and more books than I can list—was our houseguest. He caught me off guard when he asked to hear my pitch. I fumbled. Lesson learned.
- Dress to Impress. This is Not the time to be casual. Business casual is acceptable, but err on the side of being conservative. Be real. If you have Bestseller as a goal, look at the photos of writers on book covers. That should give you an idea of what the Big House publishers want to see in their product. Yes, you are their product as much as that book is.
- Be prepared to be interrupted with questions by the agent/editor as you give your pitch. Not once was I able to recite the whole thing from beginning to end.
- Have a firm handshake, smile, and be a person. Be respectful—that person you’re pitching to just might hold your future in her hands. Be confident. But do not be cocky. You are not the greatest writer who ever lived. And your manuscript is probably a hot, holy mess.
Now for some very, very important rules of a pitch session:
- DO NOT give the agent/editor anything—your business card, sample chapters, a bottle of champagne. Nothing.
- DO NOT offer to send/email the agent/editor anything—see the above list.
- DO NOT ask the agent/editor for a business card.
- IF the agent/editor is interested, you will be offered a business card. Once you have left the pitch session and the door is closed behind you. You may hold the business card above your head in triumph. You will then begin the process of preparing the materials the agent or editor wants, which might include a novel summary and sample chapters. Sometimes you will be given a specific number of pages to send. So pay attention during the pitch session.
- IF the agent/editor didn’t offer you a business card, say your thank yous and leave graciously. As you exit the room, stuff your hand in your pocket as if you’re depositing a business card. Smile at the other waiting writers as you leave.
How did I fare? I received business cards from every person I pitched to. I did what I set out to do—pitch my book. I want to add a bit of post pitch advice. Since these pitch sessions occur at conferences, you will see the agents and editors in social settings—like the bar. If the person doesn’t seem to be engaged in business and appears approachable, it’s okay to start up a conversation with the agent or editor. However, do not talk about your book. Talk to the agent or editor like a person. You’re both probably in a host city. Ask how he likes it, or if he’s seen any sites. Whatever, just stay away from the topic of your book—unless the agent or editor brings it up. Then make sure you don’t drone on. Keep it short and simple. Move on to other topics in a decent amount of time. Know when to excuse yourself from that person’s company.
Breaking the Rules
Now, I know I just gave you very explicit rules about not giving anything to the agent/editor during the pitch session, but I’m going to tell you about my secret weapon. I came prepared in case I was asked for a novel summary or sample chapters. I wrote 7 query letters—each addressed specifically to the agents and editors I pitched to. Then I made up 7 packets containing the query letter, novel summary, and sample chapters. For the men’s packets I used black binder clips, and for the women’s, leopard spotted ones. I kept these in my briefcase (more like a cool briefcase bag), and I took my briefcase everywhere.
Later in the day—at the conference—one of the hallway monitors for the pitch sessions told me that a particular agent came out of the meeting room—after I had left—and raved about my pitch. That afternoon I saw this particular agent in the bar and stopped to talk with her. She invited me to sit. As we talked, I sensed that asking her if she would like sample chapters wasn’t going to make me a pariah in the publishing world. She said yes; this is not commonly done. So be sure. I handed her the packet—query letter addressed to her, summary, and sample chapters. She was blown away by the leopard spotted binder clip. She was floored that the query letter was addressed specifically to her. Preparation and attention to detail earned me a lot of admiration right then and there. The other 6 packets got recycled, but one was all it took to land an agent.
Working with an Agent
So what’s it like having an agent. First, yes, it’s super cool to say “my agent this” or “my agent that.” So go ahead and bandy it about. Sometimes we get so few pleasures as writers, but this is definitely one time I allow myself to sound like a complete snob. I can live with it. I worked hard and earned the right. My agent is Donna Bagdasarian of Publication Riot Group. Remember the time commitment I mentioned earlier? Donna and I are in our second year (thirdish) together. The first year I rewrote the novel under her advice. She hit on the same points that my mom did, so I knew Donna’s suggestions were accurate. Then we kind of stalled out for a while—like a year.
The one thing I would do over? At the onset of our business relationship I should have asked for monthly or quarterly reports in writing about any action my agent took on behalf of the book. I often felt in the dark. A phone conversation doesn’t cover it. If you want more advice about the darkside of agent-writer relationships, go to Weston Ochse’s blog http://weston-ochse.blogspot.com/2015/11/my-agent-is-going-to-make-me-millions.html. He wrote the blog directed at me, and even though I chose to stay with my agent, it gave me the courage to get my agent-writer relationship back on track.
So, has my novel been sold yet? No. Remember when I said things don’t go the way you expect them to go? That’s where I am. My agent asked a trusted colleague of hers, a well-respected entertainment agent, to read the manuscript. He suggested to my agent that I work with an experienced historical novelist to shore up the weak spots in the book. That’s what I’m doing now. Once that’s finished, my agent will hit the streets with it. So we’ll see what happens. All you can do as the writer is do the work.
Here are two sites that I used in this process: janefriedman.com and sfwa.org.
So if you’re ready for an agent, get to work. Good luck.