Dear TWB Reader, This is the second of a series on fiction writing, specifically, what you do after you’ve finished your manuscript (in this case, a novel). Many ask me about literary agents, what they do, do they make you rich overnight, etc. Here, I share some of my own experiences with literary agents.
I’ll call my agent Athena because I happen to be reading The Iliad now and she’s the first pseudonym that comes to mind (Athena is the goddess of wisdom and military victory. Those are good traits for an agent).
Before Athena, I went through two other agents. The first one had a solid career and a strong stable of writers. He did mostly nonfiction, but wanted to break into the fiction market, and he liked the novel I had sent him. It was a risk for both of us. He had yet to establish himself as an agent of literary fiction, and I was a new kid on the block. He didn’t place my novel. We parted amicably, both realizing that we weren’t exactly the right fit for each other.
The second agency was a wee dubious. She liked my novel and took it on. Six months passed. I called. The first thing I heard was a blood-curdling scream from the back of the room. Then another. Then bursts of crying. The woman answered, “Clydmore Literary Agency and Day Care Center, how may I help you?” We parted ways.
Athena has been wonderful. She’s my first editor. She reads my work carefully and is as blunt as a spoon with her critique. She’s dealt with enough petulant writers through the years, so her skin is thick. I’d like to think I haven’t given her too much troubles, though once, I got terribly indignant—better say, pissy—about some of her critiques, and said some things that I truly regret. She put up with it, was patient, and once I calmed down and apologized, we got back to work on making the novel stronger.
I tell this story because I believe it’s important for the writer to know her/his position in the writer-agent relationship. It truly is a business partnership. It’s a literary marriage, where both play a significant role in the selling of a book.
Today, it’s near-impossible to sell a book on your own, directly to a publisher. You need an agent. But, don’t think the agent is going to solve all your problems, make you famous, and put a six-figure advance into your bank account overnight.
Here’s the bottom line: an agent 1–markets your work and, once a publisher says they want it, 2–makes sure the contract is solid. Athena goes through the contract with a Geiger counter. We won’t sign it until both she and I are happy.
But, most important: the agent-writer relationship is first and foremost a relationship. Which is why I so regret my tantrum: I could have lost Athena, and even worse, could have lost a friend who has helped me out, so much, through the years, someone who asks about my family and I ask about hers. We’ve kept up with each others’ kids since they were itsy bitsy. What manuscript is worth losing all that over?
And that tantrum: once I settled down, I saw that, in the end, her critiques?—they were right on the money.
An agent has to fall in love with your work, which means you’ve got to write one hell of a story. Athena can’t sell a story that she’s not excited about.
Before approaching an agency, do your research. See who else they represent, how long they’ve been in business, and make sure they’re a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), which means they’re legit—that is, they don’t charge authors for their services. If an agent charges you, he’s scamming you. An agent makes a percentage of the sale. That’s their income. Never pay someone else to sell or publish your book. And don’t get me started on self-publishing.
Do your homework before approaching agents. Research. Rip out your aesthetic eyes and put in your marketing ones—which agent is best for me? While the agent will be asking of you, Is this writer worth taking on?
Once you do this, how do you make first contact? You write one hell of a query letter. More on that soon.
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