All About Agents

It’s not uncommon for authors to ask me about finding an agent. I’m not an agent, and I probably can’t help you find one. But I might be able to help guide you through that decision-making process a little! Here’s the answers to the top five questions I get about agents. All answers pertain to fiction, since that’s the field I work in.

Do I need an agent?

Not if you’ll be self-publishing. Agents represent you to publishers, so if you’re acting as your own publisher, no agent required.

Otherwise, for almost all other types of fiction, you absolutely do. Many (if not most) publishers won’t accept unagented submissions, period. Even the smaller presses who do accept them are likely to prioritize a manuscript coming from an agent they have a relationship with, if they even read the unagented submissions at all.

An agent opens doors for you that would otherwise remain closed. They are the only pathway to significant traditional publishing. So yes, you do want an agent!

Is that the only reason I need an agent? What does an agent do, anyway?

Think of an agent as your business partner. Together, you form a team that allows you to make a living in this field. You do the writing and they handle the business side.

An agent does much more than just get you an “in” with publishers. They help you tweak your query and submissions to be as successful as possible. They handle all the legal paperwork and negotiate to make sure your contract is fair. They keep tabs on which editors are working in which genres at which publishers, who’s open and who’s not taking any more submissions, and what each editor is specifically looking for. They can find you the perfect fit. They make sure you get your royalties and mediate any problems that might come up, taking on the role of the bad guy so you can keep a positive connection with your publisher no matter what. They protect your rights and prevent companies from taking advantage of you. Even if a book doesn’t sell right away, a good agent can help you see the bigger picture around a rejection and use that information to change your approach.

Do I need to have my story finished before I find an agent?

Yes! At least in fiction. Your story should be complete and have gone through multiple revisions. In short, it should be as perfect as you can possibly make it, even though you might end up revising again with your agent. Do several self-editing rounds, use lots of beta readers, workshop it in a writer’s group. I know there’s some debate over whether or not you should have a manuscript professionally edited before submitting, but my feeling is that this is a critical step. Even if a story will be edited again in the future, you want agents (and publishers) to see a clean manuscript, ready to go without a huge investment needed on their part. Language errors and plot issues are enough to knock even an otherwise well-written manuscript out of consideration.

Is my agent going to sell my book to Hollywood? I know it’s going to be the next blockbuster!

Maybe, maybe not. It’s my understanding that the agents who help you sell your work to publishers are different than the film agents who sell stories to TV and film producers. In a large agenting company this might be done by different departments in the same company; other agents might talk to contacts they have in the industry if film is right for your book.

Don’t forget that, like book publishing, film production is fickle. Demand for stories changes with the wind, and there are no guarantees. If that’s not the right pathway for your story, your agent will let you know.

Great, so how do I find an agent?

Many authors start by reaching out to agents they meet at conferences or through contests. If this is you, that’s a wonderful place to start. Otherwise, start collecting names of agents and narrow down your list.

You want an agent who is

  • open to new authors / submissions

  • works in your specific genre

  • has a solid track record and experience

  • has represented books like yours before

  • shares your vision and really believes in your story.

You might end up talking to a few agents before making a decision. Just like when hiring an editor, finding someone you really “click” with is important. You want to enjoy talking to and working with this person.

If you have a good set of comp titles in mind, check the acknowledgements in those books and investigate the agent who represented them. You know they’ll have a good feel for your market.

There are several places online you can look to find lists of available agents. I’d suggest:

  • The Association of Author’s Representatives, the professional organization for book agents in the United States

  •, which is full of reliable information as well as agent contact info

  •, available at the website or in the big book published every year. This might be the defining list of publishing professionals in the industry, and the book is often available at libraries. If not, the professional advice and contacts included are more than worth the cost.

And that’s all I know about agents! Let me help you get your manuscript ready for this next step. Questions always welcome.

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