Monday, August 04, 2008

So you want to get published . . . getting an agent.

A few weeks back in a desperate attempt not to use my own brain I asked my lovely readers for suggestions. And I got some really awesome ones. I hope to address them all, but there was one that really stood out for me because, well it hadn't occurred to me that I had yet to write about it.

It was from Jo, and she wrote: I'd like to know more about the business side of being a writer -publishing, contracts, money, deals, agents, whatever you can share! Thank you :)

At first I was all like, "Haven't I done that already?" And then I was all like, "OMG I haven't."

I have talked about my personal process, I have talked about interesting things I have learned about the industry. But I haven't talked about the very practical steps one takes to get published, nor about what the industry is like on the inside.


So now I shall. I imagine it will be several posts worth, not sure how long or where it will take us, but let's just enjoy the ride shall we?

So you want to get published . . . the getting the agent bit.

You've written a book. First job, celebrate. Writing a book is a HUGE deal, and not an accomplishment everyone can boast of. Many people start books, oh yes, but very few cross the finish line. So go, celebrate, I'll wait till you get back.

I am going to make an assumption here now. I am going to assume that by finishing a book you have edited it, made it brilliant, bit the bullet and cut it pieces. I'm assuming by finishing a book you are ready now to submit the book. I may talk about the revising stage at a later date, but right now we is all about the getting published.

So what do you do next?

Get an agent.

In very simple terms an agent is someone who is a middle man/woman. You give them your manuscript, and then they give it to the publishers. They try to sell your work for you. They have contacts in the industry. They also can read contracts and understand what everything means.

You don't have to get an agent, but you really should. Why? Because these days you will be hard pressed to get a big publishing house to look at your manuscript (from now on referred to as MS) without an agent having sent it to them. There are smaller publishers who will take unagented submissions, but for the most part an agent is the way to go. Agents have become the guardians as it were of the publishing houses. If a publishing house gets a MS from an agent, they assume that it has already been vetted to a degree, that it was good enough for an agent to like and therefore in turn something for them to like.

But agents aren't just there to work for publishers. They are there for the benefit of the writer as well. To read about how awesome a great agent is, and what they do aside from just sell your work, click here.

Now getting an agent is hard. It can take years to get an agent. But the steps are very straightforward. BTW these are North American steps, the UK steps are similar, but a tiny bit different.

So first step:

1. Research. Find an agent that likes the kind of stuff you write. You also need to make sure you know that the agent is legit. There are a lot of scam agents out there. Typically you can tell an agent is a scam if they charge you money. You never pay an agent. They take a percentage off the work they sell for you.

(note: there are truly tricky scam agents out there who don't charge you up front, but then say that your MS needs editing and then recommend an editor who you'll have to pay. This is just not done with legitimate agents.)

So check out the Writer's Handbook, Predators and Editors (to see if the agent is a scam), There are other good places to check out too - I have a nice list of useful links here.

So, you found some agents you like.

2. Now you must write a query letter to send to the agents.

Please visit to read about writing a query letter. They are tricky and take a fair bit of work. A query letter needs to reflect your work as well as sell your story, and present you as a professional person worth working with. All in one page single spaced.

3. Send off query letters to agents.

Wow! An agent is totally blown away by your query letter! She asks you for a "partial".

4. A partial can be of varying lengths. Sometimes they ask for the first three chapters, sometimes the first 50 pages. Whatever you do don't send them something from the middle of your MS even if you think that's the best bit. If you don't think your beginning is good enough to win an agent, then work on the beginning. Because if it isn't good enough to win an agent, then it definitely won't win over the discriminating reader.

Let me just get this over with now. You will see many an internet argument over which font to use for your MS. It's not that complicated. Either Courier or Times New Roman, size 12. Double space your MS. Make sure that you have a header on each page of the MS that includes your name, name of the book, and page number. This is in case the agent prints up the MS and then drops it. By mistake of course.

If you are snail mailing the partial, be sure to include a stamped self addressed envelope in the submission package. Also write a cover letter reminding the agent of what they requested, I'd advise also sending the original query letter for reference.

Wow! She loved your partial! Now she asks you for a "full".

5. A full is the full MS. Follow the same advice as for the partial.

Wow! She loved your full . . . but. . . she has a few suggestions for revisions.

6. Now . . . while this is an excellent sign, there is no guarantee that after you make the revisions she will sign you. So don't get ahead of yourself. Also really consider the suggestions. Agents read a lot and really know their business. They might not be right in all their suggestions, but I bet they have a point with most of them. I was told to cut 10 000 words. When I did, my book was so much better for it.

Wow! You did the revisions and she loved it! She calls you! She wants to meet you! She wants to . . . .sign you!! Yay!

7. You have an agent!

So easy isn't it? Such simple steps one after the other . . .

Problem is there is the potential of rejection with each step. Worse still, if you fail at one level, you don't just go down one step. No you go all the way back to the beginning again. Back to the query letter stage. Like an evil evil game of snakes and ladders.

For this reason authors can go years before landing an agent.

Some advice then in your quest:

  1. Learn what the rejections mean and use it to your advantage
  • a rejection on a full may mean that there is something wrong with the structure of your story, or it may just mean the work isn't quite right for the agent - like it doesn't quite suit her tastes. Often at this level the agent will write a more detailed rejection letter. Unless your full has been rejected many times, I would wait before doing a major overhaul. If however you are hearing the same thing from everyone, it may be worth having a look.
  • a rejection on a partial is similar to a full, but quite possibly has something more to do with the quality of the writing. There was something in the partial that didn't grab the agent enough to want to read the whole thing. What was it? Maybe they just didn't connect with the story or voice. Maybe there was something off in the structure. Maybe something off in the writing. Hopefully you will get a detailed rejection letter at this point as well. However if you aren't getting past the "partial" stage, in that no one ever requests a full, I would take a close look at the MS again.
  • a rejection on a query. At once both the best and worst kind of rejection. Getting rejected when someone hasn't even read your work can really sting. How can an agent judge your work by something that isn't your work? Trust me they can. And they can do it well, but that's another discussion altogether. BUT the good news is the problem may be simply the quality of your query letter, and not the story itself. If you are getting nothing but rejections on your query letter, revise the query letter.*
* for that reason a lot of people recommend sending queries out in smaller batches of half a dozen or so, to see how it is received. In this way you have the opportunity to fix the query and not waste your opportunities sending out a bad one to every agent.

2. Go to conferences.

Agents go to conferences. They have things which are called "pitch sessions" where an author can sit with them for 10 minutes and pitch their work. Aside from that you can also just introduce yourself to them in the bar or whathaveyou. Get to know them, get to understand that they are people too. Go to their panel discussions and see what they are looking for. Ask them questions. Though always be professional and polite, and please don't corner them in the bathroom.

Also at conferences you can meet some other awesome writers, and exchange stories and strategies. You'll also feel less alone in your quest. You may even make some lifelong friends.

3. Read their blogs.

A lot of agents now blog. It can get confusing with all the conflicting information that they share. But the good part is you get to know their personalities, you get to learn their likes and dislikes. It's research, but at a whole new level. Also it's very interesting.

So that right now is the getting the agent part of the process. We shall continue with what happens next . . . next (click here for "From Agent to Publisher").

(and if you guys could let me know if this is helpful at all, I'd really appreciate it, thank you!)


Unknown said...

Great post!

Adrienne said...

Wow you are quick on the draw sir! Just posted this entry a few minutes ago!

But thank you very much!

Anonymous said...

You are amazing! Thank you - I can't wait for the next instalment (no pressure!) Brilliant :)

Monkey said...

Great Information! Thank you.

Danielle said...

great advice (here by way of bransford).

is there a better place to corner an agent than the bathroom? maybe outside his/her hotel room? a dimly-lit parking lot?


WendyCinNYC said...

Great post, Adrienne! This comes at a good time for me. I hope it's okay that I linked this post on my blog. Shoot my a nastygram if it's not and I'll take it down.

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

Awesome info! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

How about learning where an agent lives and not stalking but hanging around the neighborhood and having "chance" encounters. Then one day saying you're a writer and would he or she mind reading a little something you've done.

Adrienne said...

jo - it's all for you hon! Glad you like it! (thanks again for the suggestion, it obviously was a good one)

monkey - you are most welcome!

dan - thanks! I would suggest the best way to corner an agent is to hide in their closet. ;)

wendy - glad the post could be of help! And I love being linked to, so please, link away!

kat- you're welcome!

anon - as a serious technique, it may take a lot of work. But if you are going down that route I suggest taking a decade or so to become that agent's best friend - and then casually letting it slip you've written half a dozen novels!

Hmm . .. just for the record all, I am joking - stalking anyone is really not what one would call "good form".

Ed Wyrd said...

That was very helpful. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nice Job Adrienne. I'm going to forward this to aspiring authors I mentor.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I'm here from Wendy's blog (melaniehoo from AW).

This is a great post and very helpful! I've read most of this here and there online, but this combines everything in a non-confusing way. Thank you!

I can't wait for the next installment.

Adrienne said...

ed - thanks! And I love your avatar by the way!

christine - thank you so much, and I am very honoured to be forwarded in such a manner. Truly.

melanie - I'm so glad you liked it! Here's hoping the second installment is as useful (and that my brain is as capable of putting thoughts down in such an organised fashion . . . doesn't always happen . . .)

Deborah Blake said...

Hi Adrienne,

Great post, very helpful. (Got here through the also helpful Nathan B, in case you wondered.) And loved the video!

I'll be back, now that I've found you (and no, hardly stalking you at all...)


Whirlochre said...

This is very very clear and useful stuff.

I'll be dropping by again...

Unknown said...

Great post! Gives a lot of great information and cleared up some questions I had. I'll have to remember to thank Nathan for posting the link. I'll be back!

Edith said...

This is fantastic! More, please!

Lee Thompson said...

Very helpful! Thank you!

Doreen McGettigan said...

Great, great advice!! I am going to get busy revising my query letter AGAIN!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Adrienne!! That is really helpful. I knew it took a long time to get an agent, but I didn't know there were so many steps!! Geez, so much!! Aahhhhhh!!!!