For the first twenty-five years of my writing career I didn’t have a literary agent. Most of my early sales were magazine features and columns for which you don’t use an agent; and then a few textbook sales which tend to yield money so small an agent would like set himself on fire rather than bother with making that kind of deal.
When I decided to try and break into fiction --something totally new for me—I figured I needed an agent. Now I needed to find one. Any writer who hits that moment realizes how daunting it is. Unsigned writers fear agents because they know that to a very great degree there’s no way to get sold without one.
First thing I did was to ask everyone I know who had an agent for suggestions on how to go about finding one. They all said the same thing, and the advice they gave SOUNDED right at first, but the more I thought about it the less I liked it. What they said was: “Find a low-level or mid-level agent, someone who is just getting in the business, and sign with them. They’re the only ones looking to take on new clients and you can rise with them.”
Sounds good, right? Sounds reasonable. Think again.
Business is all about messaging. There’s always a subtext to anything said in business. That said, think of the message that you send out if you only try for agents who are either bottom-rung or brand new to the business. It says: “My work isn’t good enough to be represented by a top agent.” Sadly that message comes across loud and clear.
That didn’t work for me. I have more faith in my writing than that (as subjective as that might be) and I wanted a really good agent.
So I sat back and thought about who and what an agent is and made some reasonable deductions:
Agents are human. Not Olympian gods. I’d met some at writers conferences. None of them had horns, none of them threw lightning bolts.
Agents are working stiffs, too. There have to be good and bad agents. There have to be lucky or unlucky agents. There have to be rising stars and has-beens. There have to well-connected agents and those to whom most doors are still closed. That’s the way every business is, no matter what business we’re talking about.
Some of today’s top writers are still repped by the agents that handled their first works. The biggest deals are made by agents on the inside track of the business. Read the market news, this bears out most of the time. If so, then big agents must be taking on new clients (who then go on to make big money).
One of the common pieces of good advice for writers trying to find an agent is to look in the dedication and acknowledgments pages of books by writers of the same genre. Writers often thank their agents (and editors) and that’s a great way of beginning to build a target list.
Other resources include using www.publishersmarketplace.com (which costs $20/month) and http://www.agentquery.com/search.aspx (free) to search for agents whose recent track record shows that they have the chops and connections to make decent deals for authors. It’s worth checking those resources to see who is representing debut authors as well.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about the next steps to take.
Jonathan Maberry (my author website)
Career Doctor for Writers (my consulting business)
Writers Corner USA (the writers center I co-founded)