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Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Agents

  1. How do I get the names of reputable, competent literary agents to submit my work to?
    Many authors make the mistake of pulling agent names at random off the Internet or out of reference books such as Literary Market Place (you can find the book at most libraries or subscribe for a fee to their database here: http://www.literarymarketplace.com/lmp/us/index_us.asp), Writer's Market, Guide to Literary Agents, Science Fiction Writer's Market, or The Insider's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. These references are useful, but not as your primary source for finding agents. Anyone can call himself a literary agent. This does not necessarily mean that he is reputable or competent, or even that he's ever sold a manuscript to a publisher. Some so-called "agents" prey upon unsuspecting authors. You don't want to get involved with them, and you don't even want to send your work to them. It's a waste of time and money.
    Developing writers often have a very hard time finding a competent, reputable literary agent. A good literary agent can only handle a limited number of writers at once, so established agents often have full rosters and are unable to take on new writers. Openings may only occur when one of their writers stops writing, or when the agent drops the writer (perhaps because publishers are no longer buying his work), or when a writer decides to switch to a new agent.
    Thus, the best opportunities for a developing author to find an agent often occur when a new agent comes onto the scene. An agent's assistant may be promoted to agent, or an editor may become an agent, or an agent may leave an agency to strike out on her own. In these cases, the agent's roster will be nearly empty, so the agent will be actively searching for strong writers to represent.
    Keeping up with these developments can provide you with key information in your agent search. A few good sources for this type of information are Locus magazine (you can find subscription info at www.locusmag.com), SF Scope (www.sfscope.com), the free e-newsletter Publishers Lunch (subscribe at www.publisherslunch.com), and Agent Query (http://agentquery.com/). If you go further afield, beware that you may find less reliable sources.
    These sources will announce when an agent starts his own agency, an assistant is promoted to agent, and so on. They'll also commonly report information like this: "Author Jane Doe sold the science fiction novel Iguana Planet to editor John Smith at Reptile Publishing via agent Mary Dear." You can now write in your Publishing Information File--which all writers should have--that Mary Dear is an agent who handles SF and who made a recent sale to Reptile Publishing. If this is Jane Doe's first novel, that would be a very encouraging sign that this agent is taking on new, unpublished clients. Reading these sources, you can quickly compile a list of good agent candidates.
    Another good source for agents' names are books themselves. When looking at books for this purpose, you should limit yourself to those published in the last year. Also, look only at books in the same general field as yours. If you've written a fantasy, look at other fantasies. Often, an author will thank her agent on the acknowledgments page of her book. First novelists especially tend to acknowledge their agents. Look at these acknowledgments pages and see if an agent is named. Sometimes the agent's name will appear, but the author will not specifically say that this person is her agent. So Jane Doe may write, "Thanks to Mary Dear for all her help and encouragement." So how do you know that Mary Dear is Jane's agent? This is where the reference books I listed above can come in handy. If you spend some time flipping through these listings and becoming familiar with the names, then you can recognize them when you see them. Those reference books can also provide additional information about an agent.
    You should always check out an agent before submitting your work to that person, making sure he is reputable, successful, and handles the genre in which you write.
  1. Should I send my work to agents who charge reading fees or other types of fees? If I already have sent my work, should I agree to pay the fees requested?
    The reference books named above generally list whether an agent charges reading fees or other types of fees.
    Certain fees are considered acceptable these days. For example, if you want your agent to send your manuscript out to ten publishers at once, and you have sent him only one copy, the agent would be justified in asking you to either send nine more copies or to reimburse him for the cost of photocopying. Also, if you wanted your manuscripts to be messengered or overnighted to publishers rather than being sent first class, the agent could rightfully ask you to pay the additional postage cost. Basically, these are costs that go above and beyond what the agent normally covers, and are incurred at your request. You should never feel pressured or compelled to incur costs, and any costs should be documented through receipts.
    I had an author tell me recently that he paid over $500 to have his agent send out ten copies of his manuscript to publishers. This $500 was allegedly for "photocopying and manuscript preparation." The only cost that the author should be paying for is photocopying. Using Kinko's basic rate of $.07 per page, the 400-page manuscript would have cost $28 to be copied once, $280 to be copied ten times. The author was charged $220 too much, in my opinion.
    Aside from the two justified charges I discussed above, the agent should not be charging you money. If an agent charges fees for reading, manuscript preparation, time, phone calls, or anything else, then this is not an agent you should work with. This is not how the agenting business is run. Agents make a living from commissions on sales of your work to publishers (a commission of 15% is fairly standard). This is certainly a tough business, and agents can spend a lot of time on an author before they make a sale. But when an agent charges hefty fees for simply doing what he's supposed to do, it usually indicates that this agent is making a living from the fees paid by authors rather than by any commissions earned. Often you will find that these agents make few sales to publishers (and sometimes they've never made any!).
  1. What should I do if an agent refers me to a book doctor?
  1. If an agent likes my work and wants to represent me, are there any questions I should ask him before I say yes?
    Yes. Most beginning authors will be so happy to finally have an agent interested that they will immediately agree to be represented by him. But make sure you get answers to the following questions first, before entering into a relationship. A really bad agent can be worse than no agent at all. So take a deep breath and consider the following.
    • Do you feel comfortable dealing with this person? Are your personalities compatible? Do you feel you could form a friendly relationship?
    • Does this person return your phone calls within twenty-four hours and have time to talk to you?
    • Does this person's image of your work and your future as a write match yours? Are you sure he has read your work carefully (a few well-chosen questions will reveal the answer to this)? Is he interested in other things you've written? Does he have an initial plan for your career?
    • Does this person demonstrate expertise in the field? To whom would he submit the manuscript? (And if you've done your homework, checking the magazines and acknowledgments pages for the names of editors, you'll be able to evaluate his competence.) Has he handled sf/f/h before? What are his specialties?
    • Has this agent made sales for other authors? Ask for his client list, or the names of some of the authors he represents. Ask him to give you the names of some of the books he's represented that have recently been published (so you can go to the bookstore and check them out).
    • Does the agent want you to sign a contract? Some do and some don't. Either way, you need to feel comfortable, either with the terms of the written contract or with your verbal agreement.
    If all these answers are to your satisfaction, then congratulations! You've found a terrific agent.

Thanks for dropping by!...

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Updated Dec 5, 2009
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