Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How-to on Literary Agents

I know that many of you reading this blog are writers or aspiring writers in the making. Over the last few weeks I’ve had several people ask me about how to query agents themselves regarding their own manuscripts, ranging from everything from non-fiction histories to commercial fantasy. So I figured I’d put in my two cents on the subject to give you an idea of the surprising extensiveness of the overall process of querying an agent.

Once you start asking people or reading up online, you’re going to hear a lot of differing opinions on this topic. Now, I’m not claiming to be some kind of super expert in this field. I can only offer advice on my own experiences so far.

The first question you might ask yourself is…why do I need an agent? I’m going to simplify some things here, but basically a manuscript has to go through three mega-stages in order to go from your desk to becoming an actual book at Barnes and Noble. For simplicity sake, let’s call these three mega-stages Agent, Publishing House, and Bookseller. First you need to convince an agent to sign a contract with you. The agent has the contacts to actually get your manuscript read by someone in a publishing house. Most publishing houses only accept material from literary agents they know and trust. Likewise, if a publishing house agrees to back your book they in turn can convince a bookseller (like Borders or Barnes and Noble) to carry your book on its shelves. Now there are many, many sub-stages along this route that I won’t get into here, but expect at each stage to have to do extensive rewrites, promotions, and endure a lot of humbling in the process. But don’t fret; it’s all for the better good of improving your story and brining it to people who are just dying to read your book.

Let’s start at the beginning…getting an agent. This is the stage I myself am at, and through perseverance (and rewrites) I finally have several potential agents interested. But remember, everything takes time. Agents are super busy people, and even if they decide they really like your book, they probably will still need a few months to get back to you as they have other clients, and they not only have to like your idea, they have to be able to successfully pitch it to the rest of their agency before even pitching it to a publishing house. It’s a big commitment on their part, so nothing happens overnight.

One friend asked me, can you query agents via email or snail mail? Totally. I’ve done this hundreds of times myself. The key is to really research who you’re querying (i.e. don’t send stuff for a fantasy novel to an agent who only represents romance novels). Also, polishing your query – your brief blurb about your book – really makes a difference. Now truthfully, you have to remember that the odds are always against you. In fact, through email or snail mail queries I’ve only ever had a handful of agents reply positively. Which means hundreds of rejections letters along the way. But hey, what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger.

What really helped me was actually attending writer’s conferences. This enabled me to meet literary agents face to face, and to develop a better pitch for my story. As a result I ended up with about six different literary agents interested in my work, several of whom have since asked to see my entire manuscript. In the meantime, I’m always writing. I continue to work with my professional editor to polish my manuscript, The Long Defeat, I also work on other stories, and of course this blog. It’s a lot like a second job…except you don’t get paid. So if you choose to take the path less traveled by, please by all means go for it, and just remember that you have to do it first and foremost because you love it. Ciao!