June 23, 2003

On getting an agent

How does one get an agent and when? People are often told to wait until they have a book contract in hand before trying for an agent. Unfortunately, as the number of places that will take unagented manuscripts, this is proving more and more...insane. Actually, being a member of Sisters In Crime, I've discovered that SF&F authors are the only ones still being told this. Everyone else assumes that you will get an agent first -- somehow.

When you go for an agent, I recommend you to aim high. Yes, I really mean this. Go for the best darn agent you know of.

I didn't have ANY publishing experience when I finished my first novel, ALIEN TASTE. None. Zip. Nada.

Jim Allen at Virginia Kidd Agency was (behore he died) one of the most recognizable SF&F agents, up there with Eleanor Wood, Richard Curtis, and Donald Maass. In all the listings, it said that he wasn't taking new clients.

He accepted me -- no contract on the table from a publisher.

I was at Vericon two years ago with Donald Maass. I watched as two people walked up, pitched ideas and got a business card with "Send me the manuscript. It sounds interesting."

If you have a good manuscript, agents WILL consider it. True, they might not consider it past the query letter stage, but they will read the query letter. A query letter is less than a dollar to get your foot into the door at any number of agents, from the very lofty on downward. Like I said before, you can mail out 50-100 query letters -- ALL AT ONCE, THE SAME DAY, NO WAITING FOR REJECTIONS BEFORE TRYING THE NEXT PERSON. (And I'll repeat, that if you get 50 out of 50 rejections, you did SOMETHING wrong in your cover letter. I was on a panel at Westercon with an agent from Ashley Grayson. Either Ashley or Grayson, I can't remember which. He read four actual query letters that his agency received. One person sounded like Yoda! Remember, polish the query letter as much as the manuscript, maybe more!)

If you can get a SFWA directory, in the back are the agents that represent the various SFWA members. These are the best agents for someone that does SF&F. After that, a Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents is what I used. I went to the index for agents that handled SF&F. I then cross referenced them via their information.

I had researched and made up a list that the agents had to meet.

1. Lived in and around NYC
2. Had a 'stable' of clients more than 10. More the merrier.
3. Had less than 10% 'New/Unpublished writers' as clients
4. Actually probably the most important -- CHARGES NO FEE

Why this list you may ask. (Yes, you may. I don't bite.)

1. You need someone that knows the SF&F editors. More importantly, the editors need to know your agent. This can usually only be gained by rubbing elbows with them at every turn. The label of 'Agent' doesn't immediately confer this on a person, no more than a law degree and knowledge of contracts. A good agent apprenticed in NYC in a literary agency, learning the ropes, before becoming an agent themselves. They attend the same conventions as editors, they do deals on multiple clients, they get so not only can they point across a crowded room and say 'Hey, look, there's Jennifer Heddle, the ROC editor that just moved from Laura Anne's assistant to editor" but Jennifer Heddle can see someone pointing at her and say "Hey, there's one of the Kiddettes (what they call the very young looking underling agents at the Kidd agency) or "Hey, there's Donald Maass, now that he has gray in his hair, he stopped wearing a suit to conventions to look old enough to be an agent" (Okay, that wasn't Jennifer Heddle that said that to me, but it was told to me by someone from NYC) With this level of recognition comes trust that the agent has good taste, knows a good story when they see it, and will act as a filter, letting in only worthwhile stuff to the editor. This is way agented manuscripts are read first, and sometimes only.

2. Less than 10 clients and the sucker is starving to death.

3. A mark of someone that just stuck the name 'Agent' on in front of their names is that they talked a lot of newbies to sign with them, so out of 10 clients, 90% are new/unpublished.

4. Money flows TO THE WRITER, and never the other way.

I have had horror stories from newbie writers that signed five year contracts with people in Michigan that decided to call themselves agents and basically had to put their career on hold -- not having the money to fight legal battles to get themselves free of agents that were worthless. I have a friend who stopped writing for years after a D.C. area 'agent' with no SF&F experience failed to push her manuscript correctly. I have a friend whose computer died and thought because her Pittsburgh 'agent' had copies of all her work (but hadn't mailed them out) it would be a simple thing to get them back and never could. Even if you're approached by someone that lives someplace other than NYC area, and they are upright and honest people, realize that its a mark of ability and professionalism to live in the NYC area (okay, Hollywood is the exception to the rule). Simply put, you NEED and DESERVE someone that can do you the best good, not play guinea pig for someone else.


Read LOCUS and CHRONICLE. In these trade magazines will be news of who sold what to whom. Read a year's worth, and you'll have a good idea who the best SF agents are. You'll know how the editors are. You'll know who the up and coming new writers are and who took them on. You'll be able to spot agents leaving large agencies and starting their own agencies and are hungry for work.

Find out who represents the writers who write like you. If you write just like George R.R. Martin, you're more likely to get his agent to LOVE your stuff than someone that handles Terry Patchett. Writers sometimes acknowledge their agents, or dedicate their books to them, or ..once again...be listed in LOCUS as being sold by them.

Aim high. Take no rejection personally. Keep trying until someone says yes.

Posted by wen at June 23, 2003 07:36 PM

Excellent article! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us newbies :D


Posted by: Sandra at June 27, 2003 01:08 PM

A beautiful article! I am very new to writing and enjoyed such solid advice.

Posted by: Chris at October 6, 2003 12:02 PM

Love the article. I almost got suckered by Eaton Literary Agency. You rock!
P.S. Who is E. Lynne Harris' agent?

Posted by: Tanya Toppin at October 7, 2003 10:24 AM