Occasionally I get asked about contracts, agents, queries, etc., so I wanted to list some answers here. Remember, this Q&A reflects my opinion only, and shouldn’t be the only source of information you utilize.
I’m writing a novel and I want to get an agent. When should I start querying?
After you’ve finished your novel, polished it, and sent it out to at least one trusted person for feedback (preferably more). It’s amazing how many things you can miss, like grammar errors that spellcheck won’t catch or places where your plot has holes. A critiquer is invaluable for catching many of these mistakes.
All right, I’ve done all that, now where do I begin to look for an agent?
I recommend Writer’s Market. Browse through their agent listings to see who’s accepting new clients in your genre. After all, there’s no need to depress yourself with a bunch of rejections simply because you’re sending queries to agencies with full client lists, or those who only rep non-fiction when your book is fantasy.
What is a query letter, anyway?
It’s a one-page description of your book’s title, genre, length, and content. Another way to look at query letters is by using a Hollywood example – your query letter is your book’s movie trailer. It doesn’t explain every character, subplot, motivation and resolution – it gives a broad, brief overview of your novel meant to make an agent excited about reading it. Sound impossible? It’s not. Several great sites give examples of what info needs to be in a query letter, and what’s telling too much. I highly recommend Miss Snark’s Crap-O-Meters. Browse through those and you will see literally hundreds of examples of good queries versus bad ones. The only thing I will stress about queries is to try to make them brief, don’t forget your S.A.S.E. (self-addressed stamped envelope, if submitting via reg mail) and be sure to include an email address if you have one. After all, if an agent’s interested, then you want to give them the quickest way possible to let you know that. And always close with thanking the agent. Good manners are never a bad idea.
But do I really need an agent? Can’t I just submit to publishing houses without one?
Yes and no. Many of the larger publishing houses will only consider agented work. So not having one limits where you can send your manuscript. Another advantage to having an agent – knowledge. Know a lot about book contracts? Rights? Average advances? Which editors are looking for the genre you wrote? A good agent does, and they can usually get you a better deal than one you’d broker on your own. Plus, a good agent helps you plan for your future as well, so they really can make a tremendous amount of difference.
Okay, so I know I want an agent. But how to tell a good one from a bad one?
Writers swim in shark-filled waters, so before you sign a contract with an agent, check them out! You’ve worked way too hard on your book to let it be taken on by someone who isn’t going to do their damndest to sell it, and some scammer agencies look a lot like the real deal.
First thing to check:
Do they charge any up-front fees? ANY agency who charges an editing/representation/reading/retainer fee is a scam. Don’t believe me? Check out the Author’s Association of Representatives (AAR) and they’ll tell you the same. It’s unethical, and worse than that, it means that agency is most likely not going to even try to sell your book. Why should they? They’re already making money without having to spend time earning it. Reputable agencies charge 15% commission, period (except for overseas book sales or film rights). Don’t be fooled into believing otherwise. Some sites will even warn you about scammer agencies, like Predators and Editors or Writer Beware, so it’s good to check there too before signing any contracts.
Second thing to check:
Do they charge ‘administrative’ fees for postage/copying? This is a tricky one. If the agency deducts these fees AFTER they’ve sold your novel, then yes, that’s legit. If they make you pay in advance for mailings, copies, postage, out-of-state phone calls, faxes, keeping them up at night planning a marketing list, etc., BEFORE your book has sold, then you’re getting ripped off. Check out Writer’s Beware and listen to some authors talk about how they’ve paid anywhere from $500 all the way up to a couple grand a year for these ‘administrative’ fees. Know that jingle about the difference between the poisonous Coral Snake and its non-deadly cousin? “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, good for Jack”? Well, I’d like to offer my own little jingle about telling the difference between a good agency or a scam agency: “Green before sellin’? Agent’s a felon!”
Say it a few times, it’s catchy *grin*. More importantly, it’s a warning. If you have to cough up ANY money before you get an advance check from a publisher, be afraid. Be very afraid. That agency probably isn’t a legitimate one, or if they are legitimate, then they might not be very good or they could afford to wait for your advance check before they deducted their ‘administrative’ fees.
Third thing to check:
Do they have verifiable sales? Okay, they don’t charge an up-front fee of any kind, hooray. But you can’t find a client list or a list of recent sales. Well, if you’ve been offered representation – ASK. You have a right to do this. They should be able to tell you names of other clients, even give you a reference or two, or rattle off some sales that you can look up yourself. If they dance around that and don’t give you a straight answer, then take it as a big red flag. Sure, an agent/agency can be new, but then they should be up front about that and be able to talk about some connections they have in the pub industry, like “I used to be an editor for such-and-such house, but now I’ve opened my own agency and I’m building a client list.” If they don’t have any sales or connections that you can verify … well, it’s your call, but I wouldn’t do it.
But so what if they’re new without connections yet? Isn’t having any agent better than no agent at all, since most big pub houses won’t look at unagented work?
Here’s the problem. You get a well-intentioned, non-scamming agent with no connections to the Powers That Be and they shop your manuscript around, but it gets rejected. Maybe they just weren’t sending it to the right editors, since they’re not familiar with editor likes/dislikes yet. Maybe they hadn’t helped you trim the bloat from your book, because they’re not experienced with editing yet. Maybe they’re just so new, the editor’s thrown their submission into the Slush Pile because they’ve never heard of them and they have so many books from agents they do know that yours went to the bottom of the heap.
Then where are you? Well, you’re a bit screwed, to put it bluntly. If you fire this agent and try to get another one, you’ve got all the usual problems of snagging a good agent PLUS the fact that you now have to admit that all the Big Houses have already passed on your book. And maybe your book was great but just needed a little tweaking. Still, you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing a top agent of that, since you’re competing against other writers with good books and NO history of publisher rejects on them.
So to summarize … in the soul-crushing world of finding a good agent, be your own best friend. No one else is going to look out for you as well as you are, and without crossing the line into paranoia, be savvy about who you chose to represent you.
Can’t I just send my novel to you so you can read it and refer me to your agent?
No. First, there are legal and ethical constraints prohibiting me from reading unpublished work. The short version is, if a writer has something in their novel that I also have in a not-yet-published book, my publisher doesn’t want to get an angry letter from anyone stating, “Jeaniene stole my plot!” Neither do I. Yes, this is uncommon, but it’s happened in the past. Not to me, certainly, but enough that publishers discourage authors from reading unpublished manuscripts (or fanfiction) to avoid that potential “you stole my plot!” issue. And even if no legal fight occurs, I never want someone to feel like I ripped him/her off, if there’s a plot coincidence between their book and mine (and in the same genre, plot coincidences can be rampant).
Furthermore, I have several scheduled deadlines right now that are keeping me quite busy. My time gets divided up between writing, family, blogging, reading novels for blurb purposes, and my own personal reading. This doesn’t leave much left. Furthermore, I have no idea what’s marketable, what’s cliche, what’s the hottest new trend and what’s so yesterday. An agent knows these things. A writer? Not so much.
ETA in June 2011: I hear self-publishing is the way to go now, so why should I bother trying to get an agent/publisher?
With the rise of ebooks, self-publishing has indeed grown by leaps and bounds. Some self-pubbed authors’ books are bestsellers many times over, in fact. But before you jump into self-publishing, be very clear about the reasons WHY you’re doing it. If you’re self-publishing because you’ve already done all the necessary research and market study, weighed the pros and cons, and decided this approach best suits your career goals, then it may be the best choice for you. However, what I’ve heard from a disturbing number of aspiring authors regarding self-publishing sounds like this:
“It’s too hard to get an agent/publisher! I don’t have months or years to invest in revising and querying. I’ll just throw my stories up on the web and skip all that ridiculous work!”
If that sounds like the reason you want to self-publish, then please, think again. Don’t get me wrong, self-publishing does have some advantages to it. You get to control your novel’s release date, cover, and price, plus you keep a far higher percentage of royalties. But it is not the “easier, quicker” way to publishing success, and if you don’t take my word for it, here’s what the reigning queen of self-publishing, Amanda Hocking, had to say on the subject:
“I don’t think people really grasp how much work I do. I think there is this very big misconception that I was like, “Hey, paranormal is pretty hot right now,”
and then I spent a weekend smashing out some words, threw it up online, and woke up the next day with a million dollars in my bank account. This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me. I also have this tremendous sense of urgency, like if I don’t get everything out now and do everything now, while the iron is hot, everything I’ve worked for will just fall away. For the first time, I truly understand why workaholics are workaholics. You can’t stop working, because if you do, it unravels all the work you’ve already done. You have to keep going, or you’ll die.”
You can read Amanda’s full post here, and it’s worth the read. So again, nothing wrong with choosing to self-publish if you’re doing it for the RIGHT reasons and understand exactly the size of the task you’re taking on. Doing it because you think it’s the Express Lane to fame and riches? Well, then chances are, you’re in for an upsetting awakening.
Yes, there’s a lot of work between writing your novel and eventually seeing it on the shelves (or in digital format), but it IS worth it. Best of luck to you!