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Note: I am not a literary agent, nor do I play one on TV. I'm just a working writer who has been in the game professionally for a number of years, and who has learned to distinguish between good and bad agents. Let my years of experience save you from some potentially expensive (both monetary and career-wise) pitfalls.
Another note: This article is generating a lot of email for me--certainly a lot more than I anticipated. To those who have written and said "thanks," you're certainly welcome and you have my best wishes, even if I didn't reply to your email. And in response to some other recent letters:
First off, what exactly is an agent? A literary agent is someone who markets your books and negotiates your contracts, in exchange for a commission on the book's advance (the money a publisher pays "up front" for your book) and royalties (the money your book earns through sales).
Now for the most important advice you will ever get about literary agents: never, never pay an agent any money BEFORE he or she sells your book. Every reputable agent earns his or her money by deducting a 15% (the usual amount) commission from your book's EARNINGS (the advance you're paid up front by the publishers and the royalties paid later if your book "earns out" its advance). No reputable agent will ask you to pay a "reading fee" or "marketing fee" or any other kind of fee to market your book. This is a scam perpetrated on new writers (and a very common scam--just look at all those "agent seeking new writers" ads in the back of Writer's Digest magazine), so don't fall for it. Memorize this sequence and do not deviate from it: A) You write a book, B) your agent sells the book and negotiates the contract, C) you make money on this sale, and D) agent deducts a 10-15% commission from your earnings.
The only legitimate exception to this are when you're first starting out as a writer and you send a book, unagented to a publisher. The publisher makes an offer and you contact an agent to negotiate the deal. This is to your advantage, as an agent can negotiate some bad clauses out of your contract with the publisher, thus saving you money and grief. Now you might ask, hey, if I sold the book, how come the agent gets a commission? Because the other part of an agent's job is to negotiate with the publisher to get you the best deal, both money-wise, and rights-wise. Even in this example, remember, the agent deducts a commission out of your advance and royalties, and you should not pay any fee up front. If an agent tells you this is standard practice, he is lying and you are being conned. I have a term for certain types of agents: business card agents. I consider this a derogatory term, and I'm happy to explain what I mean. It's a sad fact that there are no college courses for becoming a literary agent. There's no government regulation or certification for agents. The only way to become a real literary agent is to learn on the job by working at an established agency for some time. Then, perhaps a junior agent may leave and form his (or her) own agency. This is generally the only legitimate training for becoming an agent.
But teh only thing a con artist (or a well-meaning incompetent) has to do to start up his or own literary agency is print up some business cards that announce that he or she is an agent. A con artist is out to take your money. A well-meaning incompetent is not trying to scam you, but has no practical experience in being a literary agent (even though he might think he does), and is thus hopelessly ill-prepared to represent you. Think about it for a minute. Would you want a "doctor" with no medical training operating on you? Would you want a "stockbroker" with no market experience investing your money, just because he claims he's a broker? Do you want an "agent" with no prior experience representing you to publishers (and believe me, publishers can tell a reputable agent from a business card agent)?
I cannot emphasize the following strongly enough: You do NOT want to be represented by a business card agent. It's WORSE than not having an agent at all!.
How do you tell if an agent is a business card agent? There are warning signs to watch for. If you recognize any of the following, it's very likely you are dealing with a con artist or an incompetent:
Some reputable agents (including mine) do charge for reasonable office expenses, such as photocopying your manuscript and postage. Make sure you know this in advance (in other words, discuss it with your agent), and are prepared for it.
Okay, now you're wondering how to get an agent, but first I want to discuss whether you even need agent yet. You don't need an agent if:
Literary Marketplace and Literary Agents of North America are both annual publications that can be found at your local library, and it lists literary agencies and agents, as well as book publishers and editors. Look for agencies located in New York City. For better or worse, New York is the center of the book publishing universe, and you need an agent who is there--who can meet and talk with editors and publishers in person on a regular basis. An agent in your hometown, or just about any other city except New York is just not going to have the advantages a New York agent will have.
Try to find an agent whose agency is a member of the Association of Author's Representatives or the Independent Literary Agents Association. These are organizations for professional, reputable agents. Such membership is a plus--it means that your agent is much less likely to be a business card agent. Plus, these organizations try to encourage professional standards in their membership, which is important. Once you've found some agents you think might be interested in your work, write to them and ask if they might be interested in reading your book and representing you.
Joining professional writer's organizations, like Science Fiction Writers of America or Horror Writers Association (see my advice page for more info) can help put you in touch with an agent. Some pro writer organizations publish lists of agencies which handle that type of fiction, which is very useful. these organizations also publish articles on agents, and sometimes issue formal and informal warnings about bad agents.
Contacting other writers is an excellent way to get agent recommendations. See my advice page for suggestions on how to contact other writers. Before you contact another writer, note that there are some extremely important ground rules:
Okay, you've found an agent who is interested in you. Congratulations! But you're not home-free yet. Entering into a business relationship with an agent is remarkably similar to getting married over the phone: you really want to find out as much as possible about your agent in advance, and vice-versa. Remember, this agent is going to be handling your money, as well as representing you to editors, so you'd darned well better be completely at ease with him or her. The best way to do this is to get on the phone with your prospective agent and ask lots of questions. Be prepared to answer some, too--remember that this is a two-way relationship. Here's a checklist of questions to ask:
It's helpful to remember that even though you are probably anxious to sign on with an agent, the agent is still basically your paid employee. If you were a store owner you'd certainly want to screen the guy running the cash register and making sales to customers. Same goes for screening a literary agent.
Also, if the agency requires a signed contract, be sure to read it carefully before signing it. No reputable agent will pressure you to sign a contract; he or she will want you to be comfortable with the contract prior to signing.
One thing that should be very clear is the conditions under which you and your agent part ways, should you choose to do so. You may find that after working with a particular agent for a while, you're unhappy with his or her performance, and wish to move on. Or the agent may want to move on. Both of you should be clear on what is expected from the other at this time.
How often should your agent keep in touch with you? Enough that you're not constantly worrying. But you have to understand that selling a book can take months, and you're going to irritate your agent if you call up every couple of days wanting an update. Being in touch with your agent every other month is probably enough. If you suspect your agent is dodging your calls, however, this is cause for alarm (my former agent did just this). Both you and your agent should be comfortable with the communication level, and if there's concern on either side, it should be discussed and resolved.
A final thought: your agent should be interested in more than just the book you submitted. He or she should be interest in all the books you're going to write--in other words, your agent should be interested in your career as a writer, and not just the short term.
Before you email me, please go back and read the notes at the top of this article! Thanks!
Copyright 1996 by Dan Perez. All rights reserved.