How to find the right agent for you
Published: October 1, 2004
|Acquiring that elusive first publishing contract in today's fiction market requires finding the right agent. To improve your odds, you need to know the publishing game and understand the points of view of the industry's first line of defense--literary agents. It's your job to find agents who are in tune with your writing style and your type of novel. Three respected New York agents offer their views and tips on writing your novel and finding the right agent to kick-start your career.|
Simon Lipskar, agent
Specialties: 70% fiction, ranging from literary to commercial, including thrillers, women's, mysteries, and young-adult fantasy and science fiction; 30% nonfiction.
Authors represented: Michael Gruber, Tropic of Night; Jennifer Donnelly, The Tea Rose; Christopher Paolini, Eragon; Steven Sherrill, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.
Dominick Abel, president
Dominick Abel Literary Agency
Specialties: 80% fiction, covering a broad range but specializing in mysteries and, to a lesser degree, suspense; 20% contemporary nonfiction.
Authors represented: Elizabeth Peters, Children of the Storm; Nevada Barr, Flashback; Elizabeth Lowell, Die in Plain Sight; Peter Robinson, Close to Home.
Matt Bialer: agent
Sanford J. Greenburger Associates
Specialties: 60% fiction, specializing in thrillers, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy; 40% nonfiction.
Authors represented: Tad Williams, War of the Flowers; Robert Newcomb, The Gates of Dawn; William Bernhardt, Death Row; Patricia Ward, The Bullet Collection.
|Writing the right first novel|
Simon Lipskar: "Knowing the craft is incredibly important. Reading the best books on the craft of novel writing can be a good idea. Al Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel is a terrific book about the structure and techniques of commercial fiction.
"Point of view (POV) is the biggest craft mistake I see in submissions. I read many manuscripts where the author is unaware of POV. Is it first person? Is it third person? Is it a single POV? Are there multiple points of view? Every scene should be from one character's perspective; disciplined control of POV comes across loud and clear.
"Another mistake I see in first novels applies to the issue of genre. If you are going to write in a genre, adhere to the rules of that genre. If it's going to be a romance novel, it has to be a romance novel. If you are going to write a mystery, it has to be a mystery. Thrillers are commercial fiction; they are not a genre. One mistake I see quite frequently is authors constructing their thrillers around solving a mystery, a murder or a crime, rather than resolving a confrontation, a threat or a conflict.
"Write a good book and don't send out queries if your novel isn't finished. My sound-bite advice to writers is: Believe yourself. If you feel that your book is not finished, it's not right, it's not quite there--then it's not. The process of making it better is very difficult. You can join writers' groups to get critiqued. You can hire a freelance editor, but only if the editor is very reputable and works with writers whose books you've seen published. When your book is the best it can be, then send out your queries."
Dominick Abel: "It all starts with craft. Most people can write a sentence--maybe not a good sentence--but not everyone can play the piano or paint a picture that will be recognizable as a tune or a painting. So, if a person's written a novel, the writer thinks it's publishable because he or she 'knows how to write.' But stringing words together does not make a publishable novel; if the craft has not been mastered, the novel is not going to be published.
"Should you take writing courses, go to conferences, have writing friends, write complex outlines, write no outlines at all? It all comes down to personal inclination. I don't think there are any secrets to getting published. You have to take the road that works for you. Writing is an individual creative process. You learn to write well. Write a good book--good, that is, in the eyes of others. Work hard to find the right agent to represent you. Then hope that your agent will find somebody to publish it. You have to persevere and have confidence in your work. And you need some luck."
Matt Bialer: "Sometimes writers have a good idea, but it's not a great idea. It's not enough of a high concept. I think high concept is very important for a first novel.
"Particularly in thrillers, I often see a threat that is always off stage. There's got to be a ticking clock for a tangible threat of something horrible about to happen if the villains are not stopped in time.
"You have to become a good writer first. I often see too many points of view in a manuscript. Read some good books about writing commercial fiction. Pay attention to what sells and why. Don't try and force yourself to write in a genre that you don't care for. Think about what unique expertise you have that you can bring to writing a novel that will help a publisher market you. Get honest feedback from people who you trust. Be able to accept constructive criticism.
"The paperback original fiction market is nothing like it used to be. I used to sell tons of paperback originals, but now I rarely do because that market is shrinking. John Grisham's backlist has now become the midlist that you see at airports. You'll see John Grisham, John Grisham, John Grisham. You'll see The Pelican Brief and two or three of his other earlier novels along with his new paperback instead of all those authors you used to see. Today, when most commercial fiction writers are starting out, they have to get into hardcover. It's like going from high school baseball to the major leagues. There is no farm system. You've got to have more savvy as a writer and you have to write larger-scope books."
|Getting the right agent|
Abel: "Getting an agent is not easy. Where do you turn? You can get information about agents from writing workshops. At conferences, you can ask editors for recommendations. Unfortunately, knowing someone who knows an agent is the only real shortcut, and most beginners don't have such contacts. There is always the trick of looking for acknowledgements in works that are similar to yours, and there are also many writing resource books with agent listings.
"If you have writer friends, or belong to a writing group with some published authors, you may be able to get someone to recommend you to his agent. I always look seriously at writers [recommended to me by] somebody I know."
Bialer: "Check out your favorite authors and find out who their agents are. Agents are often acknowledged in novels. Do a little homework on the agents. There are directories on agents and what they represent.
"A fellow named Bill Martin has a company called Agent Research and Evaluation (www.agentresearch.com). The company gives writers a lot of information about agents. They help clients find the right agent because they have a good database. I think the most important factor in finding an agent is doing effective homework."
Lipskar: "I think the very best source of information for writers is PublishersMarketplace.com. It is a pay site, about $15 per month, which gives you access to all the same news and information that publishers have, including the most recent deals, and which agents and editors were involved. If you are thinking about thrillers, you can go to the site and do a search for thrillers. By going through the results, you can focus on agents who have successfully represented thrillers. You can also search by agent to see how much business a particular agent does.
"Even search engines like Google are good research tools. By typing in an agent's name, you can pull up a lot of information or find [his or her] agency Web site. A good search can help you locate agents who are appropriate for your work.
"You want to find agents who are active and reputable. Anyone who is asking you for money in order to consider your manuscript is not a reputable agent. An agent only makes money after a sale; all money flows toward the author, it never flows away from the author."
|Making the right submission|
Bialer: "I get about 20 submissions a week and take on about five new authors per year. I take on fewer writers today because there are fewer writers who I feel have the talent to get into hardcover. The bar is raised so high that I am starting to refer writers to freelance editors. I know it's an investment, but there are some very good editors out there who really make a difference. Agents are getting a book that they don't have to edit themselves before they sell it. If you are serious about writing and have a pet project you love, maybe it's worth having a professional editor take a look at it. You must be careful to find someone who has credentials, knows what's selling, keeps in touch with the business and has a lot of contacts.
"In a good query letter, you want to sell yourself. If you went to a university and studied writing, that makes a difference. If you've won awards, or if you've been published in different journals or genre magazines, that makes a difference. Some people don't use their background to sell themselves and they should, because I think it's relevant. You should write a good short query letter that presents yourself and your idea. You can tell a lot from a letter. The fact of the matter is, probably 80 to 95 percent of the letters that come to my office are not even in the running because they are not well-written."
Lipskar: "I think it is absolutely imperative that the author knows why he is submitting it to that particular agent. I get at least 50 queries per week by mail and e-mail. If it's obvious the authors didn't do their homework, they've wasted their time.
"I don't think writers should invest their time and their money putting bells and whistles in their presentation. Monogrammed pens, footballs or self-portraits just clutter up our office. I think they should invest their time and money ensuring that their presentation is professional. What really counts is approaching agents in a professional way and in a 'writerly' way. The craft has to be perfect. No grammatical errors or typos. An agent looks for a writer who is competent, is talented, and is going to be a partner in the publishing process.
"I'm a little bit of an iconoclast when it comes to query letters. I think it is almost more important to communicate a sense of who you are as a writer than it is to pitch the book you are hawking to them. What is important to me is that visceral sense I get when I read something that says, 'Ah, this writer has a voice. I want to hear more from this person.' Writing about your work in your voice is a very powerful tool. It's hard to synopsize a book in a paragraph. Writers shouldn't try to synopsize; they should just give a hint of what the book is, [and] they should provide a strong sense of voice.
"I see electronic queries and submissions as the future, but I see a lot of resistance and I think it's going to take some time. I personally read almost everything on computer. When I ask for a submission, I ask for it as a Word document attachment, and I have a handheld computer that I read submissions on. My assistant, who is younger than me, prefers paper, despite the fact that he is computer literate. It is a matter of comfort. In general, this is still a paper business for a lot of people and will remain so, but I think it's going to shift to electronic formats more and more over time."
Abel: "My assistant reviews the 25 or so queries we get every week. We look for a well-written letter. We don't accept electronic queries or submissions. I grew up with typewritten and word-processed pages. When I'm reading a manuscript, I want it to be on paper and I want it to be double-spaced, flush left and ragged right, because that's what I am accustomed to reading. I suspect with younger agents that may change, because they have been reading on computers all their lives.
"It's very hard to describe a novel in a one-page letter, and I think it's a mistake, in fact, to try to describe a novel in your query. What I want to know is what kind of novel it is, not the story line. Even the most brilliant novel reduced to a paragraph is pretty dull and boring. To me, the most useful information a query writer can include is: 'I think my novel will appeal to people who like the work of this or that well-known writer.' I know immediately what sort of novel the writer has written, and I need in addition only a thumbnail of the setting or some key factors about the plot.
"I prefer a query alone, without a few chapters. If a query piques my interest, I want to be able to read the whole manuscript, not just two chapters."
|The right relationships|
Lipskar: "Everyone knows that the heart of this business is the author-agent relationship and the agent-editor relationship. Almost all of the editor relationships I have developed over the years have come out of the submission process, where I introduced myself to an editor by sending them a project. Once you are past five years in this business, the reality is that almost every one of your submissions goes to someone you work with on a regular basis.
"For the most part, agents who are really serious about being very active in the business are in New York City, because they are able to interact daily with editors (which is not to say there aren't excellent agents who are based outside New York). We frequently meet editors for lunch. The supposed Dionysian lifestyle of the agent--fed glorious food at corporate expense on a regular basis, dining out in the finest restaurants in New York--is all based on this very interesting relationship with editors. Meeting an editor for the first time is sort of like going on a first date--you hope it will result in a meaningful relationship."
Abel: "Agent relationships with editors are very important. I think one develops a good relationship with an editor by establishing a sense of mutual respect. The editor should know that when he gets a submission from a particular agent, it is something this editor should pay attention to. The only way an editor develops this respect is by working with an agent over the years and receiving quality submissions.
"We need editors and editors need agents, and none of us wants to waste time. Very few houses will look at unsolicited material. That has made the agent the reader of the slush pile, and it means that a submitted work has been screened, to some degree, when it reaches the editor. If editors have confidence in an agent's eye and experience, it is likely they will pay attention to the agent's submissions."
Bialer: "As an agent, I like to know editors at all the different points in their careers. It takes years and lots of lunches to get to know the right people. Sometimes when I do multiple submissions, I go to some of the senior people--but I will also include some young, hungry editors, who bring a special energy to get a project going.
"In a lot of ways, it is a bit of trial and error for you to get to know what a particular editor likes. Often there is what the editor likes and what the house likes, and more and more, over time, I find that the group decision is larger than the individual editor's decision. Some editors will fight harder than others if they really want the project and make a case for it.
"This is an industry that is always looking for new talent. Agents are. Editors are. Writers and agents need to constantly be on a quest and be proactive to get that all-important first publishing contract."
--Posted Oct. 1, 2004