agents

In ALL, BOOK PUBLISHING by Stephanie Klein34 Comments

People ask me all the time.  "What’s the process for getting published?"  Though, typically their first inquiry is, "How do I get an agent?"  Most people want an agent because they want someone "official" to like their work.  Having an agent, at first, is like being accepted into a competitive school.  Then, once you’re in, you want to get good grades (you want the agent to like what you’re submitting), want to graduate with honors (want the publishing house editors to love your work), want to give the graduation speech (want the critics to love it once it’s out there), etc.  And then, eventually, you care less about all that.  You still care, of course, but it becomes something else.  It can become a business.  But at the beginning, in terms of writing, most people see getting an agent to represent them as validation for their writing abilities. 

When I found myself on the cover of The Independent, with a three book deal from a UK publishing house, I did not have an agent.  But I knew I needed one.  I read a book about how to get published without a literary agent, and determined it would be well worth my while to get one (not for validation because I already had that) but because I had no idea what was fair or standard practice in the industry.  So I began to shop around for one.  Now granted, it’s a lot easier to find an agent when there’s a publishing house that has already expressed interest in your work, but still, you want to make sure it’s the right match. 

Literary agents vary.  The agencies themselves vary.  Let me say this: I AM NOT AN AGENT, so I do not know exactly what they’re looking for.  I do not pretend to be an expert on this.  I’m simply sharing my experience, hoping it will help others.  That said, it’s all about finding someone who is familiar in representing your type of work. They need to be comfortable with your voice and subject matter.  It needs to be a good fit from the perspective of taste.  That’s the creative side of it.  Then there’s the business side of it, which for most, kicks in much later when the deals are being struck.  Do you need a big agency that handles more than books but also handles radio, theater, television, etc.?  Big agencies take on lots of projects and most of these agents don’t have time to hold your hand through the process (though I’m sure there are certainly exceptions to this).  Smaller agencies take on fewer projects, so they can really devote more time to helping you create exactly what it is you want.  It’s a balance, too, like everything else.  Because you might want them to play hardball, or you might really want them to specialize in the writing itself. 

Since your agent will be responsible for presenting your work to editors, you want to know your agent has a good reputation, that editors of different publishing houses respect his or her taste or vision.  How the hell do you know this if you don’t know anyone in the industry?  You don’t really.  But, you could get a list of who else they represent and ASK the authors how it has been.  Best advice: look at Acknowledgments sections of books that seem similar in either voice or subject to your own and then find a way to contact the agent listed.  One way is through this site, which lists many agents.  But you need to be respectful, purposeful, and you need to be ready before contacting any of them.  Do your research.  Google certain agents from a list, see who their clients are, which books they represent, see if it’s familiar to your style, or genre. 

How do you know if you’re ready?  First, if you’re hoping to publish a novel, you should probably be 3/4 of the way through it before contacting an agent.  And when you do, your query should say exactly where you are in the process, and you should include a few chapters.  Perhaps the first 30 pages or so.  I don’t know exactly.  I’m not an agent.  I don’t get submissions.  Your writing sample will set the tone quickly, so make sure it’s your Sunday best, paying close attention, not just to spelling and grammar but to how you use your adverbs.  Is the story you’re telling compelling?  Is the character interesting?  Do the details make it authentic?  Is there any emotional draw?  Put your best foot forward.  And know where the hell it’s going.  Let the agent know the themes of the book, maybe provide a quick synopsis of what happens next, etc.  If you’re a short story writer, it’s easier.  And harder.  Because what’s the market there?  Perhaps you don’t need an agent as much as you should be submitting your stories to literary magazines and journals.  I don’t know.  I’m not a short-story writer, yet.  Though I’d imagine you’d have to have some record of success in being published on your own for such things, before going to an agent.  An agent represents you and gets your work published… not to magazines but to publishing houses.  For books.

What if you want to write a memoir?  Or a guide.  You have an idea for a really fun book but aren’t sure where to start and you want to discuss it with an agent.  Submit your best writing and explain your idea, and see if anyone is interested in working with you.  Can’t hurt… that is, unless you flood the marketplace with too many submissions, etc.  People do talk, ya know.  And I will tell you this: when I began to shop for an agent, there was one agent who read some of my work and simply said, "I just don’t see how you can make any of it into a book.  Sorry, I’m going to have to pass."  Every time I communicated with her, I felt enervated.  I was never excited or encouraged. She didn’t believe in the work.  I went with two agents who I felt good about.  I was always excited to get to work after our meetings.  And I liked how involved my agent got in my writing.  I trusted her and liked her enthusiasm.  It made me want to work harder.  Of course, once I signed the two book deal with Judith Regan, that other agent wrote a pretty tough, and nice email, that she certainly didn’t have to.  "I saw the announcement of your book deal–congrats!  Clearly someone saw something that I didn’t."  I will say that I’d only presented her with small excerpts, blog posts, anecdotes and short episodes, and in that form, she was unable to see the bigger vision I had for the book.  She needed it all to be more polished.  Whereas, the agents I chose, helped me along, and guided me through writing a book proposal, which is what you need to do if you hope to publish a memoir or non-fiction book.  More on that in a few days.  The point is, you simply cannot give up just because one person doesn’t believe in your work.  You need to believe in it and make it happen.  Read that again.  You can’t talk about doing it when you get to it.  If it’s important to you, you risk the rejection, believe in your work, your story, your voice, and you make it happen.  That’s that.

Comments

  1. Thanks, that's good advice. And, unlike the advice I have received from other published writers, yours is completely without the obligatory "it's really really hard and so few people succeed and don't think for one second you'll get published until you've suffered, really suffered for your work and maybe even bled a little like I had to and just because you write poetry/magazine articles/a blog doesn't mean you'll make it as a novelist…" lecture. I believe you completely when you say it's up to us to make it happen. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks so much, Stephanie. This is exactly the advice I needed at this moment. I'm trying to put together my memoir right now, and it's really intimidating going through books and seeing how it all works. Thanks for the human voice. You made it seem doable. Enjoy your Sunday!

    Nor

  3. i was reading another blog where the writer had gone to see two published authors whose basic advice for aspiring authors to "expect nothing" to come of their work. the logic was that then you expect rejection and are pleasantly surprised when things turn out otherwise. while that is a nice game to play with yourself, it's not very self-assuring.

  4. I worked in the New York publishing scene in the 80s and I often got that question. It's interesting to see the process from the writer's point of view and enlightening to see that the process still works almost the same way as it did 20 years ago.

    Most people, even the most well-read, don't have a way to picture the process from a writer's idea to a hardcover book to hold in the hand. How would they know anyway? So even when I answered the phone to yet another request from someone offering to sell me this great idea so I could write a book for them, I tried to take a minute to explain the process to them.

    You've done the literary world a favor for taking the time to spell it out. No doubt your audience is full of people you've inspired to work out their ideas on the page. They should tuck away your suggestions and go for it.

    Writers may be best at writing, but a savvy writer will do a great deal of all the rest of the work that begins after the last keystroke.

  5. wow. i'm not even a writer nor interested in an agent…but enjoyed reading your post.
    this post is indeed very selfless.
    that's why it's silly when your readers have the gall to judge you..
    keep on keeping on :)

  6. Thanks, Stephanie for this post. I read it and felt you were speaking direclty to me – responding to an e-mail I'd sent months ago. When I met you last year at the TX Book Festival, you reminded me of my book idea. I since have gotten an agent interested but only have 20 pages and my proposal done!! I need to submit 60 and the pressure to write something creative and well, good, seems to make it harder. I am going to print out this post and highlight this part that seemed to speak to me this morning: You can't talk about doing it when you get to it. If it's important to you, you risk the rejection, believe in your work, your story, your voice, and you make it happen. That's that.

    And that's that. Thank you!! Just what I needed to put my writing butt in gear today!

    :) Beth
    FROM STEPHANIE: Sorry I never got back to that email of yours specifically. Sometimes I mean to respond to emails and simply get sidetracked… the way most of us do with other things in our life. Also sometimes emails like that (as you can see from the post) are quite lengthy, and I don't always have the time to respond. Which, I know you know.

  7. that was very generous of you. i'm a reader, not a writer, but i would imagine you have helped many….

  8. I am a writer who never writes. My goal was to be a published author by 30 – that passed 4 months ago. I have a life of half started stories and amazing ideas, but nothing to show for it. I'm lame. I'm lazy. I'm afraid to fail at something I love so much.

    I guess I just need to do it, but finding time in between diapers and housework and working full-time is a challenge. I think if I just started, I would be fine. But for now, the only thing I can start is working on cleaning up the kitchen from breakfast. That I CAN handle.

  9. stephanie,

    thank you so much for your post. i am inspired by you, and it was quite thoughtful (i think) for you to lay it all out like this.

    s.

  10. Just wanted to pop by and say hello.. As you already know, your advice/support/encouragement on this topic has been invaluable to me as I deal with agents, editor rejection and so forth. Thanks for everything.

    M

  11. "Judith Regan"…hmmm. very very *very* interesting…. i WILL keep that in mind during buying time. didn't know that before.

    FROM STEPHANIE: Now that Judith is no longer with HarperCollins, my second book is being published by William Morrow (another imprint within the HarperCollins family, now that ReganBooks is gone).

  12. Hi Stephanie – I'm done writing for the night but am soooo happy that it was a great writing day. I got alot done and it felt really good and authentic…Your post really pushed and inspired me today.

    So, thank you a million times. Beth

  13. This beats all the advice I've found on my hours of googling the topic. It means so much coming from someone who has been there, done that. So many published authors act as if the whole process is some top secret process, that they worked so hard to get where they are, they don't want to help make it easier for anybody else.
    Thanks for the post, for not sugarcoating it, for spreading a little inspiration from your words to mine.

  14. Just wondering… do you read anyone else's blogs regularly?

    FROM STEPHANIE: I read some, not all, of the blogs listed on my LINKS page. I also read a few design blogs (but find that a lot of them are too modern or bohemian funk for me).

  15. "You need to believe in it and make it happen. "

    I like it when people are real and honest. I'm not looking to get published…but enjoyed reading this advice from someone who's been there.

  16. Judith MADE the front pages A WHILE ago. The sotry that made headlines is that she got fired for wanting to publish OJ Simpson's "What If" book.

  17. I know that Carolina. I'm wondering why the obfuscation. It is not like this is Diplomacy and Politeness International website. It is Stephanie "say what you mean" Klein. So say what you mean.

  18. "You need to believe in it and make it happen. Read that again. You can't talk about doing it when you get to it. If it's important to you, you risk the rejection, believe in your work, your story, your voice, and you make it happen. That's that."

    my ears were wide open….thanky.

  19. As someone who miraculously, successfully queried an agent from scratch (no publicity, no book deal), one caveat: most agents are EXTREMELY picky about what you send them and when. For example, some agents trash queries that include unasked-for sample chapters, or if you query before you're done writing. Most agents' websites have submission guidelines that are worth following.

  20. What a great post! Totally unexpected but I loved hearing all about your getting- an-agent/published experience. Thanks–so informative.

  21. Seeing you read design blogs I couldn't help but recommend one (or a few) I just discovered Domino magazine's set of blogs (do you get mag? if not you have to! Its amazing, along with Blueprint, what I like to call "what Martha Stewart Magazine would have been had she started it in her 20s and lived in Manhattan). I love the Deal Hunter who finds the chicest things and their cheaper counterparts at places like West Elm.

    I've been innundated with all things interior design lately, remodeling my apartment, so much so I'm thinking about starting a company for the one thing I wanted and could not find anywhere! So thanks for the pep talk. I too loved the lines "You can't talk about doing it when you get to it. If it's important to you, you risk the rejection, believe in your work, your story, your voice, and you make it happen. That's that."

  22. Madga – question. I have an agent who three weeks ago asked for my proposal and 60 pages. I have 30…she didn't specify timing. Do you know if there is a standard on the time that you take to submit these???

  23. @BethM – I'm not sure what to tell you since I haven't been in this situation before. (There are competing schools of thought about when to query, but I've always been told to send material when asked and am anal enough to keep things in my inbox for instant access.) A good rule of thumb is to be honest with agents about pretty much everything. If it's not ready, at least communicate that so they don't think you're ignoring them.

    But since this is kind of off topic and I don't want to monopolize anyone's comments section, feel free to email me with further questions.

  24. A girl i have become friends with got her agent through a site much like that or rather link for the agents. actually i met her on myspace through that whoel eric schaeffer bullshit if you remember that. anyway her childrens book is about to come out. she was burned by one agent if I remember correctly. she said a lot fo the same things you did. it's awesome you took the time to write all this out for your readers.

  25. Other time-starved wanna-be writers (ie moms!) should get hold of a copy of 'Pen On Fire' by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett. I'm reading it at the moment, and she has changed my mind about whether or not it's possible to write a novel between changing diapers and stirring the pasta sauce. It is.

  26. One quick note: new novelists should not be 3/4 of the way done with the manuscript. They should already have a complete, 100% ready draft. Not a first draft, either. A draft that has been revised, revised, left to rest for a while, revised and revised some more. Lots of agents won't even look at a novel if they know it's not done. There are many reasons for this, but mostly because first drafts of novels are not good…yes, this means you…this even means hotshot established literary authors. I've known way too many writer friends who fire off their first draft to agents, get rejections all around, and then later realize "WAIT! I now know I can make it so much better." The problem? If an agent already rejected it, she doesn't want to see it again. So please, novelists, be patient and send your absolute best work out there! (Nonfiction works differently, obviously.)

    FROM STEPHANIE: I will say that I have friends who have indeed gotten actual deals with publishing houses, for fiction (though for a second book) with only a partial submission. And yes, non-fiction is very different. I also believe with a novel that's unfinished, so much of the hard work is having it all come together. The hardest part can be the ending, and I suspect agents know this. But talent is still talent, and if they like your writing, I suspect they'll tell you so, but might then say, "get it to me when it's done." But why risk it, I guess.

Leave a Comment