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.