We were at the West Hollywood Book Fair over last Sunday. A young sci fi/fantasy writer we had met earlier in the year at the L.A. Times Festival of Books stopped by. He asked, “How do I find a literary agent?”
Good question! There’s so much buzz about the best ways to self-publish that authors seeking a traditional publisher often feel left out.
So, Franciscus, here are some suggestions.
First, it’s important to understand that “literary agent” is not a generic term. All agents don’t handle all kinds of books. Some prefer nonfiction others fiction. Some specialize in a particular genre or two like romance or sci fi. Others work with poets. So it’s important to know which agents are right for the book you will be proposing to them.
One good way to decide which agents might be best to approach is to look at books comparable to your own. If you have written a murder mystery look at other murder mysteries. Who were the agents for the authors of those books? Most authors include a shout out to their agent as part of their acknowledgements. Compile a list of these agents who have successfully shepherded books like yours into publication.
Another good source of potential agents who handle books like yours is Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. Herman, a literary agent himself, publishes this annual directory of literary professionals. His book importance is comparable to the role of The Writer’s Market when you are looking for a place to publish. It will help you find the names of additional agents to add to your list.
Franciscus’ initial impulse was a good one. Starting with your personal network is a good idea. If you know someone who can recommend you to an agent that can certainly open doors for your book. If the agent’s name appears on your list – outstanding. If not, check Jeff Herman’s Guide to see if the agent handles books like yours. If not, all is not lost. The agent will probably say they don’t represent books like yours, but may refer you to someone who does.
Another way to use your networking skills is to attend writers’ conferences. Most of the major national writers’ conferences and many regional or local ones have agents as speakers or even include opportunities to speak directly with agents as part of the program. If you are writing a particular category or genre book think of conferences for organizations like the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, or Mystery Writers of America. Check the conference program to see who the agents scheduled to be on hand are. Then check them out in Jeff Herman’s Guide. That way you will focus your time at the conference in trying to get some face time with the agents on your pre-selected list.
If you would rather introduce yourself to potential agents in writing, that’s okay, too. Use your list of agents who handle books like yours. You’ll need to prepare a submission packet for your choices. Each agency has its own specifications as to the form that packet should take. Nonfiction agents often want a proposal before you complete the book. Fiction agents want a synopsis and sample chapters. Some take digital submissions, others want hard copies and still others ask for both. Jeff Herman’s Guide will provide some useful information about submission. It’s always a good idea to check the website of the agent to make sure you have the specifics right.
There are a number of good guides to pitching books to agents. Jeff Herman offers a volume titled Write the Perfect Book Proposal as a companion to his Guide. My own personal favorite on the subject is Katharine Sands, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye. This book is a collection of targeted articles from a number of literary agents giving you a little more varied perspective on what works.
Prepare your submission package with the same care you’ve given your book. When it’s ready ship it off to the agent at the top of your list.
Something that’s important to understand is that agents, like publishers, may choose not to work with a particular author or book for many reasons which have nothing to do with the book’s quality. An agent also pitching a manuscript similar to yours to publishers may decline your proposal. Ship it off to the next person on the list. Submitting to agents, like submitting to publishers, takes a thick skin.