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DIY MFA: How to Get an Agent (Part Five)

Welcome back to your Do-it-Yourself MFA program.

The subtitle of this post is “how to find and sign with a reputable agent” and yes, the emphasis should be on the word reputable.  While reputable has ethical connotations (and this matters a lot too), what I really mean is “how to sign with an agent who will actually get your book sold rather than one who is taking a real crap shoot with your project and may end up doing more harm than good.”

Did that scare the shit out of you?  Good, because it should.  You should go into this part with your rose-coloured glasses off because this relationship will be the most important one you create.  Publishers will come and go, but a good agent will hopefully be by your side for life.

Which is not to say that you can’t switch agents.  I actually did switch agents once, and even though it was a really good parting, it was sickening and gut-wrenching with a lot of “what have I done” feelings mixed in as well.  Do yourself a favour and choose carefully.  Oh, and go back and review the last installment to keep it fresh in your mind as you read this one.

A lot (though certainly not all) of the best agents are in New York, where most of the publishing houses are located.  Though all good agents will have a sales record (and have it be easily accessible either through the agency site or by a quick Google search on the Web) or be a junior agent with an established literary agency (junior agents generally assist agents, learning the ropes, and then start to build their own list with the assistance of an established agent in their agency.  I would not be nervous about using a junior agent at a place like Writers House) and therefore you can view their agency’s sales record.  I would not work with someone who has not made sales at the type of publishers you want to work with (in other words, if you want to work with a big six publisher, make sure your agent has made deals for their clients with big six publishers).  You are looking for a sales history that fits your book–not just any old sales history.

Because anyone can slap on the title agent and try to sell your book.  But that has the potential to seriously damage your project.

Let’s say you sign with your friend’s Aunt Tina who works as a solo literary agent in her own self-named agency and you think how lucky you are to have this connection and get an agent so easily.  Aunt Tina sends your book to a few publishers blindly and they reject it outright because they don’t know Aunt Tina.  You’ve now closed off the possibility of working with those publishers.

Okay, not completely because a good agent can undo some damage, but what I’m trying to get across is that it matters that you take the time to find an agent who works well with you personality-wise (be clear about your needs and they’ll be clear about their needs–this is a working relationship), who has connections in your area of writing, and who follows AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) guidelines (they don’t have to be a member of AAR, but I like to see that they follow AAR guidelines).

There are multiple ways to find an agent:

  • Use connections: do you know agents, did you meet one at a conference, do you have a friend who could introduce you to your agent?
  • Go to the bookstore and peruse titles that are close to your book, but not exactly the same thing.  And then look at the thank you page to get that author’s agent.  In other words, if you want to publish a book on potty-training techniques, go find other parenting books and write down those agents.  When you query those agents, you’re going to mention this book so keep track of which agent represents which author.
  • Get a one-month subscription to PublishersMarketplace and use it to find out the agents of favourite authors.  When you write them, mention that you think they’d be a great fit for your book because they already represent so-and-so.  Point out that you’ve done your homework and there’s a reason you are writing that agent specifically.
  • In that vein, use Amazon to find authors similar to you (and then look on PublishersMarketplace to find their agent).  Look up a book by a similar author (for example, if your book would have the same potential readership as a Jennifer Weiner book, look up Good in Bed).  Now scroll down to see other books readers have purchased who have bought Jennifer Weiner.  Look up their agents and mention this book when you write the agent, not only showing that you’ve done your homework, but again, there is a specific reason for writing this specific agent.
  • Go on agentquery–the best site I’ve found on connecting people with agents–and do a search in your writing area.

Start creating a spreadsheet of names.  Information you’ll want to track:

  • Name of agent
  • Name of agency
  • Address of agency
  • Email address of agent
  • How they like their queries (can you email them or do you need to send them via post)
  • Any specific instructions about their queries (important!  Only send them what they want)
  • Other books they represent that you like (this column may be blank in places)
  • Did they check out during your research

Okay, that last point–you are not going to query any agent that you haven’t done a bit of research on.  If they belong to an established agency (Trident Media, Writers House, Curtis Brown, Harvey Klinger, Levine Greenberg etc), you can feel pretty certain that you’re in good hands.  But at the very least, run by a site like P&E and look up their name (this site usually alphabetizes by the first name).  Do a Google search and see that they have deals listed in PublishersMarketplace or are speaking at conferences.  In other words, is everything kosher.

Remember that last installment when I talked about the agent’s reputation with publishers?  You want to make sure your agent has had sales.  That they have connections.  That they are going to open doors for you and the only way to do that is to have an established relationship as acting like a filter for a publisher.  So make sure you check on agentquery and see the books they list as sold.

By the way, if it’s a reputable agent, you should not have to pay any money until the book is sold (and then, the money comes out of the book sale).  Some agents will have a line in their contract that says you must pay for office costs such as xeroxing or delivery fees, and that is totally kosher–the money will come out of the sold manuscript.  But there should be no money exchanged upfront.  I’d also beware of any fee-based book editors or agents who point you towards them.  This is why: agents are going to have you do an edit for them anyway once they sign you.  Then publishers will have you do edits too.  So while there are good freelance editors, you should not have to shell out money to one before an agent will represent you (or even after an agent represents you).  Despite what freelance editors promise, edited manuscripts do not get sold or represented more than manuscripts that you put together yourself.

Lastly, before we start querying, take this time between now and the next installment to rank your list.  “1”s for the agents who would be a fantastic fit for your book and you’d love to work with them.  “2” for the agents who would be a good fit for your book and it would be great to work with them.  “3” for the agents who might be a good fit, but you need to learn more about them.  Anything other than a 3 should be dropped from your list.

You’ll understand this ranking system when we get to the next installment.

Okay class, any questions on what was discussed here? Please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them in the comment section below. Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover so your question may be answered in a future installment (see below). So keep your questions about agents.

Heads Up and Looking Back: topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. Are You Ready to Be an Author?

3. How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

4. Why You Need an Agent


6. Querying Agents

7. What Happens Next–Waiting for a Book Sale

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers


1 onceamother { 07.05.10 at 10:38 pm }

the fact that you are writing about this, and providing all this useful and amazing info, just makes me love your blog that much more.

2 Beckie { 07.06.10 at 12:51 am }

Hey Melissa!

I was just a blogging about you and the pomegranate string. Thanks for all you have done for the IF community! You are AMAZING!



3 S.I.F. { 07.06.10 at 4:07 am }

I seriously can’t thank you enough for doing these Mel… I am bookmarking and memorizing every step of the way!

4 Claire { 07.07.10 at 3:55 am }

Such a wonderful project. You just keep on giving to the community, and I am 100% sure that leads us to pay it forward in ways you don’t see, but still exist. THANKS!

5 jrs { 07.09.10 at 12:54 pm }

Thank you! I echo what Claire said, and add that I am sure your kindness and generosity to us will find it’s way back to blessing yours.

6 Sharon { 03.24.11 at 10:40 am }

Thanks so much for the great advice. I have almost finished my memoir titled Mom At Last and now need to start at square one to find an agent. I have been building my brand but now the hard part begins. Thanks so much I need all the help I can get.

7 Lisa Dixit { 05.24.11 at 4:34 pm }

Thank you so much for this information, it is very helpful.

8 Katrina { 08.04.11 at 1:42 pm }

This is such a great resource, Melissa. Thank you. Wish I’d found it before I wrote my book proposal. I muscled through it anyway. 🙂

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