Common Questions Writers Ask Me About Literary Agents:

May 1, 1996
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"Most agents are hungry for that golden 2%. . . You must be the first to believe that you're a two-percenter, and then you must invariably portray yourself that way…"

Common Questions Writers Ask Me About Literary Agents:

Jeff Herman, respected New York agent and author of Insider's Guide To Book Editors, Publishers And Literary Agents advises Authorlink.com users about finding and working with an agent.

By Jeff Herman

Q: Is it more difficult to get an agent than it is to get a publisher?

A: I believe it's substantially easier to get an agent than it is to get a publisher. The primary reason is that no agent expects to sell 100 percent of the projects she chooses to represent. Not because any of these projects lack merit (though some of them may), but because only so many titles can be published per year–and many excellent ones just won't make the cut. This is especially true for fiction by unknown writers, or for nonfiction in saturated categories. As a result, many titles will be agented but never published

Naturally, a successful agent will prefer to represent projects that she feels will be hot, and that publishers will trample each other to acquire. But few if any agents have the luxury of representing such sure-bet projects exclusively. In fact the majority of their projects may be less than "acquisition-guaranteed," even if they are of acquisition quality. The agent assumes that many of these projects will eventually be profitably sold, but probably doesn't expect all of them to be. Every experienced agent knows, too, that some of the best cash cows were not easily sold.

Make no mistake– it's not easy to get a reputable agent. Most agents are rejecting 98% of all the opportunities that cross their desks. They will accept only material that they believe can be sold to a publisher. That's the only way for them to earn a legitimate agenting income and to maintain credibility with publishers. If an agent consistently represents garbage, that will become her signature and her undoing as an agent.

But don't despair. This is a subjective business, composed of autonomous human beings. One agent's reject can be another agent's gold mine. That's why even a large accumulation of rejections should never deter you. Some marry young, and some marry later!

Q: Is there anything I can do to improve my odds of getting an agent?

A: Yes.

First consider the odds just quoted. the typical agent is rejecting 98% of everything he sees. But that means he's very hungry for the hard-to-find 2% that keeps him in business. Your challenge is to convince the agent that you're part of that select 2%. Otherwise he'll probably have no use for you.

Many highly talented writers will never get published. Many mediocre writers do get published and many of them make a lot of money at it. There are reasons for this. These mediocre writers are doing things that more than compensate for their less -than-splendid writing. And the exceptional writers who underachieve are probably doing things that undermine their profitability in spite of their talents.

In other words being a good writer is just part of a complex equation. Despite all the put-downs our educational system receives, America has a rich mother lode of college graduates, M.A.s, M.S.s, and Ph.D.s. Good writers are a dime a dozen in this country. Profitable writers, however, are a rare species. And agents and editors will obviously value them the most. Once more: Being an excellent writer and a successful writer often don't coincide. Ideally, of course, you want to be both .

To maximize your success as a writer you must do more than hone your ability to write; you must also learn the qualifications and the disqualifications for success. Obviously, you need to aquire the former and avoid the latter. Publishing is a business, and agents tend to be the most acutely business-oriented of all the players. That's why they took the risk of going into business for themselves (most agents are self-employed).

If you wish, wear your artist's hat while you write. But you'd better acquire a business hat and wear it when it's time to sell. It's this subtle ability to change hats that separates the minority of writers who get rich from the majority who just don't. In my opinion, rich writers didn't get rich by being good at writing (no matter how good they may be); they got rich by being good at business.

Many good but unrich writers will blame a variety of factors for their stagnation. My answer to them is: Don't blame anyone, especially yourself. To lay blame is an abdication of power. In effect you will become a car with an empty gas tank, abandoned to the elements. The remedy is to fill the tank yourself. See mistakes whether they be yours or those of the people you relied upon, as inconvenient potholes–learning to get around them will make you an even better driver.

Learn what you can about those who are successful–not just in writing, but in all fields–and make their skills your skills. This is not to insist that making money is or should be your first priority. Your priorities, whatever they are, belong to you. But money is the emblem of success. If personal gain turns you off as a goal, you might want to focus on creating maximum value for as many people as possible. Like magic, money often follows value even if the money wasn't specifically sought. If you're unlucky enough to end up with a lot of cash you don't want, there's no need to despair: there are many worthy charities that will gladly relieve you of this burden.

Here are some specific ways to maximize your ability to get the agent you want:

Don't start off by asking what the agent can do for you. You're a non-citizen until the agent has reason to believe that you may belong to that exclusive 2% club. It's a mistake to initiate contact by expecting the agent to do anything to sell herself to you. You must first persuade her that you're someone who's going to make good money for her business. Once you've accomplished that, and the agent has offered you representation, you're entitled to have the agent sell herself to you.

Act like a business. Get yourself a professional letterhead and state-of-the-art office equipment. While rarely fatal, cheap paper and poor-looking type will do nothing to help you–and in this business you need all the help you can give yourself.

Virtually everyone–especially the intellectually arrogant–is strongly affected on a subliminal level by the packaging. An old advertising adage tells us that people pay for the sizzle, not the steak. There is a reason why American companies spend billions packaging, naming, and advertising simple products such as soap. We would all save a lot of money if it were all put into a plain paper box and just named "Soap." In fact, the no-frills section does sell soap that way–for a lot less. But few people choose to buy it that way! Understand this human principle, without judging it, and use it when packaging yourself.

Learn industry protocol. I never insist that people follow all the rules. As Thomas Jefferson wisely suggested, a revolution every so often can be a good thing. But you should at least know the rules before you break them–or before you do anything.

For instance: Most agents say they don't like cold calls. I can't say I blame them. If my rejection rate is 98%, I'm not going to be enthusiastic about having my ear talked off by someone who is more than likely part of that 98%. Just like you, agents want to use their time as productively as possible. Too often, cold calls are verbal junk mail. This is especially true if you are a writer selling fiction; your hard copy is the foot you want to get through the door.

Speaking for myself, most cold calls have a neutral effect on me (a few turn me off, and a few make me very enthusiastic). I try to be courteous, because that's how I would want to be treated. I will allow the caller to say whatever he wants for about one minute. I will then try to take over by finding out what, if anything, this person has in the way of hard copy. If he has some, I invite you to send it with an SASE. If he doesn't have any, I advise him to write some and then send it. Usually I don't remember much about what he said on the phone; I may not even remember that he called. But that doesn't matter; it's the hard copy that concerns me at first. This is the way it works with most agents. We produce books, not talk.

An agent's time is his money (and therefore his client's money). So don't expect any quality access until the agent has reason to believe you're a potential two-percenter. If you're the CEO of General Motors, for instance, and you want to write a book, then all you need to do is call the agent(s) of your choice and identify yourself; red carpets should quickly appear. But the vast majority of writers have to learn and follow the more formal procedures.

View the query letter as a sales brochure. The best ones are rarely more than 1 1/2 pages long and state their case as briefly and efficiently as possible.

Here are the most common query mistakes:

 

Long, unfocused paragraphs Pontificating about irrelevancies (at least from the agent's perspective) Complaining about your tribulations as a writer. We all know it's a tough business, but nobody likes losers–least of all shrewd agents. Always be a winner when you're selling yourself and you'll be more likely to win.

Most agents are hungry for that golden 2% and dedicate a good part of their time shoveling through a ton of material looking for it. You must be the first to believe that you're a two-percenter, and then you must invariably portray yourself that way. Reality begins in your own head, and is manifested primarily through your own actions–or lack thereof.

Every agent and editor has the power to reject your writing. But only you have the power to be–or not to be–a writer.

Q: Should I query only one agent at a time?

A: Some of my colleagues disagree with me here, but I recommend querying five to ten agents simultaneously, unless you already have your foot in the door with one. I suggest this because some agents will respond within 10 days, while others may take much longer, or never respond at all. Going agent by agent could eat up several months of valuable time before a relationship is consummated. And then your work still has to get sold to a publisher.

To speed this process up, it's smarter to solicit several agents at a time, thorough you should be completely up front about it.

When an agent responds affirmatively to your query by requesting your proposal or manuscript, it's fine to then give the agent an exclusive reading. However, you should impose a reasonable time frame–say two weeks for a nonfiction proposal and four weeks for a large manuscript. If it's non- exclusively, make sure each agent knows. And don't sign with an agent before talking to all the agents who are reading your work. (You have no obligation to communicate further with agents who did not respond affirmatively to your initial query.)

Most agents tend to make multiple submissions to publishers, so they should be sensitive and respectful when writers have reason to use the same strategy.

Q: How do I know if my agent is working for me? When might it be time to change agents?

A: As I explained earlier, agents don't necessarily sell everything they represent, no matter how persistent and assertive they may be. In other words, the fact that your work is unsold doesn't automatically mean that your agent isn't doing his job. On the contrary, he may be doing the best job possible, and it's possible that you should be grateful for these speculative and uncompensated efforts.

Let's say 90 days pass and your work remains unsold. What you need to assess next is whether or not your agent is making active and proper attempts to sell your book.

Are you receiving copies of publisher rejection letters regarding your work? Generally, when an editor rejects a project submitted by an agent, it will be returned within a few weeks with some brief comments explaining why it was declined. (In case you're wondering, the agent doesn't have to include a SASE; the editors want agent submissions.) Copies of these rejection letters should be sent to you on a regular basis as they're received by the agents While no one expects you to enjoy these letters, they do at least document the fact that your agent is circulating your work.

If you have received many such rejection letters within these 90 days, it's hard to claim that your agent isn't trying. If you've received few or none, you should call the agent for a status report. You should inquire as to where and when your work has been submitted, and what, if anything, the results of those submissions have been . In the end, you will have to use your own best judgment about whether or not your agent is being competent or giving you the run-around.

If it ever becomes obvious that your agent is no longer seriously trying to sell your work (or perhaps never was), you should initiate a frank discussion with her about what comes next. If she did go to bat for you, you should consider the strong possibility that your work is presently unmarketable, and act to preserve the agent relationship for your next project. Remember, if your work remains unsold, your agent has lost valuable time and has made no money.

If the evidence clearly shows that your agent has been non-performing from day one, then your work has not been tested, and you should probably withdraw it and seek new representation.

Agent-hopping is not rampant, but it's not uncommon either. Often the agent is just as eager as you–or more so–for the break-up to happen. One veteran colleague once told me that when he notices that he always hates to receive a certain client's phone calls, then it's time to find a graceful way to end the relationship.

The wisdom of agent-jumping must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The evidence shows that many writers have profited after switching, whereas others have stagnated or fallen backward.

Before you decide to switch agents, you should focus on why you are unhappy with your current situation. It may be that if you confront your agent–preferably in person, or at least by phone–about your specific frustrations many or all of them can be resolved, and your relationship will be given a fresh and prosperous start. Agents are not mind readers. You only have one agent, but your agent has many clients. It's therefore mostly your responsibility to communicate your concerns and expectations effectively. Your relationship many require only occasional adjustments, as opposed to a complete break-up

About The Author

Books by Jeff Herman:

Insider's Guide To Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents

 

Publisher: Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA. Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 Proposals That Sold and Why

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

Jeff Herman is founder of The Jeff Herman Literary Agency, Inc., in New York City, where he lives and works. Jeff lectures throughout the country about how to get published. He can be contacted at:

 

 

The Jeff Herman Literary

140 Charles St. Suite 15 A

New York, NY 10014

To Order

Insider's Guide To Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents

Call 1 (800) 222-7967

Charge to your MasterCard or Visa

Copyright, 1996 by Jeff Herman

 

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