Wednesday, March 5, 2008

There's an Agent on Your Bookshelf

The easiest way to get an agent is to move to New York City and get a job at an agency. Barring that, you have to do a little homework.

Every agent has a specialty or two. Some represent only romance writers. Some represent literary authors. Or children’s books and teen fiction. Others focus on nonfiction and biographies, with maybe an emphasis on sports writing. In order to increase your odds of having your manuscript accepted, you have to figure out what category your writing falls under, then look for an agent who specializes in that niche.

Agent listings can be found in many periodicals and on various publishing websites, though it is best to avoid anything that looks like an ad. The Writer’s Market is a decent reference, though I prefer Publishers Marketplace. An even better way of tracking down the right agent for you is to find a book that most closely resembles your work and turn to acknowledgments page. Many authors thank their agents here. Go ahead—grab a couple of books off your bookshelf right now. I bet you can come up with at least three good names in less than ten minutes.

With a few solid names and Internet access, it should be very easy to find the names of the agencies they belong to, as well as their particular guidelines for submitting material. I’ll go over what to include in your packet in a future post; right now, there are some things you should consider when choosing an agent:

Where is the agent located? Personally, I would limit my search to agents in the New York City area. Would you hire a movie agent who didn’t live in L.A.? I didn’t think so. New York is the center of the publishing world and your agent needs to be in the middle of the action. There may be a few exceptions to this rule—for example, I know a wonderful children’s book agent who lives in North Carolina—but when you’re just starting out it’s better to go for the sure thing.

Do they charge a reading fee? If so, find someone else.

Is the agency large or small? Picking what size agency you want to go with is entirely your call; just know the pros and cons of both. Larger agencies can sometimes be more well-connected and have a big name that gets big attention. On the other hand, they might also feel more corporate and you may get lost in such a large client list. Smaller agencies might not have such a big reputation, but you’ll get more personal attention.

Is the agent experienced or just starting out? Experience doesn’t matter nearly as much as you might think. Yes, it’s great to have someone who has been around a long time and knows the ropes. But never discount the newbie. Newbies make excellent agents—in fact my first agent was a newbie. What I love about young agents is that they are hungry to build their client list, which makes them more likely to take a chance on you. They are ambitious and eager to please. It’s easy to get them on the phone. Don’t be bothered by their seeming lack of inexperience—most have been working as agents’ assistants for several years and have developed a great list of contacts. Also, if an issue arises that is difficult for them to handle, they usually have the support of other agents within the company to help them sort it out.

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