Agent Advice

Agent Advice

In our Agent Advice feature, some of the best literary agents in the country answer the questions most frequently asked by writers about how to get published.

posted 8.20.14

Is there a fee for working with agents or do they get part of the commission from the book sales?

There is no fee. We only make money when our clients make money. The standard agent commission is 15 percent of all domestic income and 20 percent of all foreign income brokered by that agency. If you encounter an agent who requires an up-front fee, run from him as you would from a burning barn.

posted 4.2.14

Is strong journalism and column writing considered when judging the talent of a writer seeking to branch out into more creative areas?

My own client list includes nearly a dozen reporters and columnists. As a former magazine writer and editor, I pay special attention to queries from journalists and columnists, and I believe many other agents do, too. It’s always important to include your credentials in a query letter. Your reporting and column writing may even be what grabs an agent’s attention, but what most interests any agent will always be a high-quality book proposal or manuscript. And no matter how good they are, some reporters and columnists aren’t able to make the transition from short-form journalism to the long...

posted 2.13.14

If I’m a hermit by choice (find crowds draining, don’t do public speaking well), how does that reduce my chances of being published? Would an agent and/or publisher see that as a marketing nightmare?

I think the answer depends a great deal on the nature of what you’re writing (and perhaps the degree to which you’re really a hermit). It is almost impossible to promote nonfiction without having the author engage with the world in some way. You can probably get away with avoiding public-speaking events, but if you’re not willing to, say, do an NPR interview about your book, that’s a problem.

Fiction is a little bit different. Whether it’s intended to be high literature or complete pulp, it’s all about what’s on the page and how the reader responds to it. Yes, an author who is...

posted 2.13.14

Is self-publishing my early work going to cost me later in my literary career? Does an agent perceive self-published work as a demerit?

I believe self-publishing is a better option than ever before—for unpublished writers as well as for previously published authors. So, no, I don’t think of it as a negative. But it won’t really help you find an agent unless your self-published book has garnered strong sales and/or good reviews. If you’ve self-published without much success, I probably wouldn’t mention it in your query letter when submitting a proposal for new work.

posted 11.7.13

I’ve read that literary fiction writers should consider submitting book-length manuscripts to contests and independent presses at the same time they are querying agents. This feels unorthodox to me, but given the tight market for literary fiction, maybe it’s warranted. What is your feeling on this?

I think that’s probably a wise and realistic approach for short story collections. The fact is, if you’re publishing stories in venues high profile enough to suggest that a collection might be a viable commercial prospect for a major publisher, you’re probably going to be hearing from agents already.

For novels, however, I’d save submissions to contests and independent presses for a second or third round. I don’t think you need to wait until you’ve queried every agent in the world, but make sure you’ve given yourself a chance with a few dozen or so people who seem like they’d be a...

posted 10.31.13

I have a book I think would make a good e-book—it's fiction but with lots of relevant (historical and political) links to videos, archival photos, cultural analysis. Is it a good idea to market this to agents and editors as a potential e-book? Or would that seem gimmicky? Also, would it make it seem less literary?

An e-book original is, unfortunately, still perceived as a last resort for a book. Since, to my knowledge, e-book publishers operate on a no-advance payment structure (with higher royalties most of the time, to make up for that) pitching your project as a "good e-book" is like telling agents they might never make a dime on it. So, not an ideal foot to put forward! Instead, pitch the book based on all its general merit; then, in a separate paragraph, argue that your topic lends itself to unique opportunities for digital engagement in an e-book edition, which would be an asset to the overall...

posted 10.17.13

What type of query letter piques your interest?

One that's as well written as the book itself. Even better is one that's short, pithy, and demonstrates the author's understanding of, and aspirations for, how the book will be received as part of the literary and cultural conversation. I'm much more interested in knowing why an author wrote something and what kinds of books and authors inspired her, than I am in a lengthy synopsis. The latter should take no more than one paragraph.

posted 10.3.13

Is it not expedient to send a sample chapter of a novel-in-progress, to find out where interest might lie, rather than wait until you've got it all done, and then maybe spend the next five years sending out queries?

Since we agents have such heavy reading (and the lion's share of that reading is material we won't ultimately take on) you shouldn't go on a fishing expedition with a work-in-progress (unless it's non-fiction, where a proposal/sample can be enough to sell). Either way, you're going to finish your novel if you're committed to it, so my advice is to use submission energy wisely. Most agents won't offer to represent fiction without digesting the complete project, so you don't stand to gain much from reaching out prematurely.

posted 9.26.13

Is it possible to find an agent for a novel if you don't have a website or social network platform?

Yes, it's absolutely possible. If an agent loves your book enough, he or she will sign you, and the two of you can work together on any platform issues, if necessary, before submitting your manuscript to publishers. That being said, creating a website is relatively easy, and a well-done or particularly creative site can be a plus. Similarly, a larger number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers can tip things in your favor if an agent is on the fence about taking you on as a client.

Being active online, though, is valuable in ways other than just ticking off a marketing box. Online...

posted 9.17.13

Is there a market for just plain funny fiction? Or does it have to fit into a genre such as mystery or literary fiction?

Oh, there’s a market—it’s just so damn hard to crack. Nothing is as subjective as humor, hands down. Even if the acquiring editor thinks the project is funny, chances are that someone high up in sales or marketing disagrees. But I think the minute you start thinking that your writing “has to fit” certain parameters is the minute you lose an essential part of your voice.