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 4.29.13

I write literary fiction and have completed four novels and one hundred pages of a memoir with a proposal. I’ve published extensively in literary journals and anthologies—stories excerpted from the novels, in addition to others—and several have won prizes. When I approach an agent about one manuscript, should I cite the breadth of completed work?

Certainly mention publications and prizes, but I wouldn’t mention the earlier works upon first approach. The fact that you have five unpublished projects could be daunting in the context of an initial pitch, and I’d assume most of them had already been shopped at some point if you didn’t say otherwise. Generally, I’d advise focusing on a lead project and on your bio. However, because you’re passionate about more than one form, I think it would be good to convey that you write both fiction and nonfiction. Some agents may only want one or the other, while others may be more interested in the...

posted 4.8.13

How is social media impacting the role of the literary agent?

Social media gives writers a means to connect directly to readers in a way that has never existed before. Using social media is not for everyone, but a smart agent will learn from the successes and creativity of those authors who are embracing it and pass along those examples to other authors who may be more apprehensive. I have also found it to be invaluable in gathering information. I love being able to interpret from the buzz online what readers are responding to. I think it helps tremendously in making me a better adviser to my clients.

posted 3.19.13

What are you looking to see in a writing sample, specifically in the first five pages?

I want to see that it works: characters, narrative voice, the opening strokes of plot—all grooving in unison like the opening to a great song, no matter what genre (though admittedly, heavy metal is not for me). Or, to put it another way, I’m looking for pretty much the same thing you’re looking for when you browse the bookstore, randomly picking up books and glancing over the first page. Do you keep going or do you put it down? Whereas you’re thinking, “Do I want to buy this?” I’m thinking, “Can I sell this?”

posted 3.4.13

Is it typical to give a publisher rights for all media? Is there a standard practice regarding adaptation rights into other media and/or translation rights when initially signing a contract?

I’ve seen contracts that grant the publisher all rights to the book, including all media. Most frequently such contracts are used when there is no agent involved. Sometimes the author signs one because she would rather have someone other than herself responsible for the rights, or because she lacks firsthand knowledge of industry standards. Independent and university presses, which are wonderful for many reasons, are most often responsible for contracts such as these because they publish unagented work and because their rights income is on a smaller scale, so they like to have as many...

posted 2.25.13

Why won’t most publishing companies even consider unagented submissions?

When most people think of an editor at a publishing house, they think of a person in a quiet, comfortable office with appealingly soft lighting, reclining in a comfortable chair and reading all day long. Pretty sweet gig, right? Sadly for my editor friends, this isn’t the case. In truth there’s a lot of fluorescent lighting; uncomfortable, standard office furniture; lots of scrambling to return e-mails and phone calls; and way too many meetings. There’s all the usual corporate office stuff—plus they have to find time to actually edit! There just isn’t time left for these busy people to be...

posted 2.4.13

What do you look for in a query letter? How much do you need to know about plot versus potential marketing tactics in order to make the decision to request a partial manuscript?

Here are the things I look for in a query letter: a distinct pitch, a short tease of the plot (set up the story and make me want to read more), and a comprehensive bio. I take notice if it’s a referral, or when a query suggests the author knows the kinds of books I handle. I prefer a short, clear letter rather than one that is overwritten or opaque. By which I mean, get to it: Know how to talk about your work succinctly. And, in general, keep it to one book per pitch. When I read a query, I am going with my gut in deciding if I want to see more material. There’s no real trick....

posted 1.28.13

I’m a self-published author who just completed his second novel. An agent once told me I shouldn’t state that I’m a self-published author in my query letter because it shows that no one has taken an interest in my writing and therefore I had to publish my own books. Apart from being rather insulting, does this agent have a point?

Yes, it’s a little slighting. Am I guilty of countless acts of the same? Um, yes. This may change as the definition of self-publishing evolves, but we’re not all the way there yet. So unless you’ve sold a zillion copies of your self-published book, best not to bring it up too soon.

posted 1.7.13

I’m building up my publishing credits, maintaining a blog, coordinating a monthly writers group, and working on finishing up my novel. I have confidence that I can finish the book within six months. At what point should I start looking for the agent to represent me? Should the book be finished first, or should I remain open to editorial suggestions? I’ve read articles about how to approach agents, but very few on when.

You should wait until you’re really finished (and have set the book aside and finished it twice more!) before querying agents. This may sound like a Zen koan, but you should be finished and open to editorial suggestions. If you dream of locking in an agent before finishing your novel, the best way is to publish pieces of your work in literary journals, to build your credits and get your name out there. Agents are actively looking for talented writers, and I do represent a number of writers whose short fiction is exceptional and whose first novels I’m patiently anticipating. But by...

posted 12.10.12

Does a writer need to have an established list of publishing credits to be considered by a decent agent?

If you’re writing nonfiction, then the answer is usually yes. You need to show credentials in your field, and such credentials often come in the form of previous publications. If you’re writing fiction, though, the answer is no. Publishing credits will always help, however. Even if you’ve only had a short story or two published in a small literary journal, those publications show that somebody somewhere read your work and fell in love with it. This is no small feat! Such credits show an agent that you’ve been writing for a while, that you’ve been sending your work out into the world, and...

posted 12.3.12

I’m always reading about how writers should choose agents based on their client lists: If an agent represents an author you like or who writes like you do, it might be a good fit. But I also hear agents say they’re looking for something new, something unlike anything they’ve ever read before. Which is it?

Both are true. Aside from the obvious exceptions, you shouldn’t worry too much about how an agent will compare your book with what he already represents. You should instead focus mainly on whether the agent represents books in the same general category as yours, and if you like his taste. An exception to this is if your book is clearly in direct competition with something the agent already represents. For instance, it’s not a good idea to send your proposal for “The Basket Weaving Bible” to the agent who represents the author of The Definitive Guide to Basket Weaving. Of course,...

Current Issue

Cover Story 

Our Independent Publishing Issue features an in-depth interview with Graywolf Press editor Jeff Shotts; a look at the successful partnerships of eleven small-press authors and their editors; a profile of indie essayist Charles D'Ambrosio; Donald Hall recalls a golden age of American poetry; best-selling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore on the rewards of self-promotion; advice for self-published authors; a conversation with Guernica publisher Lisa Lucas; and much more.

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Posted 10.15.14

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Agents & Editors: Jeff Shotts

by Michael Szczerban

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