Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chasing Agents

Do you, struggling novelist, need an agent to get a novel published? Will a publisher bother to read your novel if you’re not represented by an agent? It’s the chicken/egg catch 22 that so many writers are just crazy about. Sure, there are stories about how some lucky writers sent their unsolicited manuscripts to unsuspecting publishers who, on a slow day with nothing better to do, started reading the unsolicited novels and found chunks of gold ‘over the transom.’

How often does this happen? Not often. The publishing landscape gets direr by the day. Layoffs. Acquisition freezes. Bookstore closings. How can an unpublished novelist break through this awful environment and get noticed? You really do need an agent. Case in point: One of my fellow novelists from Ms. X's class found out on the last day of our summer session that one of the novels she workshopped with us got picked up for publication. She has an agent. This didn’t just help my classmate get the book noticed, but assured that her novel sold for six figures to a major publisher.

What did an agent do for my classmate? Sent her manuscript to the right publisher at the right moment, generating enough buzz for the publisher to make a preemptive offer. Heat still continues as the agent is selling foreign rights close to a dozen countries. Without an agent, would my classmate have landed all these foreign rights? Or tasty advance? Doubtful.

I’ve been sending out queries for my novel A Little Disappeared for over a year. Intermittently. Certainly I could be pushing myself more to land a big agent fish. But I’m doing other things as well. Such as writing and sending out stories. Thinking of how to proceed with my current novel. And possibly doing some revision to A Little Disappeared. Contacting agents is a separate job, beyond writing (and your day job). It takes a different mindset. It also takes research. You have match up your type of book (novel/genre, non-fiction/memoir/whatever) with the right agency. Which means you have to know what kind of work agents want to see. And strictly follow their guidelines when you do find some to approach.

There are a limited number of agents. What do you do after reach the end of the list? Start over? You can hit the writing conference circuit and sign up for critiques where an agent or editor will read the first 20 pages of your manuscript. Then sit down with you during the conference and tell you what she thinks. You can contact friends and family, scour your BFFs to see if anybody knows an agent that might be interested in entertaining out a referral.
If you can’t find an agent, try sending your manuscript directly to mid and small-size publishers. Many smaller presses don’t deal with agents. Or necessarily need to. But, you won’t get the hefty advances, press run, or advertising budget that one of the big houses can land you you. So. Anyway. If I can’t land an agent with A Little Disappeared, I will probably query smaller publishers. And if that doesn’t work, then I move on to the next novel.

Are you a writer seeking representation? What are your experiences with agents? Good. Bad. Let me know. Do you have an agent? Do tell: what’s it like?


Muriel said...

Hi Dell, This may not be relevant, but 12 or 15 years ago when I was in my writing mode, I was trying to find an agent. I sent query letters to 4 or 5 agents and one of them actually wanted to see my novel so I immediately sent it off to her. She really didn't like it well enough to handle, but she must have seen something in it, because she asked me to be sure and let her see anything else I wrote. I sent her my second novel which she didn't like well enough to handle either, but finally when I sent her my third novel, she said "yes" and she became my agent. She never sold the book for me, but she helped me with my writing by critiquig my novels. This is just one person's experience with agents, and I think it was a positive experience. So, the moral of this tale is "Keep trying". Muriel (Dell's Mom)

Dell Smith said...

Great story. I don't know why she couldn't place your novel. I've had a few requests to see my first three chapters, and one agent requested the entire manuscript, but that's as far as it's gone.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I'm in the process of trying to land an agent for my contemporary romance, Summer Light. I am not very aggressive at getting my queries out there, although I have had some interest.
I keep trying, and hope someday to find an agent that loves my work and is a good fit for me.

Good luck in your quest, Dell.

Ryan Hunter - Writer said...

I realize this post was from 2008, but had to respond.

I've been trying to get an agent for a while now too and have had similar experiences. It's been requested by several but I rarely hear back after they read it. One reason for rejection is that it's too hard to push an unknown author.

So, how do I become known if I don't get a book published? I'm working on that one now.

Dell Smith said...

Hi Ryan. Thanks for the comment. I'm still looking for an agent, nothing new there. Although I'm trying even less these days. I'm concentrating on writing the next novel.

To answer your last question: You become known by publishing stories. That's a good way to build a name, a reputation, and garner the attention of an agent. I've been fortunate enough to have two stories accepted for publication this year. One in Fiction Magazine. I'm not sure how that happened, but I'm not going to question their taste. I'm hoping I can parlay this attention into more published stories and to eventually push my foot through an agent's door.

Good luck, Ryan.