How to Play the Literary Agent Game

How to Play the Literary Agent Game

Literary Agent

Every author longs to see his name in print, published by a major publishing house, readers queuing in bookstores waiting to snap up his book. A nice dream, all right. I’ve had a few myself and makes me continue to write. I haven’t made it yet, but tomorrow is a new day. However, for many beginning writers, and some of us oldies too, this dream can be pretty dark. Predators lurk there.

So, how do you beat the game? There are only two ways. Four, actually, but I won’t talk about e-book publishers or self-publishing. To enter the pantheon of published writers, you can send submissions directly to a publishing house – good luck with that, or you can get yourself a literary agent. You’ve looked at ‘Guide to Literary Agents’ or some other catalogue, browsed the Internet, saw hundreds of listed agents and you thought, this is a piece of cake. A few query letters and they’ll be pounding on your door. I’m not saying it cannot happen, people win lotteries every day. It just isn’t likely to happen. Statistics are simply against you.

All right, you may have tried sending queries and submissions to a publishing house and they told you they’ll get back to you in three months or so. In the meantime, they don’t want you making simultaneous submissions. I always get a chuckle when I read that one. The fallback course of action is obvious. You will get a literary agent and short-circuit the loop to that slush pile. Out of hundreds out there, one of them is bound to take you. Eager to get started, you pound away, produce a boilerplate query letter, print out samples of your manuscript, get a bank loan to pay for all the postage, and you start mailing. You shouldn’t be surprised when you get a rejection letter or email saying:

We found your book interesting, but after serious consideration, it is not quite right for us.

Some might even include a critique comment, which is very rare and is a sign of encouragement. You will need that encouragement after your pile of rejections gets to an alarming height. After a while, you will sit back and ask yourself, what went wrong? Reading some of the stuff that’s in bookstores, surely those morons can see my book is a winner! Unfortunately, having a good book is the least thing an agent is looking for. It helps, but you need more. You need to approach this like a military campaign. Even then, those rejection letters are likely to keep coming. All right, this is what you do.

There are agents and there are predators – it’s a tough world out there. To tell the difference, you need to count the spots and the stripes. As a general guide, it is preferable to send a submission to an agent listed in a reputable publication. They have neat lists of categories and genres agents deal with, whether they accept unpublished authors or are seeking referral submissions only. There is nothing wrong submitting to an Internet-listed agent, but you need to be wary. Before doing anything, you need to research a prospective agent. Find out everything there is about him:

– Is he a freelance
– Part of an established agency
– A front for a book doctor mob
– A front for a vanity publisher
– How many books has he sold recently
– Does he want an up front ‘representation’ or reading fee
– Does he charge ‘processing’ fees (typing, copying, postage)
– What is his commission percentage (domestic and international)
– How does he handle subsidiary rights
– Read comments from writers who tangled with that agent

I had an agent call me from the States, all warm and gushing, wanting $3,000 up front to represent me. The money? Well, that was to show him I was a ‘serious’ writer. Yeah, I’d be writing while he was sunning himself in the Bahamas.

Beware of an agent who gets back to you, smothering you with praise, saying your book, or whatever you sent him, is the best thing he ever read. He will see you published in six months, provided you give him an up front fee of $200, plus pay all his expense, and he gets 25% of everything you make. After all, you are an unknown and he is taking a risk. See you later!

A professional agent is a cold calculating machine, not a door-to-door salesman. He makes his living from book sales. If the portfolio of his books don’t sell, he goes broke, and maybe turns to writing for a living. No reputable agent will ever demand an initial reading fee or ask that you pay ongoing administrative expenses. He will recoup those when your book sells. As for his commission percentage, that’s been nailed down for a long time: 15% for domestic and 20% for foreign is pretty much standard these days.

How do you get past his cold façade? You must become a cold professional yourself. Don’t use a template query letter! Reading an agent’s or agency’s submission guidelines, and follow them! If you try to be amusing or quirky, you might not even get that standard rejection letter. Today, many agencies will only get back to you if they want to see your complete manuscript. Some will ask that you tell them this is a simultaneous submission, which is only a courteous thing to do. Agents are realists. They know you will not wait exclusively until they decide what to do with you. However, once you get a nibble, you must stop making further submissions until a deal is struck or falls through. With an increasing number of agents accepting email submissions, you won’t need that bank loan for postage.

Talking about query letters, you must research the Internet and get samples. Some samples are better than others. So, the more of them you look at, the better informed you will be how to construct your own. Lots of advice out there how to write one. Whatever format you use, tell it straight, tell it short, and stick to the facts. Forget the sob angle about being an unpublished writer and how good your book is. An agent has enough grief to handle without taking on your hard luck story. If a couple of months have passed and you haven’t heard from the agent, don’t bug him for a response, not unless in his submission guidelines, he tells you it is okay to query him. Remember, most agents will read your query quickly, and if interested, will ask for more.

Another important thing, which sadly, some writers simply cannot fathom. Forget sending a query if your book is not complete or fully edited. Both are critical to-do things. A long time ago in the golden days of publishing, an agent and publisher worked with an author to polish and edit your book. Today’s world is a supermarket checkout. Everything must be finished and wrapped up ready for the presses. Hence the need for thorough editing. Even if you have mastered the art of self-editing, having a fresh pair of eyes go over your work can uncover an embarrassing number of small bloopers. We’re not walking dictionaries or grammar checkers. I don’t want to start talking about Word’s grammar checker or I’ll burst into tears. It is a good tool, but not very reliable when it comes to some tricky writing. Remember, it is not perfect!

What else do you need to know about agents? Only time and dealing with them will fill that out. Oh, one more thing. You are likely to be submitting lots of query letters, either by post or email. It will be a very good idea if you kept a spreadsheet or list of agents or publishers to whom you sent a submission, when it was sent, and any reply comment. It will save you being embarrassed by sending the same agent another submission for the same book once he got back to you with a rejection. If that happens, you can forget ever having him for a pal.

Okay, you have sent out stacks of queries and you’re still waiting to get a contract. You can keep this up forever, but there comes a point where you must reassess your plan of attack. You need to ask, what is your objective? It is to get published, of course. By now, those dreams of adoring crowds, book signings and fat royalty checks have faded into nostalgia. It is time to get real. Getting published today is very easy. It is so easy in fact, a lot of trash gets out there, to the disgust of readers. But that’s another tale of woe. If you want to see your name in print, go with an e-book publisher, or better still, self-publish. Read how to go about that in my previous post.

8 comments on “How to Play the Literary Agent Game”

  1. Thank you for your article, Stefan. It has given me some advice and encouragement. Writing is a tough business especially for us new authors. I had my first book self published and this time I want to go the traditional route. So far I have 29 rejections from agents, but I will never give up. At my age I have one final dream, to write a best seller. Maybe it is a far off dream but I will continue writing. Again, thank you for replying back to me.

    1. Hi Larry. This movie business thing has been an eye opener, but also an interesting learning experience. I have tried, and still am, to break into the traditional publishing market, as well as finding an agent. Both have been interesting experiences – and frustrating. After having my books published by e-book publishers, I decided to self-publish, and never looked back. I still have to do all my marketing and name branding in social media, but that’s part of the game.

  2. Stefan,

    Thank you. This was very interesting.

    Do you have any thoughts regarding someone who has self-published, sold considerably more than 1,000 copies, whose book is a Jay Leno’s Book Club selection and is now considering offering his book to a traditional publisher?

    Thank you!

    Bob Walton

    1. Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your comments. The only thing I can say is – keep making submissions! Literary agents and publishers are supposed to be trawling through Amazon and other outlets for good books (good being so subjective), but from what I understand, they very rarely or ever pick one up. There is no substitute for making direct submissions.


  3. Stefan

    Great article. Thank you for that. I have completed a trilogy recently and I am ready to get it out there. I self published each of the books in order to get hard copies to reviewers and readers. The reviews have been tremendous, both from readers and reviewers. Quick question. Should I begin my agent queries highlighting the first book, 2nd or third or highlight all three? Thanks again.

    1. Hi Errorl,
      I appreciate your feedback. I would suggest you make a full query for your first book. However, you can mention that it is part of a trilogy and the other two books are completed.

  4. I enjoyed your article. I have completed a memoir of my life as a nun in New Zealand and Europe. I’m working on a query letter and feeling optimistic.My story is unique. Any suggestions on the amount of detail to include?

    1. Hi Maria,
      I would suggest that you be brief, to the point, and state only facts. No emotional sob sentences! Agents are only interested to see the hook on which you hang your proposal.

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